The Female Academy and Beyond:
Three Mordecai Sisters at Work in the Old South
EMILY BINGHAM AND PENNY RICHARDS
One day in 1818, Jacob Mordecai, proprietor of a noted female academy in the small town of Warrenton, North Carolina, picked up his quill and signed a document selling his school for ten thousand dollars. With nearly a hundred girls enrolled, the institution was thriving. The business had hauled Mordecai out of debt and made him a success after years of financial struggle as a storekeeper. Now he could retire in comfort. 1
The names of three of Jacob Mordecai's daughters, Rachel (1788–1838), Ellen (1790–1884), and Caroline (1794–1862), did not appear in the contract transferring the academy's ownership. Nor did the women receive any proceeds. Yet, as hundreds of family letters attest, the school was central to their lives, and as teachers and managers, they had been vital to its success. Though scholars have argued that few southern women saw emotional, intellectual, or financial benefits in the instruction of youth, these three women did. And the school's sale did not close such avenues; the sisters' labor as teachers can be traced over the course of five decades. Their motivations and the meanings they took from their teaching over fresh angles from which to assess the historical categories of southern women's labor, categories that have obscured the work of Jacob Mordecai's daughters almost as evectively as the deed of sale he signed that day in 1818 did.
Southern education history has had less to say about teachers than about schools and their role in knitting together communities and elite female identity. 2 Yet the Mordecais (and thousands of other women in the antebellum South) worked teaching children. 3 Among paid teachers in the South, in 1850