Women’s Education and seminaries

Background

This problem focuses on female academies or seminaries in the period 1790-1840. These schools offered the equivalent of a high school education to socially elite, young women and the daughters of middle-class merchants. Historians have suggested that the academies probably made American women among the most educated in the world at that time.

We can understand the roles that some Americans viewed as appropriate for women in a republic by analyzing the published speeches and writings of 4 advocates of female academies in the era of the Early American Republic: Benjamin Rush, Mary Lyon, Emma Willard, and Catherine Beecher.

Sources

Note: Some spelling, formatting, and punctuation marks have been added to the source texts excerpted below to make them easier to read.

Document A

Benjamin Rush, “Thoughts Upon Female Education,” a speech to the Philadelphia Academy of Young Ladies (Boston, 1787).

The state of property in America renders it necessary for…our citizens to employ themselves in different occupations for the advancement of their fortunes. This cannot be done without the assistance of the female members of the community. They must be the stewards and guardians of their husbands’ property.…
From the numerous avocations to which a professional life exposes gentlemen in America from their families, a principle share of the instruction of children naturally devolves upon the women…our ladies 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.
[Therefore, a female education should include:]

  1. A knowledge of the English language.
  2. [T]he writing of a fair and legible hand [is] a necessary branch of female education…
  3. Some knowledge of figures and bookkeeping is absolutely necessary to qualify a young lady for the duties which await her in this country…
  4. An acquaintance with geography and some instruction in chronology will enable a young lady to read history, biography, and travels…
  5. It will will be necessary to connect all these branches of education with regular instruction in the Christian religion…

Document B

Mary Lyon, “Female Education, Tendencies Of The Principles Embraced, And The System Adopted In The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary” (1839).

  1. Religious culture. Public worship, the Bible lesson, and other appropriate duties of the Sabbath; a regular observance of secret devotion, suitable attention to religious instruction and social prayer meetings, and the maintaining of a consistent Christian deportment, are considered the most important objects of regard, for both teachers and scholars.…
  2. Cultivation of benevolence. While many of the present active generation are fixed in their habits, and will never rise above the standard of benevolence already adopted, the eye of hope rests with anxious solicitude on the next generation…[Is benevolence not] an appropriate sphere for the efforts of woman, through whose moulding hands all our children and youth must inevitably pass?…
  3. Intellectual culture. This trait of character is of inestimable value to a lady who desires to be useful. A thorough and well balanced intellectual education, will be to her a valuable auxiliary in every department of duty…
  4. Physical culture. The value of health to a lady is inestimable…

Document C

Emma Willard, “An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education” (1819).

Education should seek to bring its subjects to the perfection of their moral, intellectual and physical nature: in order, that they may be of the greatest possible use to themselves and others…
[Willard then lists essential curriculum for female education]

  1. Religious and Moral. A regular attention to religious duties would, of course be required of the pupils by the laws of the institution.… The evidences of Christianity, and moral philosophy, would constitute a part of their studies.
  2. Literary Instruction. [Willard says that science is not taught at the academies not because it is not important but because there is not suitable instruction materials. Nevertheless, sciences “should engage the youthful attention of my sex.”].… [B]ooks, written for the other [gender], would need alteration; because, in some, they presuppose more knowledge than female pupils would possess; in others, they have parts not particularly interesting to our sex, and omit subjects immediately relating to their pursuits. There would likewise be needed…some works, which I believe are nowhere extant, such as a systematic treatise on housewifery.
  3. Domestic Instruction should be considered important in a female seminary. It is the duty of our sex to regulate the internal concerns of every family; and unless they be properly qualified to discharge this duty, whatever may be their literary or ornamental attainments, they cannot be expected to make either good wives, good mothers, or good mistresses of families: and if they are none of these, they must be bad members of society; for it is by promoting or destroying the comfort and prosperity of their own families, that females serve or injure the community…
  4. Ornamental Branches…[such as] drawing and painting, elegant penmanship, music, and the grace of motion. Needle-work…should either be taught in the domestic department, or made a qualification for entrance…The grace of motion, must be learnt chiefly from instruction in dancing. Exercise is needful to the health, and recreation to the cheerfulness and contentment of youth.…

Document D

Catharine Beecher, “Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education” (1829)

It is to mothers and to teachers that the world is to look for the character which is to be enstamped on each succeeding generation, for it is to them that the great business of education is almost exclusively committed.…[Yet] neither mothers nor teachers have ever been properly educated for their profession. What is the profession of a Woman? Is it not to form immortal minds, and to watch, to nurse, and to rear the bodily system, so fearfully and wonderfully made, and upon the order and regulation of which, the health and well-being of the mind so greatly depends?
It has been a prominent aim with the Principle of this Institution, to have at least Geography, Grammar, Arithmetic, Composition, and Mental Philosophy taught thoroughly. The object of Grammar is to enable us to understand and to use language, and consequently a knowledge of this science is one of the first things demanded in a course of education where language is to be the chief medium of instruction.
The object of the study of Arithmetic is to discipline the mind, and thus prepare it to receive and apply knowledge. The object of practicing the art of Composition is, to obtain method and facility in communicating ideas to others.
The object of attending to Mental Philosophy and Geography is, to gain in the first place a knowledge of ourselves and in the next place, of the world we dwell in, and of the fellow beings who inhabit it. Few will assert that (aside from instruction in our religious duties and relations) any other branches are to supersede these in importance, or attention.

Analyze the Evidence

QUESTION

According to many founders and advocates of female academies, what were the 4 most important principles for women’s education?

Definition of a Principle: An idea that is essential for an enterprise. The “enterprise” is the new American republic, which means that as you examine the evidence you’ll want to be able to briefly explain how each principle could help women fulfill their proper role in the new republic.

Select 2 pieces of evidence from the sources that seem to demonstrate principles of women’s education. List these items in the right column of the Concepts and Evidence Chart. An example is: Rush: They must be the stewards and guardians of their husbands’ property…

Then summarize the evidence into 4 principles and list these in the left column. An example is: Women should learn mathematics and language so that they can manage their husbands’ businesses and allow them to pursue a more civic or public role.

Two pieces of evidence that support the principle: Use phrase or sentence quotations.

CONCEPTS AND EVIDENCE CHART

Principle Evidence
Women should learn mathematics and language so that they can manage their husbands’ businesses and allow them to pursue a more civic or public role. They must be the stewards and guardians of their husbands’ property…

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