WHAT THEY LEARNED: Abigail Corcoran ’17

The history major was inspired by diaries she found in Quaker and Special Collections to craft a thesis on the transition to womanhood in mid-19th century Philadelphia Quaker communities.

History major and English minor Abigail Corcoran ’17 didn’t realize that when she started working on her thesis, she was, in some way, writing about herself. Using diaries of young, 19th-century Philadelphia Quakers from Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections, Corcoran explored what the transition from girlhood to womanhood looked like in their community and historical era.

“I know that may seem rather obvious, but the girls whose writings I read were grappling with the same issues that I am—how do you create a meaningful adult life after you finish school?” said Corcoran. “I didn’t realize until about halfway through writing my thesis that I had been drawn to my topic because I was thinking about the same things these girls were. I am fascinated by the moments when the past seems completely alien, and when it seems very familiar. And my thesis was an example of the past looking very familiar.”

Corcoran, who loved the archival research required by her year-long capstone, is hoping to eventually apply to graduate school to continue her historical education, and is grateful for the head start that working on “Creating Meaningful Lives: The Transition from Girlhood to Womanhood in Mid-Nineteenth Century Philadelphia Quaker Communities” gave her into graduate-level research. She is also gratified by the help that her advisor, Professor James Krippner, offered, which helped keep her on track and not lost in the stacks.

“I love archival work, and I would be so happy to just root around reading letters and diaries forever,” she said. “But Professor Krippner pushed me to make sure that I was explicitly stating my argument in my writing.”

What inspired your thesis work?

I started the research for what became my thesis in Bethel Saler’s “History and Fiction” class, and I was also inspired by her “Women’s and Gender History in the U.S.” class. I was looking through finding aids from Haverford’s Special Collections to figure out what I wanted to write about for my final paper for Professor Saler when I found the finding aid for Sarah (Sallie) Wistar’s diary. It said that her diary dealt with her experiences finishing school, and her experiences being the oldest daughter at home. I thought that sounded interesting, so I went to read it. Wistar’s worries about what to do with her life were compelling, and I knew that I wanted to write about her. So, I wrote a paper for Professor Saler’s class about how Sallie Wistar used her diary to construct her identity, and then I looked for similar diaries so that I could expand the project into a thesis. I found the writings of Sallie Wistar’s sister-in-law, Jane Gibbons Rhoads, also in Haverford Special Collections, and the writings of another Quaker girl, Emma Jane Fussell, in the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore. I focused on Quaker girls because I’m interested in Quaker history, but also because we have lots of Quaker sources at Haverford.

What are the implications for your research?

My thesis corrects an overly rosy picture of Quaker women’s history. We love to think that Quaker women were all deeply involved in reform work, and were able to do so because of Quakerism’s emphasis on women’s spiritual equality. But Quakers are not exempt from the wider culture in which they live, and I found in my thesis that it was hard for Quaker girls in the 19th century to imagine and create futures for themselves in which they could live up to the expectations of reform, as well as the expectations that they would run households.

Photo of Sarah Wistar Rhoads  holding her infant daughter, Lydia Wistar Rhoads, from Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections. 

What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.