Education of Girls and Women

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Education of Girls and Women

Prior to the American Revolution, few avenues of formal education were open to girls and young women. Throughout the colonial period, young boys and girls typically learned to read at "dame schools" run by women in their homes. Beyond this rudimentary level of instruction, educational options for young women were limited. "Adventure schools" offered training in "ornamental" subjects such as music, drawing, needlework, and dancing, and boarding schools (sometimes referred to as "finishing" schools) sought to prepare elite women for their entrance into polite society. Given the haphazardness of women's education, those well-educated women who came of age prior to the Revolution—notably Abigail Adams, Elizabeth Graeme Ferguson, and Mercy Otis Warren—tended to be largely self-educated, or relied on the support of male relatives to provide them with access to books and other learning materials. On the whole, little formal attention was paid to the education of women in the mid-eighteenth century.

During the early national period, education for both men and women became linked to patriotism and thus a subject of national importance. Social and political thinkers asserted that the success of the young Republic rested in an enlightened, well-educated citizenry. Advocates of education insisted that citizens had the right—indeed the duty and responsibility—to acquire various forms of "useful" knowledge. Both men and women benefited from this belief in the strong importance of education. The decades following the Revolution were known as "the age of the academies," as hundreds of new schools were created to meet the political and practical needs for educated citizens.

Between 1780 and 1820, educators established approximately four hundred female academies and seminaries, offering white middle- and upper-class women unprecedented access to educational opportunities. Female academies could be found in all parts of the nation, including both larger cities and smaller towns. Like the male academies founded during this time period, most of these academies were single-sex institutions, although a sizable minority were coeducational, such as the Bradford Academy in Massachusetts. Both women and men founded and taught at academies for women. In the 1790s Susanna Rowson in Massachusetts and Sarah Pierce in Connecticut established well-known and highly regarded academies for young women. In Philadelphia the physician Benjamin Rush and other leading male citizens lent their support to the Young Ladies' Academy of Philadelphia, a prestigious school that attracted women from all parts of the nation. Often, female academies were associated with existing male institutions, such as the Female Academy in New Brunswick, New Jersey, whose trustees were affiliated with Queen's (Rutgers) College.

More comprehensive than most existing adventure or boarding schools, these academies provided women with instruction in grammar, history, geography, rhetoric, composition, moral philosophy, and, in some cases, Latin, botany, chemistry, and astronomy. The curricula offered at female academies were similar to those offered at most male academies, attesting to the growing belief in women's intellectual equality with men. Although some female academies continued to offer music, dance, needlework, and painting, these subjects were no longer thought to comprise the main purpose of women's education. Rather, education aimed to prepare women to become both "useful" and "ornamental" members of society. Properly educated for their roles as lively, articulate, and entertaining companions, women would set the tone for early national society, providing harmony and stability for the young nation.

By infusing women's domestic and social roles with political and patriotic significance, proponents of women's education celebrated the intellectual attainments of women. Yet despite this enthusiasm, the subject of women's education was marked by a fundamental tension between the recognition of women's intellectual capacity and concerns about the uses women might make of their education. Prescriptive writers worried that women might become so distracted or interested in education that they would neglect their families and domestic duties. Despite their enlightened faith in women's intellectual equality with men, prescriptive thinkers generally believed that men and women were dissimilar beings with contrasting manners, morals, and dispositions. Ultimately, this belief in sexual difference worked to sustain and justify prescribed gender roles for men and women. Whereas men sought exclusive access to political and economic spheres, women were urged to limit themselves to the domestic and the social.

In an effort to resolve this tension, proponents of women's education insisted that educated women would not seek access to traditionally male spheres of power and prestige. Female educators strenuously championed women's intellectual capacities while simultaneously expressing ambivalence about prescriptive ideas about gender roles. Summarizing this trend, the educator Emma Willard (1787–1870) insisted that women and men's education needed to reflect their "difference of characters and duties." Yet when Willard petitioned the New York State legislature for state support and funding of a female seminary in 1819, she hoped to ensure that women's education received the same "respectability, permanency, and uniformity of operation" as male colleges and institutions. Although her proposal was rejected, Willard established the Troy Female Seminary (later the Emma Willard School), which served as a leading institution of women's education throughout the nineteenth century. In the years that followed, educators opened similar schools, including the Hartford Female Seminary (founded by Catharine Beecher in 1823) and Mount Holyoke (founded by Mary Lyon in 1837). These seminaries offered women the equivalent of a college education without explicitly referring to themselves as colleges. Successors to the female academies first founded in the early national period, these schools were clear precursors to the women's colleges that emerged by the mid-nineteenth century.

Women's increasing access to education had far-reaching effects. Literacy rates for white women rose from approximately 50 percent in the eighteenth century to approximately 90 percent by the mid-nineteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, educated women showed determination to expand their roles in society. Some women chose to become teachers themselves—either temporarily teaching school for a few years before marriage, or in some cases creating professional, lifelong careers for themselves as educators. Other women became successful authors, producing textbooks, fiction, poetry, and other influential works. There was also a connection between women's education and the growing reform movements of the antebellum period. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), known for her work in the abolitionist and women's rights movements, was a graduate of Willard's Troy Seminary. Many educated women saw reform and activism as ways to increase the scope of their influence in society. By emphasizing women's intellectual capacity and equality with men, early national ideas about education offered women increasing avenues for empowerment and opportunity.

See alsoWomen: Female Reform Societies and Reformers; Women: Professions; Women: Rights; Women: Writers .


Kerber, Linda. Women of the Republic: Ideology and Intellect in Revolutionary America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980; New York: Norton, 1986.

Nash, Margaret. "Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies' Academy of Philadelphia." Journal of the Early Republic 17:2 (summer 1997): 171–192.

Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experiences of American Women, 1750–1800. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980; Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996.

Schwager, Sally. "Educating Women in America." Signs 12:2 (winter 1987): 333–372.

Lucia McMahon

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Education of Girls and Women

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Education of Girls and Women