Early Illinois Women

Cora Agnes Benneson

Source: Quincy Herald Whig Newspaper, February 20, 1977

Series Title: Pioneer women of Quincy

[headline] Cora Benneson predicted modern woman would develop own faculties

By Helen Warning

Reprinted with permission from The Quincy Herald-Whig and from Helen Warning. Photographs are courtesy of Mrs. Caroline Sexauer, Quincy, great niece of Cora.

Cora Benneson

"The coming woman will not hesitate to do whatever she feels will benefit humanity, and she will develop her own faculties to the utmost because by so doing she can best serve."

"She will have a home, of course. She will not marry, however, for the sake of a home, because she will be self-supporting. The home she will help to found will not be for the selfish gratification of two individuals but a center of light and harmony to all that come within the sphere of its radiance."

"Many so called duties that drain the nerve force of the modern women, the coming woman will omit or delegate. One duty she will not delegate-the character moulding of her children. The woman of the future comes not to destroy, but to fulfill the law. She will not confine her influence to a limited circle. It will be felt in the nation's housekeeping. Wherever she is needed, there she will be found."

Such oration may be anticipated from today's liberated woman but not from one who lived primarily in the 19th century and was of midwestern background. Yet that far sighted knowledge was espoused by Quincyan Cora Agnes Benneson, who was born here in 1851.

Cora Benneson's youth fell at a period when women were becoming active forces in society, which explains her farsightedness. It was a period when colleges and universities were being opened to women as well as men. Girls were beginning to study, not because it was fashion, but because they were impelled by an awakening of consciousness.

Miss Benneson's parents, prominent Quincyans who shared identical interests whether educational, religious or philanthropic, promoted her early inclination to philosophic studies. They entertained in their home many men of note, of whom Alcott and Emerson especially made a great impression on Miss Benneson.

Her father, Robert Smith Benneson, a native of Newark, Del., went to Philadelphia and thence to Quincy in 1837, where he became prominently identified with the business and municipal affairs of the city. He was organizer and director of various corporations, promoter of the original act levying taxes for school purposes in Illinois, president of the Quincy Board of Education for 14 years, and a long time, one of its members, alderman for two terms and mayor during the Civil War. During this crisis, he saved the credit of the city by giving his personal notes to meet its obligations.

The family represented the best traditions of New England through the mother, Electa Ann Park Benneson, a direct descendant of Richard Park, one of the first settlers of Cambridge, Mass. Called "Annie Park" as a young woman, Mrs. Benneson taught school a few years in Brighton, Mass. and while visiting in Quincy met Robert Benneson.

The Bennesons helped to establish the Unitarian Church and for many years, Mrs. Benneson was superintendent of the Sunday school. The keynote of her teaching was "Do right because it is right."

Her activity was not confined to the home and church, however. "Any movement aiming at the good of the community found her a ready helper," according to Mary Esther Trueblood in "Representative Women of New England." She was interested in Woodland Home, an asylum for orphans and friendless, and united all the churches of Quincy in a fair for its benefit. During the Civil War, she devoted herself to soldier's families and to the wounded in the hospitals.

"Her feelings found expression in deeds of kindness rather than words. She had scholarly instincts, rare literary taste and constantly took up new studies," according to Miss Trueblood.

Cora Benneson, the youngest of four sisters, she inherited her father's physique and her mother's mental characteristics. A sturdy child, Miss Benneson was orderly, accurate, self-reliant, ambitious, and persevering according to Miss Trueblood.

Her mother, who tutored all her children, soon perceived that the wisest way to direct her was to answer her questions exactly and fully and to explain to her principles and the relation of things.

She and her sisters edited a magazine called, "The Experiment," which was read aloud every week in the family circle and contained Cora's first writings. At age eight, she wrote a satire on a fashionable woman's call, "A Visit," which won the prize her mother had offered that week. At nine, at her request, her father allowed her to help keep his books. When 12, she was reading Latin at sight and had an acquaintance with some of the best literature. She early displayed an unusual ability in getting at the pitch of the argument and in summing up a conversation in a few words of her own, a trait so necessary in her chosen profession of counselor-at-law and special commissioner.

As a youngster sitting in church with paper and pencil, she drew trees as she listened to the discourses. The trunk represented the text, or main thought, the branches the ideas leading from it. In her judgement, the merits of a sermon depended upon whether or not it could be "treed."

In school, she really excelled other children her age. At age 15, she had finished the course at the Quincy Academy, the equivalent of a good high school, and at 18 years she was graduated from the Quincy Seminary. From then until she entered college, she had a full social life.

Benneson HomeThe Benneson home, located at 214 Jersey, was a large mansion situated above a series of terraces and surrounded by trees and shrubs. Its location provided a view of 14 miles of the Mississippi River. Miss Benneson, a good rower, knew every inlet and island of the Mississippi and as a child watched steamers going to and from St. Louis and St. Paul with untiring interest. The Mississippi, it is said, was her unconscious friend, helping her to think and act.

The home was later located on Broadway between Fifth and Sixth, next door to the F. T. Hill home. The house was torn down to provide additional grounds for the detention home that stood at the site until the building of the Lampe Hi-Rise a few years ago.

Miss Benneson's ambition for a higher education led to her entrance at the University of Michigan in 1875, only five years after women students were first admitted. She completed the four year course in three and was graduated in 1878 with an A. B. degree. Her first public appearance at the university was a debate during her freshman year which she won. During her senior year, she was editor of "The Chronicle," the leading college newspaper at the time. She was the first woman to fill the position.

