Beyond Mother’s Knee


Could I have died a martyr in the cause, and thus ensured its success, I could have blessed the faggot and hugged the stake.” The cause was state support for female education, the would-be Saint Joan was Emma Willard, and the rhetorical standards of the 1820’s were lofty and impassioned. The most militant feminists rarely scale such heights today. For one thing, dogged effort has finally reduced the supply of grand injustices; and today’s preference for less florid metaphor has deprived the movement of such dramatic images. Comparatively speaking, the rest of the struggle is a downhill run, leading straight to twenty-four-hour day-care centers, revised and updated forms of marriage, free access to the executive suite, and rows of “Ms’s” on Senate office doors. Glorying in our headway, we easily forget that leverage comes with literacy, and literacy for women is a relative novelty.

Long before the Revolution, American males already had Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, as well as a full range of other educational institutions—grammar schools, academies, seminaries, and numerous smaller colleges. American girls had only their mother’s knee. By 1818, the year in which Emma Willard first introduced her Plan for the Improvement of Female Education, the gap was almost as wide as ever. Public schooling was a local option, quite whimsically interpreted. The towns could provide as much or as little as they wished, extending or restricting attendance as they saw fit. Ms. Willard presented her novel proposals to the New York State legislature, which dealt with the question by putting it repeatedly at the bottom of the agenda until the session was safely over. Lavish tributes to Mother’s Knee filled the halls of Albany. In the opinion of the senators, M.’s K. not only outshone our men’s colleges but also Oxford, Cambridge, and Heidelberg as an institution of female edification. Despite the support of De Witt Clinton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, it was three more years—when a building and grounds were offered independently by the town of Troy—before the Willard Seminary actually got under way. The academy still flourishes and claims to “mark the beginning of higher education for women in the United States.” Since that is not precisely the same as being the first such school and the rival contenders have either vanished or metamorphosed into other sorts of institutions entirely, there is no reason to dispute it. The pre-Revolutionary South did have a few early convents, including one at New Orleans that was established by the Ursuline order in 1727 and taught religion, needlework, and something of what was called basic skills. Other religious groups, particularly the Moravians and Quakers, supported female seminaries during the eighteenth century, but these places did not really attempt to offer advanced education—a commodity for which there was little market in an era when girls were unwelcome in elementary schools. A few New England clergymen opened small academies for girls during the first decade of the nineteenth century, but these noble and well-intentioned efforts were ephemeral, never outlasting their founders. Until Emma Willard succeeded in extracting that bit of real estate from Troy, public and private support for such ventures was virtually nonexistent.

Some few ambitious and determined girls did succeed in learning to read and write in colonial America, but hardly ever at public expense and certainly not in comfort. Their number was pitifully small, and those who gained more than the rudiments of literacy would hardly have crowded a saltbox parlor. The early Puritans apparently stretched Saint Paul’s dogma “I permit not a woman to teach” to mean that women should not be allowed to learn, either. John Winthrop’s History of New England from 1630 to 1649 tells what happened when a group of women met for what seems to have been a discussion of great issues. The town fathers decided that “though women might meet (some few together) to pray and edify one another; yet such a set assembly (as was then in practice at Boston) where sixty or more did meet every week, and one woman (in a prophetical way, by resolving questions of doctrine and expounding scripture) took upon her the whole exercise, was agreed to be disorderly, and without rule.” Anne Hutchinson, the instigator of such a group, was banished by an inquisition that could have been conducted by Torquemada himself. She was branded a heretic and exiled to Rhode Island. Her persecutors trailed her there and eventually drove her to the hostile wilds of Long Island, where the entire Hutchinson family was murdered by Indians.

Nor was the Puritan attitude much friendlier toward women who sought only to educate themselves. As the poet Anne Bradstreet wrote bitterly during the 1650’s:

For such despite they cast on female, wits. If what I do prove well, it won’t advance, They’l say its stoln, or else it was by chance.