Female benevolent societies rose to prominence in South Carolina and the nation in the years between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Voluntary in nature, these societies frequently emerged from existing antebellum reform groups or from soldiers’ aid societies of the Civil War. By the 1790s the first female benevolent societies appeared in communities across the nation to augment efforts at poor relief conducted by local governments. Dominated by women from the middle and upper classes of society, female benevolent societies not only helped the poor but also were an outgrowth of the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, which sparked a renewed interest in helping the less fortunate.
Among the best-known and most active female benevolent societies in antebellum South Carolina was the Ladies Benevolent Society of Charleston. Formed in 1813 and inspired by the motto “I was sick and you visited me,” the society initially provided home health care to the sick and poor of the city in response to the effects of the War of 1812. The leadership was provided by Sarah Hopton Russell and her sister, Mary Christiana Hopton Gregorie, women of means who had the time to dedicate themselves to charity work. Members of the society were well connected, from the upper class, and tended to be Episcopalians. Careful not to become an auxiliary to a men’s organization, members of the Ladies Benevolent Society controlled their own finances, as is evident by their charter stating that the treasurer had to be an unmarried woman. Realizing that the poor suffered spiritually as well as materially, some society members formed the Charleston Female Domestic Missionary Society in 1818 to provide religious benevolence in the form of an outreach ministry.
By the 1820s women’s associations successfully competed for charitable money with established men’s groups, such as the South Carolina Society. Although charity was seen as women’s work, men controlled the public policies and most of the institutions themselves. The religious rather than the political aspects of charity opened the door for women to become active participants in society. By 1861 the Ladies Benevolent Society was raising $4,000 annually, and its meetings were held in public spaces traditionally occupied by men, such as the commissioners’ conference room of the Charleston Orphan House.
Even before the first shots of the Civil War, women began transforming their female benevolent societies into soldiers’ aid societies. In Charleston groups such as the Soldiers’ Relief Society and the Ladies Charleston Volunteer Aid Society began rolling bandages in January 1861. Within months South Carolina’s women had formed 150 aid groups. “Wayside hospitals” popped up along railroad lines to care for wounded soldiers being sent home. A woman from Pendleton recalled, “This little hospital was kept up until poverty closed its door, for we had not so much as a pot of cowpeas to send down.” After the war many of these societies transformed themselves into Ladies’ Memorial Associations that commemorated the Confederate dead.
Nineteenth-century women were able to make charity work their “career,” but society deemed their work as an extension of women’s roles as wives and mothers. In this way, female benevolent societies and other voluntary associations gave women the opportunity to participate in public life without challenging the social and legal boundaries of the women’s private sphere. Female benevolent societies and, later, women’s associations compiled valuable skills that would prepare women for a full and active political life, culminating with the winning of woman suffrage in 1920.
Bellows, Barbara L. Benevolence among Slaveholders: Assisting the Poor in Charleston, 1670–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993.
Johnson, Joan M. “‘This Wonderful Dream Nation!’: Black and White South Carolina Women and the Creation of the New South, 1898–1930.” Ph.D. diss., University of California at Los Angeles, 1997.
Scott, Anne Firor. Natural Allies: Women’s Associations in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.