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Beyond Mother’s Knee

May 2024
26min read

The prevailing Colonial feeling toward female education was unanimously negative. Learning to read was the first feminist triumph.

Could I have died a martyr in the cause, and thus ensured its success, I could have blessed the faggot and hugged the stake.” The cause was state support for female education, the would-be Saint Joan was Emma Willard, and the rhetorical standards of the 1820’s were lofty and impassioned. The most militant feminists rarely scale such heights today. For one thing, dogged effort has finally reduced the supply of grand injustices; and today’s preference for less florid metaphor has deprived the movement of such dramatic images. Comparatively speaking, the rest of the struggle is a downhill run, leading straight to twenty-four-hour day-care centers, revised and updated forms of marriage, free access to the executive suite, and rows of “Ms’s” on Senate office doors. Glorying in our headway, we easily forget that leverage comes with literacy, and literacy for women is a relative novelty.

Long before the Revolution, American males already had Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, as well as a full range of other educational institutions—grammar schools, academies, seminaries, and numerous smaller colleges. American girls had only their mother’s knee. By 1818, the year in which Emma Willard first introduced her Plan for the Improvement of Female Education, the gap was almost as wide as ever. Public schooling was a local option, quite whimsically interpreted. The towns could provide as much or as little as they wished, extending or restricting attendance as they saw fit. Ms. Willard presented her novel proposals to the New York State legislature, which dealt with the question by putting it repeatedly at the bottom of the agenda until the session was safely over. Lavish tributes to Mother’s Knee filled the halls of Albany. In the opinion of the senators, M.’s K. not only outshone our men’s colleges but also Oxford, Cambridge, and Heidelberg as an institution of female edification. Despite the support of De Witt Clinton, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, it was three more years—when a building and grounds were offered independently by the town of Troy—before the Willard Seminary actually got under way. The academy still flourishes and claims to “mark the beginning of higher education for women in the United States.” Since that is not precisely the same as being the first such school and the rival contenders have either vanished or metamorphosed into other sorts of institutions entirely, there is no reason to dispute it. The pre-Revolutionary South did have a few early convents, including one at New Orleans that was established by the Ursuline order in 1727 and taught religion, needlework, and something of what was called basic skills. Other religious groups, particularly the Moravians and Quakers, supported female seminaries during the eighteenth century, but these places did not really attempt to offer advanced education—a commodity for which there was little market in an era when girls were unwelcome in elementary schools. A few New England clergymen opened small academies for girls during the first decade of the nineteenth century, but these noble and well-intentioned efforts were ephemeral, never outlasting their founders. Until Emma Willard succeeded in extracting that bit of real estate from Troy, public and private support for such ventures was virtually nonexistent.

Some few ambitious and determined girls did succeed in learning to read and write in colonial America, but hardly ever at public expense and certainly not in comfort. Their number was pitifully small, and those who gained more than the rudiments of literacy would hardly have crowded a saltbox parlor. The early Puritans apparently stretched Saint Paul’s dogma “I permit not a woman to teach” to mean that women should not be allowed to learn, either. John Winthrop’s History of New England from 1630 to 1649 tells what happened when a group of women met for what seems to have been a discussion of great issues. The town fathers decided that “though women might meet (some few together) to pray and edify one another; yet such a set assembly (as was then in practice at Boston) where sixty or more did meet every week, and one woman (in a prophetical way, by resolving questions of doctrine and expounding scripture) took upon her the whole exercise, was agreed to be disorderly, and without rule.” Anne Hutchinson, the instigator of such a group, was banished by an inquisition that could have been conducted by Torquemada himself. She was branded a heretic and exiled to Rhode Island. Her persecutors trailed her there and eventually drove her to the hostile wilds of Long Island, where the entire Hutchinson family was murdered by Indians.

Nor was the Puritan attitude much friendlier toward women who sought only to educate themselves. As the poet Anne Bradstreet wrote bitterly during the 1650’s:

For such despite they cast on female, wits. If what I do prove well, it won’t advance, They’l say its stoln, or else it was by chance.

