Frontier Judge Assisted Women’s Fraternity Movement

Story courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian Author and Literacy Critic.

Monmouth College is remarkable for its history of serving as beacon for women’s equality. While colleges in the mid-19th century typically often did not admit women on an equal basis with men—if at all—female students were welcomed at Monmouth from its inception. They regularly took the same rigorous courses as male students, in an era when society dictated that women should instead focus their learning on the domestic arts.

Part of the credit for this progressive spirit belongs to men associated with Monmouth College, most of whom shared an adventurous Scotch-Irish heritage that had propelled a sturdy people across the Atlantic and eventually the Allegheny Mountains in pursuit of religious and academic freedom. In particular, there was Monmouth’s first president, David Wallace, who encouraged young women to be independent, and rather than follow the custom of having “permanent gentlemen escorts” told them it would be better “with lantern in hand go alone.”

Another Scotch-Irish Monmouth patriarch in the mold of David Wallace was the son of a Presbyterian minister, who had brought his family from Kentucky to southern Illinois in 1830 and to Macomb in 1836. That year, the minister’s son, James Henderson Stewart, graduated from Hanover College in Indiana and began studying the law, eventually reading in the law office of a Macomb lawyer.

James Stewart was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1840 and opened a practice first in Lewistown and then in Mercer County, where he remained nearly five years. He then moved his practice to Oquawka, where he was elected state’s attorney and served a total of three terms, before removing to Knoxville for a year.

In the spring of 1861, Stewart moved to Monmouth, where he would remain the rest of his life and become one of its most respected citizens. In 1863, when Monmouth College was completing its new campus, he purchased a large lot in the new College Addition. Two years later, he built a plain but sturdy house on the lot at 1015 East Euclid, directly across the street from the home of President David Wallace.

While in Oquawka in 1852, Stewart’s wife, Isabella, had given birth to a daughter, Mary Moore “Minnie” Stewart—one of 10 children the couple would have. As a teen, Minnie attended Monmouth Academy, the preparatory school that would become Monmouth College. In 1869 she enrolled in the college and became active in the literary society Amateur Des Belles Lettres.

It has been suggested that attending a lecture in 1869 by suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton may have influenced Minnie to invite three of her classmates—Lou Bennett, Jennie Boyd and Anna Willits—to organize what they believed to be the first Greek fraternity for women, Kappa Kappa Gamma. Another influence was probably her older brother William, who was a member of Delta Tau Delta at Monmouth College. Minnie’s sister, Belle, who had graduated from Monmouth a year before, helped her with details of the organization, including creation of the motto.

The first meetings of Kappa Kappa Gamma were held in the Stewart home, where Minnie—its first president—lived while attending college. Letters written by the founders in later years say the fraternity’s constitution was written in the small parlor to the east of the entrance. Founder Louisa Stevenson Miller credited Judge Stewart for helping to formalize the organization. “Judge Stewart, Minnie’s father, looked after the legal part,” she wrote. “He sent everything that had to be signed and put on record to Springfield.” She noted that Anna Willits’s father, County Judge Elias Willits, was also interested in helping Kappa Kappa Gamma to organize. Interestingly, when Judge Willits died in 1881, Judge Stewart was selected to fill his unexpired term, and was then elected county judge himself twice.

Although Monmouth College would ban fraternities in the late 1870s, President Wallace was a longtime supporter of Greek life, having been a member of Beta Theta Pi at Miami University. As such, he supported the decision of his daughter, Elizabeth, to join Kappa Kappa Gamma. Although she was only 12 when Kappa was founded, it seems plausible that growing up across the street from the Stewart home influenced her decision to become a Kappa.

Minnie Stewart married William Nelson in 1873 and had two children before divorcing in 1878. Both children died in 1881. She taught in Monmouth public schools from 1882-1889, when she married Lucius A. Field. The couple moved to Eustis, Fla., where Minnie served as a high school principal from 1890-1893.

Judge Stewart became nestor of the Warren County Bar association and eventually retired from the firm Stewart & Stewart, in which he was a partner with his son, to devote his full attention to serving as a judge. A Democrat in a Republican county, he ran twice unsuccessfully for state legislature.

In his later years, Judge Stewart suffered from sciatic rheumatism, and he and his wife spent the winters in California and Florida. In the spring of 1897, after staying with Minnie and her husband in Florida, he became too weak to make the trip back home to Monmouth and remained in the Field home. Just after Christmas that year, he died. Sadly, Minnie was unable to make the trip back to Monmouth with his body, as she, too, was ill. Burial occurred on New Year’s Day 1898 in Monmouth Cemetery.

In May, Minnie recovered enough to return with her mother home to Monmouth. On June 8 she delivered an address to the alumni banquet at Monmouth College, but eventually became so weak that her brother, William, took her to Cincinnati to see a specialist, who recommended surgery. She did not survive the operation and died June 21.

On July 15, Minnie’s 15-year-old nephew met a tragic end. James Harvey Stewart, the namesake of Judge Stewart and only son of Minnie’s brother, William, went to Olmstead’s mill with two friends to retrieve a surrey. While there they went swimming and diving off the dam. When James’s foot slipped on the logs, he struck his head on the rocks in the water below, paralyzing him. He was brought back to the Stewart home on East Euclid and a prominent physician was summoned from Chicago. It was decided to open the top of his skull to relieve pressure, but that turned out not to be the problem. James remained conscious until his death the next day, but a postmortem exam determined that his neck was broken, two cervical vertebrae were fractured, and the broken bones were pressing on his spinal cord.

A funeral was held at the Stewart home, presided over by family pastor A.H. Dean and neighbor Russell Graham. The two had conducted Minnie’s funeral at the home just three weeks earlier.

Stewart House was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Today it is operated as a historic house museum by the Kappa Kappa Gamma Foundation.

For Maple City Memories, I’m Jeff Rankin.

Leave a Comment