Her application for admission to the Law School of Harvard University, signed by five Harvard alumni, was refused on the grounds that the equipment at the university was too limited to make suitable provision for receiving women.

She returned to the University of Michigan and was one of the two women in a class of 175 law students. Miss Benneson felt no prejudice from her male counterparts, was elected secretary of the class, was presiding officer in the debating society and judge of the Illinois Moot Court.

She received her L. L. B. degree in 1880 and her A. M. degree in 1883. After being admitted to the Michigan and Illinois bars in 1880, she took a two year, four month round-the-world trip.

Starting in San Francisco, she traveled westward, stopping in Hawaii, Japan, China, Burma, India, Arabia, Abyssinia (Ethiopia), Egypt, Palestine, Turkey and all the principal countries of Europe. She studied the costumes, manners, and laws of many of the nations she visited and a series of letters, which she wrote home, were copied by her father and are now in the collection of a great-niece, Mrs. William (Caroline) Sexauer. The contents reveal her findings.

"War seems imminent," she wrote from Canton, China, Christmas night 1883, "and there has been one engagement. This creates in the Chinese a strong anti-foreign feeling, in which the mass of the people, make no distinction between English, French, and German. The Chinese word for foreigners is literally translated, White Devils. We therefore thought it best to telegraph Mr. Damon when we would leave Hong Kong, feeling sure that he would not let us come if it were unsafe." The Chinese at the time were anti-French.

From the Pearl River, Dec. 27, 1883, she wrote, "While I feel that the position of the American woman is not yet exactly what it should be and what I hope it may sometime be, still in traveling in Oriental countries one realizes that in our own we have much to be very very thankful for."

From Calcutta, Jan. 21, 1884, she wrote, "The Burmese are fond of high colors, especially in their turbans, and red is very becoming to their dark skins. The women wear nose rings and many ear rings. Also bangles on their wrists and ankles. They put their money into jewelry and carry it on their persons, instead of depositing it in banks. They are a slender, frail-looking people."

In her mideast travels, Miss Benneson noted the places where she stopped with the passages where they are mentioned in the Bible.

Her April, 1884, letter from Jerusalem noted she entered Jerusalem on the evening of the Passover. "Many of the Jewish houses were brilliantly lighted. Our diligence stopped just outside the gate and we entered on foot. You see no carriages in Jerusalem. The streets are too narrow." Miss Benneson found traveling in Palestine more expensive than elsewhere.

From Athens, Greece, May 20, 1884, she wrote she hoped to write a closer account of what she was seeing now that she had left the half-civilized races behind and entered Europe, where the distances were shorter and traveling facilities better.

Miss Benneson had the distinction of being one of the few that had visited the law courts of all the principal civilized countries as well as their chief governing assemblies.

Upon her return home, Miss Benneson lectured on her travels in Quincy, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston and other cities and her programs were well attended.

She edited for a time the "Law Reports" of the West Publishing Co. in St. Paul and during 1887-88 held a fellowship in history at Bryn Mawr College. Moving to Cambridge, Mass., she made that city her permanent residence and in 1894 was admitted to the Massachusetts bar. She was appointed special commissioner by Gov. Greenhalge in 1895, had the appointment renewed in 1905 and held the position until her death.

One of the first women to enter the practice of law in New England, Miss Benneson found no antagonism among her fellow lawyers and gradually acquired a large and successful practice.

A recognized authority on government, her 1898 paper, "Executive Discretion in the United States," and her 1899 paper, "Federal Guarantees For Maintaining Republican Government in the States," were both read before the American Association for Advancement of Science and resulted in her election as a fellow in the society in 1899. In 1900, she was elected secretary of the social and economics section of the association.

Another paper, "The Power of Our Courts to Interpret the Constitution," read before the association, led to the announcement of a book dealing with the same general subject. Several other papers followed.

In June, 1899, she gave the Alumni Poem at the University of Michigan commencement and in 1903 read the Ode of her class at its anniversary meeting.

Miss Benneson was not indifferent to any human interest and was a keen observer of all the activities of women, according to Miss Trueblood. She was quick to deplore any tendency that would destroy womanliness in the highest sense. She was ready to aid any movement that would give women a fuller and richer life and them more efficient members of society. She believed that reforms cannot be forced upon society, but must come through a natural evolution and that one can do another no more serious injury than to deprive him of liberty of opinion and action.

An honorary member of the Illinois State Historical Society, she gave an address at the 1909 annual meeting of the association entitled, "The Quartermaster's Department in Illinois 1861-62." She was among the early members of the Friends in Council and was founder of the original Unity Club of the Unitarian Church, for many years a forum where the brightest men and women of the city discussed the leading topics of the day. She was a member of the Unitarian Church.

About a year before her death, which occurred in Boston on June 8, 1919, Miss Benneson gave up her active practice of law and prepared herself as a civics teacher under the auspices of the state board of education of Massachusetts, which had established a school in Boston for the Americanization of foreigners. According to her obituary, Miss Benneson worked so hard to prepare herself for this new work that she suffered a breakdown in health and her labors were the cause of her death. The diploma entitling her to the position which she sought arrived just a day after she died.

In addition to Mrs. Sexauer, Miss Benneson is survived by two great-nephews, Charles Seger of Quincy and Benneson James of Maryville, Tenn. And a great-niece, Mrs. Charles Higgins of Memphis, Tenn.

[More information about Cora Benneson.]

Contributing Library:

Quincy Public Library, Quincy, Illinois

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