As the grip of Puritanism gradually relaxed, the image of a learned female improved infinitesimally. She was no longer regarded as a disorderly person or a heretic but merely as a nuisance to her husband, family, and friends. A sensible woman soon found ways to conceal her little store of knowledge or, if hints of it should accidentally slip out, to disparage or apologize for it. Abigail Adams, whose wistful letters show a continuing interest in women’s education, described her own with a demurely rhymed disclaimer:

The little learning I have gained Is all from simple nature drained.

In fact, the wife of John Adams was entirely self-educated. She disciplined herself to plod doggedly through works of ancient history whenever her household duties permitted, being careful to do so in the privacy of her boudoir. In her letters she deplored the fact that it was still customary to “ridicule female learning” and even in the “best families” to deny girls more than the barest rudiments.

The prevailing colonial feeling toward female education was still so unanimously negative that it was not always thought necessary to mention it. Sometimes this turned out to be a boon. A few villages, in their haste to establish schools for boys, neglected to specify that only males would be admitted. From the beginning they wrote their charters rather carelessly, using the loose generic term “children.” This loophole was nearly always blocked as soon as the risks became apparent, but in the interim period of grace girls were occasionally able to pick up a few crumbs of knowledge. They did so by sitting outside the schoolhouse or on its steps, eavesdropping on the boys’ recitations. More rarely, girls were tolerated in the rear of the school-house behind a curtain, in a kind of makeshift seraglio. This Levantine arrangement, however, was soon abandoned as inappropriate to the time and place, and the attendance requirements were made unambiguous. New England winters and Cape Cod architecture being what they are, the amount of learning that one could have acquired by these systems was necessarily scanty. Still it was judged excessive. The female scholars in the yard and on the stairs seemed to suffer disproportionately from pleurisy and other respiratory ailments. Further proof of the divine attitude toward the educating of women was not sought. Girls were excluded for their own good, as well as to ensure the future of the Colonies.

After the Revolution the atmosphere in the New England states did become considerably more lenient. Here and there a town council might vote to allow girls inside the school building from five to seven in the morning, from six to eight at night, or, in a few very liberal communities, during the few weeks in summer when the boys were at work in the fields or shipyards. This was a giant step forward and would have been epochal if teachers had always appeared at these awkward times. Unfortunately the girls often had to muddle through on their own without benefit of faculty. The enlightened trend, moreover, was far from general. In 1792 the town of Wellesley, Massachusetts, voted “not to be at any expense for schooling girls,” and similarly worded bylaws were quite usual throughout the northern states until the 1820’s. In the southern Colonies, where distances between the great estates delayed the beginnings of any public schooling even longer, wealthy planters often imported tutors to instruct their sons in academic subjects. If they could afford the additional luxury, they might also engage singing and dancing masters for the daughters, who were not expected to share their brothers’ more arduous lessons. Ina pleasant little memoir of the South, Colonial Days and Dames, Anne Wharton, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, noted that “very little from books was thought necessary for a girl. She was trained to domestic matters … the accomplishments of the day … to play upon the harpsichord or spinet, and to work impossible dragons and roses upon canvas.”

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.


Public schools obviously were not the only route to learning or most female American children up through colonial times would have been doomed to total ignorance. Fathers, especially clergymen fathers, would often drill their daughters in the Bible and sometimes teach them to read and do simple sums as well. Nothing that enhanced an understanding of the Scriptures could be entirely bad, and arithmetic was considered useful in case a woman were to find herself the sole support of her children. Brothers would sometimes lend or hand down their old school books, and fond uncles might help a favorite and clever niece with her sums. The boys’ tutor was often amenable to a pretty sister’s pleas for lessons. For those girls not fortunate enough to be the daughters of foresighted New England parsons or wealthy tobacco and cotton factors, most colonial towns provided dame schools. These catered to boys as well as to girls of various ages. They offered a supplement to the curriculum at Mother’s Knee, but only just. Because these schools were kept by women who had acquired their own learning haphazardly, the education they offered was motley at best. The solitary teacher could impart no more than she herself knew, and that rarely exceeded the alphabet, the shorter catechism, sewing, knitting, some numbers, and perhaps a recipe for baked beans and brown bread. The actual academic function of these early American institutions seems to have been somewhat exaggerated and romanticized by historians. Dame schools were really no more than small businesses, managed by impoverished women who looked after neighborhood children and saw to it that idle little hands did not make work for the devil. The fees (tuition is too grand a word) were tiny, with threepence a week per child about par. That sum could hardly have paid for a single hornbook for the entire class. The dame school itself was an English idea, transplanted almost intact to the Colonies. Several seem to have been under way by the end of the seventeenth century. A typical example was described by Georee Crabbe:

