I’ve finally hopped on the Hamilton train. I know I’m a little late to the game, but now I’m hooked! You can listen to the entire soundtrack on Spotify, and I highly recommend you do. Not only is it a) a brilliantly produced Broadway production with a lot of talent, b) a unique presentation of fascinating history, and c) timely and relevant to many of the political frustrations people have today, but it is also a very human story about flawed people trying their best to do what they believe is right. One of these people was Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Alexander’s wife. Crammed into the end of the production, we get a brief summary of some of her accomplishments during widowhood. Unfortunately, but understandably, the near-three-hours-long musical didn’t have a lot of room to dive into the remarkable story that was Eliza’s life post-Alexander. Aside from raising her seven remaining children and vehemently preserving her late husband’s legacy, Eliza committed herself to volunteer work. She played major roles in these charities, such as helping to found the Orphan Asylum Society (still in existence today, but known as Graham-Windham). As she changed the way parentless children were cared for, she also changed the roles of women in the public sphere. Eliza was part of a movement that forged a new path for women outside the home: charity work. Of course, the story wasn’t Eliza’s alone. There were two other primary players, alongside whom Eliza worked. Together, and with the help of many other dedicated middle-class women, they changed the lives of countless orphans, as well as the generations of women to follow them.
The story starts with a Scottish immigrant named Isabella Graham. Graham’s marriage to a physician in the royal army took her first to Canada, then to New York. Her husband’s death sent her back to live with her father in Scotland, and she kept herself busy with charity work and establishing and teaching at a girls’ boarding school. New York, however, seemed to be calling her. After fifteen years in Scotland, she returned to New York in 1789 with her four children. She quickly joined a local church and established a boarding school for young ladies. One of her three daughters, Joanna, soon emerged as another critical figure in women’s charity.
Joanna and her two sisters taught at their mother’s boarding school. Joanna, like her mother, was devoutly religious, and had given up finding a husband well-matched to her in that respect. At 25, however, at her mother’s urging, Joanna married the pious but poor Divie Bethune. Fortune smiled on the couple (and on Joanna’s future charitable pursuits); Divie quickly became quite prosperous as a merchant, which also connected him to many other wealthy men in important social circles.
At this time (end of the 18th century), the population of New York City was skyrocketing. While some of this population was thriving, much of it was destitute. Most charity was practiced privately; local homes would take help house and feed the homeless and hungry. But the rapidly rising poor population required something more. The almshouse was built, meant to offer refuge for those who couldn’t be cared for in these homes. Quickly, the almshouse deviated from its intent; it became overcrowded, unsanitary, and downright dangerous for its inhabitants. Men looked out for members of their various associations; when a member fell on hard times, the men took it upon themselves to help out as they could. However, women could only be assisted via their husbands and could not receive support directly. This left widows with no other recourse than the frightening almshouse, or worse. These desperate conditions and Isabella Graham’s commitment to a charitable life led to the founding of the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children in 1797. This call to action resonated with other religious, well-off women, and fifteen other women took on leadership positions in the organization, forming the body of the SRPW. Volunteers solicited funds from churches and organized concert benefits. As the Society became more well-known, it became easier to raise larger sums of money.
In 1804, Eliza Hamilton was widowed, left alone with her seven children and her husband’s debts. Finding solace in her faith, she threw herself into her charity work, involving herself with SRPW. Then, in 1806, several of the widows receiving aid passed away, leaving behind six young orphans. It was Joanna Bethune who was inspired to create the Orphan Asylum Society for the parentless children of New York to protect them from the despicable conditions of the almshouse. Joanna took on the role of treasurer, Eliza served as second-directress, and their wealthy friend Sarah Hoffman was persuaded to assume the role the first-directress. The children were trained to be skilled laborers and were sent to to work in private homes once they were considered old enough. The asylum was very successful; the children were often brought to events so that donors could see that the children were happy, healthy and grateful. The Orphan Asylum Society was eventually able to obtain regular donations from wealthy donors. The Society received high praise and was continued providing care to orphans—carrying on as an organization through the decades, into the present day.
These three women came together to change the role of women in society by pursuing a mission that they all believed in. They used their passion, conviction, and connections to fulfill their collective vision. These connections, with each other, and with the rest of the privileged New York women, are what made the Society so successful. The impact they had was not just on the community of orphans in New York, or receivers of aid more generally, but also on the place that women had in the public sphere. Women, who were unable to handle finances in their own home, had a place where they could manage money, raise funds, and make decisions about the future of important organizations. Women finally had a role in the public. They may not have been able to run for office or manage a business, but they could make sure that their less fortunate citizens were well provided for. While this financial independence was brief (when the Orphan Asylum Society became successful enough to receive quite sizable donations, men began to step into the board of directors, since they were “better equipped” to hand such “complex matters;” women were phased out into auxiliary positions), the efforts of Graham, Bethune and Hamilton expanded the boundaries of what was expected of and acceptable for women in the public sphere.
Becker, Dorothy G. “Isabella Graham and Joanna Bethune: Trailblazers of Organized Women's Benevolence.” Social Service Review, vol. 61, no. 2, 1987, pp. 319–336., www.jstor.org/stable/30011889.