Beyond Mother’s Knee


Public opinion about the education of girls continued to be sharply (if never clearly) divided until after the Civil War. Those who pioneered in the field were at the mercy of socially ambitious and ambivalent parents, confused and unevenly prepared students, and constantly shifting social attitudes. In sudden and disconcerting switches the “friends” of women’s education often turned out to be less than wholehearted in their advocacy. Benjamin Rush, whose Thoughts Upon Female Education, written in 1787, influenced and inspired Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, and the Beecher sisters, later admitted that his thoughtful considerations had finally left him “not enthusiastical upon the subject.” Even at his best, Rush sounds no more than tepid; American ladies, he wrote, “should be qualified to a certain degree by a peculiar and suitable education to concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government.” During her long editorship of Godey’s Lady’s Book Sarah Josepha Hale welcomed every new female seminary and academy but faithfully reminded her readers that the sanctity of the home came first: ”… on what does social well-being rest but in our homes…?” “Oh, spare our homes!” was a constant refrain, this chorus coming from the September, 1856, issue. Godey’s Lady’s Book reflects the pervasive nineteenth-century fear that the educated woman might be a threat to the established and symbiotic pattern of American family life. The totally ignorant woman, on the other hand, was something of an embarrassment to the new nation. The country was inundated by visiting European journalists during this period, and they invariably commented upon the dullness of our social life and the disappointing vacuity of the sweet-faced girls and handsome matrons they met. Though Americans themselves seemed to feel safer with a bore than with a bluestocking, they were forced to give the matter some worried thought.

“If all our girls become philosophers,” the critics asked, “who will darn our stockings and cook the meals?” It was widely, if somewhat irrationally, assumed that a maiden who had learned continental stitchery upon fine lawn might heave to and sew up a shirt if necessary, but few men believed that a woman who had once tasted the heady delights of Shakespeare’s plays would ever have dinner readv on time—or at all.


The founders of female seminaries were obliged to cater to this unease by modifying their plans and their pronouncements accordingly. The solid academic subjects were so generally thought irrelevant for “housewives and helpmeets” that it was usually necessary to disguise them as something more palatable. The Beechers taught their girls chemistry at Hartford but were careful to assure parents and prospective husbands that its principles were applicable in the kitchen. The study of mathematics could be justified by its usefulness in running a household. Eventually the educators grew more daring, recommending geology as a means toward understanding the Deluge and other Biblical mysteries and suggesting geography and even history as suitable because these studies would “enlarge women’s sphere of thought, rendering them more interesting as companions to men of science.” There is, however, little evidence that many were converted to this extreme point of view. The average nineteenth-century American man was not at all keen on chat with an interesting companion, preferring a wife like the one in the popular jingle “ who never learnt the art of schooling/Untainted with the itch of ruling .” The cliché of the period was “woman’s sphere.” The phrase was so frequently repeated that it acquires almost physical qualities. Woman’s Sphere—the nineteenth-century woman was fixed and sealed within it like a model ship inside a bottle. To tamper with the arrangement was to risk ruining a complex and fragile structure that had been painstakingly assembled over the course of two centuries. Just one ill-considered jolt might make matchwood of the entire apparatus.

In 1812 the anonymous author of Sketches of the History, Genius, and Disposition of the Fair Sex wrote that women are “born for a life of uniformity and dependence.… Were it in your power to give them genius, it would be almost always a useless and very often a dangerous present. It would, in general, make them regret the station which Providence has assigned them, or have recourse to unjustifiable ways to get from it.” The writer identified himself only as a “friend of the sex” (not actually specifying which one).

This century’s feminists may rage at and revel in such quotes, but the nineteenth-century educators were forced to live with this attitude and work within and around it. In order to gain any public or private support for women’s secondary schools they had to prove that a woman would not desert her husband and children as soon as she could write a legible sentence or recite a theorem. That fear was genuine, and the old arguments resurfaced again and again. What about Saint Paul’s injunction? What about the sanctity of the home ? What about the health of the future mothers of the race? What about supper?