When a deaf poor patient widow sits And awes some twenty infants as she knits Infants of humble, busy wives who pay Some trifling price for freedom through the day . . . . . . . . . . . . . Her room is small, they cannot widely stray Her threshold high, they cannot run away.…

As early as 1682 the town of Springfield, Massachusetts, permitted Goodwife Mirick to establish one of these prototypical day-care centers, and the dame schools continued as the main fount of female education for more than a hundred years. We can be reasonably sure that they didn’t violate the prevailing notions about female teaching and learning. Crabbe’s poem was written in the 1870’s, and there had been few changes in the intervening century. With rare good luck a child might get a competent schoolmistress like Miriam Wood of Dorchester, whose epitaph notes that “when she died, she scarcely left her mate”—mate, in this case, meaning peer, not husband—but quite often the dame seems to have been less than ideally qualified for her job. There were not many like Miriam Wood, and the New England court records are enlivened by reprimands to these women for their shortcomings. Some dozed through the day, others tippled, and there is one instance of a New Haven dame charged with “Prophane Swearing.” (It is recorded that her profanity was “By my soul!”) In this last unhappy case it was a small female pupil who was hauled into court, despite her plea that she had learned the offending phrase from her teacher.

As the country became more affluent, schoolkeeping gradually began to attract more ambitious types. Older girls were still being excluded from the town seminaries and in many places from the grammar schools as well. A great many people quickly realized that there was money to be made by teaching the children of the new middle class and that they could sell their services for far more than pennies. No special accreditation or qualification was required, and there was no competition from the state. Toward the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth, platoons of self-styled professors invaded American towns and cities, promising to instruct both sexes and all ages in every known art, science, air, and grace. These projects were popularly known as adventure schools, a phrase that has a pleasant modern ring to it, suggesting open classrooms, free électives, and individual attention.

That, however, is deceptive. The people who ran such schools were usually adventurers in the not very admirable sense of the word: unscrupulous, self-serving, and of doubtful origins and attainments. Many simply equipped themselves with false diplomas and titles from foreign universities and set up shop. The schools continued to operate only as long as they turned a profit. When enrollment dropped, interest waned, or fraud became obvious, the establishment would simply fold and the proprietors move to another town for a fresh start. The newer territories were particularly alluring to the worst of these entrepreneurs, since their reputations could neither precede nor follow them there. A new name, a new prospectus, an ad in the gazette, and they were in business again until scandal or mismanagement obliged them to move on. Such “schools” were not devised for the particular benefit of girls; but because they were independent commercial enterprises, no solvent person was turned away. Thousands of young women did take advantage of the new opportunity and were, in many cases, taken advantage of in return. For boys the adventure schools were an alternative to the strict classicism and religiosity of the academies and seminaries, but for girls they were the only educational possibility between the dame school and marriage.

