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Beyond Mother’s Knee
The prevailing Colonial feeling toward female education was unanimously negative. Learning to read was the first feminist triumph.
June 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 4
These letters were collected by Catherine Beecher in her book True Remedy for the Wrongs of Women, which advanced the cause of women’s education by showing the worthwhile uses to which it could be put. Delighted with the early results, several states quickly set up committees to consider training women teachers on a larger scale. Their findings were favorable, though couched in oddly ambiguous language. New York’s group reported that women seemed to be “endued with peculiar faculties” for the occupation. “While man’s nature is rough, stern, impatient, ambitious, hers is gentle, tender, enduring, unaspiring.” That was most encouraging, but the gentlemen also generously acknowledged that “the habits of female teachers are better and their morals purer; they are much more apt to be content with, and continue in, the occupation of teaching.” A Michigan report stated in 1842 that “an elementary school, where the rudiments of an English education only are taught, such as reading, spelling, writing, and the outlines barely of geography, arithmetic, and grammar, requires a female of practical common sense with amiable and winning manners, a patient spirit, and a tolerable knowledge of the springs of human action. A female thus qualified, carrying with her into the schoolroom the gentle influences of her sex, will do more to inculcate right morals and prepare the youthful intellect for the severer discipline of its after years, than the most accomplished and learned male teacher.” Far from objecting to these rather condescending statements, the founders of the struggling seminaries were more than happy to hear them. Even the miserable wages offered to teachers could be regarded as an advantage, since they provided the single most effective argument for more female academies. “But where are we to raise such an army of teachers as are required for this great work?” asked Catherine Beecher in the same book that contained the letters from her ex-students. “Not from the sex which finds it so much more honorable, easy, and lucrative, to enter the many roads to wealth and honor open in this land. … It is WOMAN who is to come [forth] at this emergency, and meet the demand—woman, whom experience and testimony have shown to be the best, as well as the cheapest guardian and teacher of childhood, in the school as well as the nursery.”
Teaching became a woman’s profession by default and by rationalization. Clergymen and theologians suddenly had nothing but praise for women teachers. God must have meant them to teach because he made them so good at it. They would work for a half or a third of the salary demanded by a man. What, after all, was a schoolroom but an extension of the home, woman’s natural sphere? And if females had to have schools of their own to prepare them for this holy mission, then so be it. Future American generations must not be allowed to suffer for want of instruction when a Troy, Hartford, or Mount Holyoke girl asked no more than three dollars a month, safe escort to the boondocks, and a candle of her own.