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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
Advocates of secondary education for women, therefore, became consummate politicians, theologians, hygienists, and, when necessary, apologists. “It is desirable,” wrote Mary Lyon in 1834 of her Mount Holyoke Female Seminary project, “that the plans relating to the subject should not seem to originate with us but with benevolent gentlemen . If the object should excite attention there is danger that many good men will fear the effect on society of so much female influence and what they will call female greatness.” New and subtle counterarguments were presented with great delicacy. God had entrusted the tender minds of children to women; therefore women were morally obliged to teach. The home would be a holier place if the chatelaine understood religious principles and could explain them. The founders of Abbot Academy proclaimed that “to form the immortal mind to habits suited to an immortal being, and to instill principles of conduct and form the character for an immortal destiny, shall be subordinate to no other care.” All that harping on immortality went down smoothly in the evangelistic atmosphere of the l820’s. A thick coating of religion was applied to every new educational venture. The parents of prospective students were assured that their daughters would not only study religion in class but would have twice-daily periods of silent meditation, frequent revival meetings, compulsory chapel services, and a Sunday that included all of these. In reading the early seminary catalogues, one finds it hard to see where secular studies could have fit in at all. To the religious guarantees were appended promises of careful attention to health. The educators lost no time in adding the new science of calisthenics to their curricula. They had the medical records of their students compared to that of the public at large and published the gratifying results in newspapers and magazines. Domestic work was also to be required of girls who attended the new seminaries, partly for economy’s sake but mainly so that they would not forget their ultimate destiny.
All of this was calming and persuasive, but nothing was so effective as simple economics. By the 1830’s most states had begun a program of primary public education. As the West followed suit the need for teachers became acute and desperate. Men were not attracted to the profession because the pay was wretched, the living conditions were lonely, and the status of a schoolmaster was negligible if not downright laughable. Saint Paul was revised, updated, and finally reversed. He had not, after all, envisioned the one-room schoolhouses of the American prairie, the wages of three dollars a month, or the practice of “boarding around.”
Within an astonishingly short time fears for female health subsided. The first women teachers proved amazingly durable, able to withstand every rigor of frontier life. Ina letter to her former headmistress one alumna of the Hartford Seminary described accommodations out west: I board where there are eight children, and the parents, and only two rooms in the house. I must do as the family do about washing, as there is but one basin, and no place to go to wash but out the door. I have not enjoyed the luxury of either lamp or candle, their only light being a cup of grease with a rag for a wick. Evening is my only time to write, but this kind of light makes such a disagreeable smoke and smell, I cannot bear it, and do without light, except the fire. I occupy a room with three of the children and a niece who boards here. The other room serves as a kitchen, parlor, and bedroom for the rest of the family.…
Other graduates were just as stoical and often no more comfortable: I board with a physician, and the house has only two rooms. One serves as kitchen, eating, and sitting room; the other, where I lodge, serves also as the doctor’s office, and there is no time, night or day, when I am not liable to interruption.
My school embraces both sexes, and all ages from five to seventeen, and not one can read intelligibly. They have no idea of the proprieties of the schoolroom or of study.… My furniture consists now of … benches, a single board put up against the side of the room for a writing desk, a few bricks for andirons, and a stick of wood for shovel and tongs.