There was little effort to devise a planned or coherent course of study, though elaborately decorated certificates were awarded upon completion of a series of lessons. The scholar could buy whatever he or she fancied from a mind-bending list. One could take needlework at one place, languages at another, dancing or “ouranology” at a third. (It was a pompous era, and no one was fonder of polysyllables than the professors. Ouranology was sky-watching, but it sounded impressive.) There were no minimum or maximum course requirements, though the schoolmasters naturally made every effort to stock the same subjects offered by the competition, in order to reduce the incidence of school-hopping. By the end of the eighteenth century, according to a nineteenth-century educator, a prosperous New Yorker had a choice of “reading, writing, and arithmetic; Low Dutch, English, French, Latin, Greek; merchants’accounts, algebra, logarithmetical and instrumental arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, plain [ sic ] or spherical, surveying, gauging, dialling, mensuration of superficies and solids; astronomy, the calculation of and projection of the eclipses of the luminaries, planets, places, the projection of the sphere upon the plan of any circle; navigation, uses of charts and globes, geography, anatomy and midwifery.” That list is only partial, but it is representative of the higher studies for sale during the Revolutionary era. The catalogues were protean, but it is impossible to discover how many of these courses were ever available at any given time. The masters of such schools must certainly have left themselves some outs comparable to those in contemporary college bulletins—“not given in the winter of 1779–80,” “offered only to groups of ten or more,” “may be elected only by those who have fulfilled the prerequisites.” There was no dearth of students, but qualified students, especially females, were another matter. Few girls could have proceeded directly from knitting nightcaps in a dame school to “calculation of and projection of the eclipses of the luminaries.” At least one enterprising Pennsylvania teacher seems to have recognized the problem. He advertised that the rules of arithmetic would be “peculiarly adapted to the (female) sex, so as to render them concise and familiar.” A flourishing textbook industry quickly developed to serve the needs of lady scholars. A few of the more popular titles seem to indicate that girls were not always seizing their chance to learn navigation, gauging, and spherical trig. In great demand, however, were The Matrimonial Preceptor; The Compleat Houswife or Accomplish’d Gentlewoman; and The Ladies’ Friend, being a treatise on the virtues and qualifications … of the fair sex, so as to render them most agreeable to the sensible part of mankind … to which is annexed, Real Beauty; or the Art of Charming, by an ingenious Poet . All of these appeared during the 1760’s and enjoyed very respectable sales.

Such books promised to supplement class work by spelling out “a Girl’s duty to God and her Parents,” instruction on how to make “the choice of a Husband,” and almost always included recipes and household hints. The Matrimonial Preceptor not only gave advice to spinsters and matrons on the capture, care, and feeding of a husband, but it also contained “a Thousand other Points, Essential to Husbands.” The section designed to be read by husbands emphasized patience, understanding, and tolerance. The several “elegant” authors of this anthology of essays rather surprisingly included Mr. Samuel Richardson, better known for Clarissa, and Mr. Henry Fielding, famous for Tom Jones, as well as Alexander Pope, Ovid, and a mixed bag of other illustrious belle-lettrists. The publication notice promised a “Collection of Most Excellent Examples Relating to the Married State,” among which were The Folly of precipitate Matches , The Brutality of Husbands , and The Duties of a good Wife . The witty and satirical tone of Richardson’s, Fielding’s, and Pope’s other works is largely missing in The Matrimonial Preceptor , and Ovid has been drastically edited. As with the rules of arithmetic, peculiar adaptations seem to have been indicated.


Many of the adventure schools hedged their financial risks by functioning as a combination store and educational institution, selling fancywork, “very good Orange-Oyl,” sweetmeats, sewing notions, painted china, and candles along with lessons in dancing, foreign languages, geography, penmanship, and spelling. Usually they were mama-and-papa affairs, with the wife instructing girls in “curious works” and the husband concentrating upon “higher studies.” Curious works covered a great deal of ground—the making of artificial fruits and flowers, the “raising of paste,” enamelling, japanning, quilting, fancy embroidery, and in at least one recorded case “flowering on catgut,” an intriguing accomplishment that has passed into total oblivion, leaving no surviving examples.

