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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
Although the odds against a girl’s gaining more than the sketchiest training during this era seem to have been overwhelming, there were some remarkable exceptions. The undiscouraged few included Emma Willard herself; Catherine and Harriet Beecher, the clergyman’s daughters, who established an early academy at Hartford; and Mary Lyon, who founded the college that began in 1837 as Mount Holyoke Seminary. Usually, however, the tentative and halfhearted experiments permitted by the New England towns served only to give aid and comfort to the opposition. They seemed to show that the female mind was not inclined to scholarship and the female body was not strong enough to withstand exposure—literal exposure, in many cases—to it. By 1830 or so primary education had been grudgingly extended to girls almost everywhere, but it was nearly impossible to find anyone who dared champion any further risks. Boston had actually opened a girls’ high school in 1826 only to abolish it two years later. The closing notice mentioned the fact that the institution had been “an alarming success.” Shaken, the town fathers did not allow another trial for twenty years. New Englanders have long memories, and the legend of poor Mistress Hopkins, the wife of one of Connecticut’s early colonial governors, was revived as a cautionary tale and repeated whenever the subject of female education was raised. She had, it seemed, gone mad from mental exertion. “For if she had attended her household affairs, and such things as belong to women,” wrote John Winthrop, “and not gone out of her way and calling to meddle in such things as are proper for men, whose minds are stronger, etc., she had kept her wits.” Widespread pity for Mistress Hopkins lasted for almost two hundred years, a powerful deterrent to progress. The unfortunate lady became a standard text for countless sermons, thus achieving a sadly ironic immortality.
Having heard less about the awful consequences of study, the Middle Atlantic Colonies seem to have been more willing to gamble, and the Dutch who settled New York tolerated girls in their primary schools from the very beginning. These were church sponsored, and strict and total segregation was the rule. Smaller towns with only one building at their disposal specified that “Boys and Girls should be separated as much as possible from each other.” Girls again got the drafty back rows and the chilly corners. The good burghers of New Amsterdam took particular pains to guarantee that their thrifty mixing of the sexes did not encourage social evils. School rules spelled out the punishments to be used upon those “Who chase or throw at peoples’ ducks or animals; who run their hands thru their hairs; who buy candy; Who throw their bread to dogs or cats; who spit in the drink of another or step on his dinner.” These offenses were impartially dealt with by whipping, though there is no certain way of knowing whether running the hands through the hairs drew as many strokes as spitting in a classmate’s drink. In any case the Dutch primary schools, even when co-ed, sound rather grim. In addition to the Bible and catechisms, boys and girls alike studied Exquisite Proofs of Man’s Misery, Last Wills, and Hours of Death . Many of the girl students, after this taste of equality and the joys of erudition, left school before learning to write. In fact, few of them even stayed long enough to read, and the largest percentage, perhaps discouraged by the grisly offerings, never attended at all. The curriculum seemed expressly designed to produce the highest possible dropout rate. The girls could hardly be blamed for low motivation, since they had an approved and tempting alternative. It was much easier and more pleasant to stay home and learn to cook, weave, spin, brew beer, and tend children in the cheerful company of their sisters and friends. The boys must have envied them. Despite their apparent generosity, the Dutch settlers managed to achieve an even higher rate of female illiteracy than the adamant Puritans, and they accomplished it without discriminatory laws. The courthouse files of wills, deeds, and marriages indicate 60 per cent of New York women were unable to read or write during the colonial period. In New England, despite the obstacles, approximately 60 per cent could at least sign their names.