- Historic Sites
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
Penmanship classes, often separate enterprises, flourished everywhere from the 1750’s on, and one John Wingfield of New York promised to teach the art within three months for a flat fee of five dollars. Wingfield’s ads were grimly pragmatic, stressing the importance of a fine hand for those who could so easily fall into the “Melancholy State of Widowhood.” “For want of this [skill],” ran Wingfield’s notice in the New York Gazette , “how often do we see women, when they are left to shift for themselves [in the M.S.O.W. ], obliged to leave their Business to the Management of others; sometimes to their great Loss, and Sometimes to their utter Ruin.” “Business,” “Loss,” and “Ruin” seem to have been the operative words, and the penmanship schools were thronged. As a testament to their newly acquired proficiency graduates were awarded diplomas decorated by fancifully penned flora and fauna, suitable for framing. Swans, which lent themselves easily to Spencerian flourishes and curves, seem to have been a particular favorite. The study of arithmetic was also urged for similar reasons, as were reading and grammar. It quickly became obvious that literacy could increase earning power—or at least saving power—and while America was still a very long way from accepting the notion that a woman might choose to support herself, people did acknowledge that there were some cases when she might have no option.
Certain religious groups, particularly the Moravians and the Quakers, had always eschewed frippery and pioneered in the more realistic education of women. Friends’ schools were organized as soon as the size and prosperity of the settlements permitted them. This training emphasized housewifery but did include the fundamentals of literacy. Many of the earliest eighteenth-century Quaker primary schools were co-educational, though access to them was limited to the immediate community. Because these were concentrated in the Philadelphia area, girls born in Pennsylvania had a much better chance of acquiring some education than their contemporaries elsewhere. The Moravians (who also settled in the southeastern states) quickly recognized the general lack of facilities in the rest of the Colonies and offered boarding arrangements in a few of their schools. The student body soon included intrepid and homesick girls from New England and even the West Indies. These institutions were purposeful and rather solemn, the antithesis of superficiality. The Moravians insisted upon communal household chores as well as domestic skills, and in the eighteenth century these obligations could be onerous; dusting, sweeping, spinning, carding, and weaving came before embroidery and hemstitching. These homely lessons were enlivened by rhymes celebrating the pleasure of honest work. Examples survive in the seminary archives and supply a hint of the uplifting atmosphere:
Though the teaching sisters in these sectarian schools seem to have been kind and patient, the life was rigorous and strictly ordered, a distinct and not always popular alternative to pleasant afternoons with easygoing adventure masters. In an era when education for women was still widely regarded as a luxury for the upper classes, the appeal of the pioneering religious seminaries tended to be somewhat narrow. If a family happened to be sufficiently well-off to think of educating their girls, the tendency was to make fine ladies of them. As a result there were many young women who could carry a tune but not a number, who could model a passable wax apple but couldn’t read a recipe, who had memorized the language of flowers but had only the vaguest grasp of English grammar. There seemed to be no middle ground between the austerities of the religious schools and the hollow frivolities offered by commercial ventures. Alternatives did not really exist until the 1820’s, when the earliest tentative attempts were made to found independent academies and seminaries.
Catherine and Harriet Beecher, who were among the first to open a school designed to bridge this gulf, believed almost as strongly as the Moravians in the importance of domestic economy. They were, however, obliged by public demand to include a long list of dainty accomplishments in their Hartford curriculum. Many girls continued to regard the new secular seminaries as they had the adventure schools—as rival shops where they could browse or buy at will, dropping in and out at any time they chose. To the despair of the well-intentioned founders few students ever stayed to complete the course at any one place. Parents judged a school as if it were a buffet table, evaluating it by the number and variety of subjects displayed. In writing later of the difficult beginnings of the Hartford Seminary, Catherine Beecher said that “all was perpetual haste, imperfection, irregularity, and the merely mechanical commitment of words to memory, without any chance for imparting clear and connected ideas in a single branch of knowledge. The review of those days is like the memory of a troubled and distracting dream.”