Harsh Judgment: A Look at 19th Century Gender Values from Peoria’s YWCA

Going to an unknown city alone can be anxiety inducing, even for a seasoned traveler. And as a woman — with or without young children in tow — it can be even more so. But imagine making the trip in the early 1900s without modern amenities like the web to guide you. Compound the issue by fleeing an abusive parent or spouse.

The mission of the Peoria YWCA Travelers Aid Society, begun over 130 years ago, was to help protect women and girls who traveled alone. Senior Kaitlyn Morrison applied her interdisciplinary training in history and social studies high school education, anthropology, and women’s and gender studies through analyzing documents from the now-defunct chapter, part of a larger push by the Special Collections Center at Bradley’s Cullom-Davis Library to digitize a century’s worth of archives from the association.

Morrison looked at the writings of Davina M. Barnhart, a traveler’s aide who served the organization from 1919 to 1937. The long-forgotten stories are coming back to the light through her research project “Adventures in Traveler Aiding: The Influence of the Intersectional Perspective and Service of the YWCA Travelers Aid Society in Peoria, Illinois 1919-1938.” 

“​​I really love reading her personal narratives and the way that she (Barnhart) interpreted the situations that she encountered,” Morrison said. “She was a woman, and she was an immigrant from Scotland. She had those lenses of groups that have been looked down upon over time. But she also was a well-off white woman who had privilege, too, and you can see those biases and judgments through her writing.”

In her research, Morrison found Barnhart used her role to protect unmarried women from dangers like human trafficking. But, with married women who were trying to escape domestic abuse situations, she would label the women “hysterical,” contact their husband or father, and send them back. 

In one of the documents, she learned about a young woman from Texas who had run away from her abusive family. The society — likely Barnhart — talked to the woman’s father and sent her back to the Lone Star state.

"It's more not believing the woman and sending her back to her family, rather than getting this woman out of the situation that she's in and allowing her the freedom and sovereignty over her own life that she deserves, no matter what the circumstances are," Morrison told WCBU in July.

In this interview, however, she noted while the documents don’t give the reader the opposing perspective of the people involved, interdisciplinary research methods spanning social science, gender studies and the humanities allow historians to analyze and interpret and bring their voices to light.

“I sort of see her (Barnhart) as a flawed superhero. She was helping women, protecting women, feeding children, helping people who were disabled in the train station, but then there were small pockets where she did have biases come through and she was unkind to these people and harmed them.”

Support for Morrison’s project comes from Bradley’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Summer 2023 Research and Artistry Fellowship Program. These stories and more from the Peoria YWCA vaults are available online, thanks to the efforts of the Special Collections team and a grant from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Anyone with questions or an interest in the history of Peoria and Bradley should visit Bradley’s Virginius H. Chase Special Collections Center.

— Jenevieve Rowley-Davis