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Reflections: Three Kendall County women ahead of their time

You must admit that the role of women in society has certainly evolved for the better during the past century and a half.

In the 19th century, women were still legally considered the property of, first, their fathers and later their husbands. Denied the right to vote, they were likewise often denied the right to manage their own affairs.

It took women of unusually strong drive and personality to fight their way out of the boxes in which society insisted they belonged. But there actually were some strong female personalities, women who proved they could do the same jobs men traditionally held if they could only get the chance to do so.

Three of those strong female personalities were born here in Kendall County. Sadly, two of them were forced to carry on some of their most important activities in secret while the other apparently denied herself the fulfillment most women today take for granted.

Emily Murdock was born into an influential Oswego family in 1853. Mary Rippon was born near Lisbon Center in Lisbon Township in 1850. And Sarah Raymond was born in 1842, also in Lisbon Township.

Of the three, two became respected educators, while the other became a mystery novelist, all during a period that frowned upon their career choices.

Emily Murdock’s father, Charles, was a justice of the peace and prominent Republican official in Oswego. Her brother, Alfred X. Murdock, was a lively young man who marched off to fight in the Civil War with his comrades in the 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry. Unfortunately, Alfred was killed at the Battle of Ezra Church outside Atlanta. For her part, Emily followed tradition, reportedly marrying Lawrence L. Lynch, a traveling sales representative, when she came of age. Local news accounts report that Emily traveled with Lawrence until he apparently died a few years after their marriage.

Emily returned to Oswego and married Dr. Abraham Van Deventer, a prominent local physician, becoming one of the community’s leaders. But her friends in Oswego had little idea that Emily Murdock Van Deventer led a secret life – she was a successful mystery novelist, a field then almost solely the purview of men. Realizing her chances for success were slim under her own name, Emily instead chose a man’s penname. And for that name she picked “Lawrence L. Lynch,” the name of her first husband. In order to be successful at her chosen field, then, Emily had to pretend – in print at least – to be a man.

Sarah Raymond was born in Lisbon Township in 1842 and was educated in her local one-room school. She was unusual in that her parents decided to send her on to the Lisbon Academy – one of the county’s private high schools. After graduation, she taught in the county’s rural schools before enrolling at Illinois State Normal University – today’s Illinois State University at Normal. She graduated in 1866 and was hired to teach in the Bloomington schools. She was apparently a woman of considerable talent because she gradually worked up to the post of principal of Sheridan School, and then moved on to become first assistant principal and then principal at Bloomington High School.

On Aug. 4, 1874, Raymond was appointed superintendent of the Bloomington School District, the first woman in the nation to hold such a position. She continued in that capacity until she decided to retire from education in 1892. In 1896, she married Capt. F.J. Fitzwilliam of Bloomington, although her joy was short-lived – the captain died in 1899. During her time with Bloomington’s schools and later during a few years spent in Boston, she rubbed elbows with such luminaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes and Julia Ward Howe. A person can’t help but wonder, though, whether Sarah wouldn’t have been a happier woman had the conventions of the time allowed her to marry and have children while she continued to be an educational leader.

Mary Rippon did marry and have a child, although no one but a few close friends ever knew it. Her life took a tragic turn early on when her father died on their farm near Lisbon Center when Mary was just 10 months old. But her extended family valued learning and she was well-educated, even being sent to Normal, Illinois, for her high school education. There, one of her instructors was Joseph Sewall; the two would continue a professional relationship for decades.

After graduating from high school in 1867, Mary studied in universities in Germany, Switzerland, and France. After teaching high school for a year and a half, in 1878 she joined the faculty of the brand new University of Colorado – her old teacher, Joseph Sewall, was the university’s first president – and became the school’s first female professor. Teaching French and German, Rippon was offered a full professorship in 1881 and and was appointed to the prestigious position of German Language and Literature Department chair 10 years later.

But Mary Rippon carried a shattering secret with her: In 1887 she met young Will Housel, a student in her German class. Unknown to virtually anyone, she and Housel were secretly married in 1888, and she bore him one child, a girl, Miriam. Had anyone known she had married much less bore a child, her career as a college professor would have been destroyed. Instead, she traveled to Europe where she gave birth to Miriam and then returned to the U.S. where she continued her career – alone. For the rest of her life, however, Mary supported Miriam financially.

Miriam first lived in a series of orphanages before going to live with her father, Will, who had divorced Mary and remarried. Mary lived with her secret the rest of her life, revealing it only to a few of her closest friends (for the whole fascinating tale see “Separate Lives: The Story of Mary Rippon” by Silvia Pettem, The Book Lodge, Longmont, Colorado, 1999).

Three very strong-willed women with deep Kendall County roots. And three stories of women working to make their way as best they could in what was very much a man’s world, stories that are well worth revisiting during this year’s Women’s History Month.

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