The adventure schools advertised heavily in newspapers and journals of the period, often in terms indicating that teaching was not an especially prestigious profession. One Thomas Carroll took several columns in a May, 1765, issue of the New York Mercury to announce a curriculum that would have taxed the entire faculty of Harvard and then proceeded to explain that he “was not under the necessity of coming here to teach, he had views of living more happy, but some unforeseen and unexpected events have happened since his arrival here …,” thus reducing this Renaissance paragon to schoolkeeping and his lady to teaching French knots and quilting.

While they lasted adventure schools attempted to offer something for everyone, including adults, and came in all forms, sizes, and price ranges. They met anywhere and everywhere: “at the Back of Mr. Benson’s Brew-House,” in rented halls, in borrowed parlors, at inns, and from time to time in barns or open fields. The adventurer was usually available for private lessons as well, making house calls “with the utmost discretion,” especially in the case of questionable studies like dancing or French verbs. The entire physical plant usually fitted easily into a carpetbag. In comparison to the pittance paid to the keepers of dame schools the tuition charged by these teachers must have seemed astronomically high—a shilling an hour for language classes and whatever the traffic would stand for the more recondite specialties. Fees were negotiable, and the socially prominent often received favorable rates in the hope that they would lend cachet and attract a wider clientele.

The pretentious and empty promises of the adventure schools eventually aroused considerable criticism. Americans may not yet have appreciated the value of female education, but they seem always to have known the value of a dollar. It was not long before the public realized that flowering on catgut was not so useful an accomplishment for their daughters as ciphering or reading. The more marginal operators began to melt away, and those schoolmasters who hung on were obliged to devote more attention to practical subjects and eliminate many of the patent absurdities.

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:

I’ve spun seven cuts, dear companions allow That I am yet little, and know not right how; Mine twenty and four, which I finished with joy, And my hands and my feet did willing employ.

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.”


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?

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.

These letters were collected by Catherine Beecher in her book True Remedy for the Wrongs of Women, which advanced the cause of women’s education by showing the worthwhile uses to which it could be put. Delighted with the early results, several states quickly set up committees to consider training women teachers on a larger scale. Their findings were favorable, though couched in oddly ambiguous language. New York’s group reported that women seemed to be “endued with peculiar faculties” for the occupation. “While man’s nature is rough, stern, impatient, ambitious, hers is gentle, tender, enduring, unaspiring.” That was most encouraging, but the gentlemen also generously acknowledged that “the habits of female teachers are better and their morals purer; they are much more apt to be content with, and continue in, the occupation of teaching.” A Michigan report stated in 1842 that “an elementary school, where the rudiments of an English education only are taught, such as reading, spelling, writing, and the outlines barely of geography, arithmetic, and grammar, requires a female of practical common sense with amiable and winning manners, a patient spirit, and a tolerable knowledge of the springs of human action. A female thus qualified, carrying with her into the schoolroom the gentle influences of her sex, will do more to inculcate right morals and prepare the youthful intellect for the severer discipline of its after years, than the most accomplished and learned male teacher.” Far from objecting to these rather condescending statements, the founders of the struggling seminaries were more than happy to hear them. Even the miserable wages offered to teachers could be regarded as an advantage, since they provided the single most effective argument for more female academies. “But where are we to raise such an army of teachers as are required for this great work?” asked Catherine Beecher in the same book that contained the letters from her ex-students. “Not from the sex which finds it so much more honorable, easy, and lucrative, to enter the many roads to wealth and honor open in this land. … It is WOMAN who is to come [forth] at this emergency, and meet the demand—woman, whom experience and testimony have shown to be the best, as well as the cheapest guardian and teacher of childhood, in the school as well as the nursery.”

Teaching became a woman’s profession by default and by rationalization. Clergymen and theologians suddenly had nothing but praise for women teachers. God must have meant them to teach because he made them so good at it. They would work for a half or a third of the salary demanded by a man. What, after all, was a schoolroom but an extension of the home, woman’s natural sphere? And if females had to have schools of their own to prepare them for this holy mission, then so be it. Future American generations must not be allowed to suffer for want of instruction when a Troy, Hartford, or Mount Holyoke girl asked no more than three dollars a month, safe escort to the boondocks, and a candle of her own.


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