Three Sisters Who Showed The Way


Most likely Elizabeth simply preferred not to marry. She had left home at eighteen to become a teacher, partly out of ambition for herself but mostly to help support her large family. In her late thirties, while both her sisters were forming secret attachments to their future husbands, Elizabeth was still thinking of her parents and younger siblings. She rented a town house in Boston where she could set up a bookstore and a small publishing firm, and she brought the family together again under one roof for the four years before Mary and Sophia went off to start their own families.

But there was more to Elizabeth’s romantic hesitancy than the burdens of an oldest child. Elizabeth Peabody had a brilliant mind and an outspoken personality. In nineteenth-century New England, where learned women were admired but still expected to appear, in Emerson’s terms, “more vulnerable, more infirm, more mortal than men,” Elizabeth’s habit of intellectual disputation made her first attractive and then repellent to both men and women. During the years in which she might have married, the outgoing Elizabeth, fully aware of what other people saw as her faults, often felt inwardly depressed and uncertain. She begged Horace Mann to tell her if “he thought that thro’ earnestness—enthusiasm—or any other innocent cause even—I was ever betrayed into an overbearing—intrusive—masculine manner—.” He answered no. But like all the others, after a brief infatuation, he drew back from Elizabeth.

In a letter to Mary written during this time, Elizabeth expressed an equally avid desire to live alone. “You can have solitude in society,” she wrote to Mary, with whom she had always shared her rented rooms, “because reserve is a part of your character—I cannot for I must communicate wherever there is a human being presented to my senses....I have always felt this, but I feared it would not be understood and so have done violence to my nature. I felt from the time [we moved to Boston] that a chamber to myself would have been a greater blessing than anything else.”

It wasn’t until Elizabeth was well beyond her childbearing years that she resolved these conflicts and settled into what she called her life’s work: the education of young children. During the years just following the Civil War, when Elizabeth was in her sixties, she revived a series of historical lectures she had given in her youth and found in the new atmosphere of political self-analysis an extremely receptive audience. But more important than the lectures were the fees Peabody earned, which allowed her to travel to Europe to study the innovative German kindergartens begun by a man named Friedrich Froebel. This, Elizabeth later wrote, was “the ‘wandering year,’ closing my apprenticeship to life, and from which I returned enriched with the knowledge of Froebel’s method of Education, to the diffusion of which in this country I have devoted the last fifteen years of my life.”


The schools that Peabody started in Boston and then promoted across America operated on the principle that “children should be led to discover everything...when their minds are in the ease of spontaneous play!” Peabody’s kindergartens were run by young women who trained both mothers and children in the art of creative play. Passing on such learning was a way for Elizabeth to have a profession and feel satisfied with her womanhood. At last she abandoned competition in the male world of ideas and joined the ranks of the domestic feminists, who would, as she had so long hoped, “love and value me for what I am.” It was a decision that carried her influence into the twentieth century as America’s young modernists (chief among them Frank Lloyd Wright, whose unique design sense has been traced by one biographer to the years he spent piling up special blocks in a Froebel school) were educated through guided play.

This is not to say she had accomplished little in her youth. Elizabeth Peabody was always a dynamo. In her thirties and forties she wrote, translated, and printed dozens of books on education, history, and literature; she founded two magazines and published in one of them Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” During the Civil War years she campaigned for abolition, twice visiting President Lincoln to urge emancipation for the slaves. But these efforts were scattered and rarely effective. It took the emergence of a women’s culture, the same audience that eagerly received Mary Mann’s physiological cookbook, to give Elizabeth’s voice the strength it needed to carry beyond the parlors of polite Boston society. At last Peabody earned the respect that should have been hers much earlier in life. By the 1880s Henry James could memorialize her in a half-mocking, half-admiring portrait in The Bostonians. There, as Miss Birdseye, she was “one of our celebrities....The woman in the world...who has laboured most for every wise reform.”

Today we might say that Elizabeth Peabody claimed too much for her preschool movement, which she was convinced would transform the world into a utopia of love and thought. But we have only to look around us to see that every American child now attends a kindergarten and that built into our American character is her belief in “self-direction.”