Born June 26, 1767 (Litchfield, Connecticut)
Died January 19, 1852 (Litchfield, Connecticut)
Sarah Pierce was an educator who opened and operated the first school in the United States dedicated to the higher education of women. The Litchfield Female Academy was the leading institution for women during the first decades of the nineteenth century. It attracted students from fifteen states and territories, Canada, Ireland, and the West Indies. Pierce greatly influenced the history of education through the many young women she trained as teachers. While some of her students returned to teach at Litchfield Female Academy, others, inspired by Pierce, went on to establish their own schools. Many of the Female Academy's graduates devoted their energies to improving educational opportunities for other women.
"A new tone to female education was given by the establishment of a Female Seminary, for the instruction of females in this village, by Miss Sarah Pierce, in 1792. This was an untried experiment."
Connecticut Superior Court chief justice Samuel Church
An untried experiment
Sarah Pierce was born on June 26, 1767, the youngest of seven children of John Pierce, apotter, and his first wife, Mary Paterson. When Sarah's mother died, her father married Mary Goodman. Three more children were added to the large family living in Litchfield, Connecticut. Sarah received an excellent education as a child, far better than most New England girls at the time. When Sarah was fourteen years old, her father died. Responsibility for the family fell to her elder brother, Colonel John Pierce. John was paymaster general of the Continental Army and a friend of General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2). John sent Sarah and her older sister, Nancy, to New York City to continue their education so that they could eventually support themselves by teaching. John died in 1788, and the girls returned to Litchfield while the family's estate was settled. In 1792, Sarah Pierce obtained local government approval (charter) to open a school for female students and began teaching several pupils in the dining room of her home.
The town of Litchfield was a cultural and commercial center at the close of the eighteenth century. The first medical society and the first temperance society (an organization opposed to the consumption of alcoholic beverages) in the United States were organized in the little country town. The Litchfield Law School had been established a decade before Pierce began her own school there. The law school held the distinction of being the first one formally operating in the United States. The law school's founder, Judge Tapping Reeve (1744–1823), was among the townsmen who supported advanced education for women and championed their right to hold property. Pierce was continually encouraged in her efforts to build a nationally respected women's academy in the progressive town of Litchfield. With the help of her sister, Nancy, Sarah began by teaching basic core classes, including reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and religion. The academic curriculum reflected Sarah's belief that women and men were intellectually equal. "Miss Pierce's Litchfield School" gained a reputation for excellence, and the number of pupils increased rapidly.
By 1798, Pierce's school had become an important element of the town of Litchfield. Financial backing was gathered to move the growing school out of Pierce's home. A building was erected on land she owned on North Street. The school became known as the Female Academy. It soon housed the young female relatives of the socially elite. Before long, young women were coming from as far away as Georgia to attend the Female Academy. Travel was not easy for these women. The railroad was not yet in existence, so many arrived on horseback; later, when stage lines were established, they traveled by stagecoach.
At the Litchfield school, the students did not live in dormitories but boarded with approved families in town. The rules of conduct and behavior in the houses where the women stayed were strict, in keeping with Pierce's ideals of Christianity, morality, education, and character. Pierce encouraged her students to volunteer their time to charitable organizations. However, she also allowed the Female Academy students time to mingle with the men of the law school. The prestige of the two schools gave Litchfield a reputation as a leading center of education in the United States.
Sarah Pierce's Female Academy created an educated, elite group of women who often turned their energies to shaping the future of the young nation. Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) was one former graduate who used her education and writing talents to shape public opinion in the last half of the nineteenth century. One of her books heightened the publicity surrounding the fight against slavery in the United States.
Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, Harriet Beecher was only eight years old when she entered the Litchfield Female Academy in 1820. She was an eager student who loved to write and often took home awards for her compositions. In 1824, she moved to her sister Catharine's Hartford Female Seminary, where she took increasingly difficult subjects and aspired to become an artist like her mother. She soon discovered her true gift was in writing and dedicated herself to becoming a literary woman. Harriet Beecher married Calvin Ellis Stowe (1802–1886), a professor, in 1836. He encouraged her to continue with her writing. He would remain her biggest supporter throughout their fifty-year marriage.
Harriet Beecher Stowe was one of many women who began writing sketches and stories for publication in magazines, even though it was not particularly respected or profitable at the time. Her stories began appearing in 1839 in the periodical Godey's Lady's Book. It was the first magazine in America to solicit and pay for original material, and it welcomed female as well as male contributors. Most of the literature was written for entertainment, amusement, or instruction and was meant to be read aloud. It was called "parlor literature" because it was read in the homes of polite society.
Stowe raised seven children and at the same time contributed to the family's finances with her writing. In 1849, the Stowes lost their eighteen-month-old son, Samuel Charles, in a cholera epidemic that swept their hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. Deep feelings on the subject of slavery were prominent in the United States at the time, and Harriet equated her loss of a son with what a slave mother would feel when torn away from her child. She felt the North encouraged such tragedies by passing the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Stowe responded by writing what would be her most famous book, Uncle Tom's Cabin: Or, Life among the Lowly.
Uncle Tom's Cabin is a story of a faithful slave named Tom who is sold away from his family. Tom is ultimately beaten to death on a Louisiana plantation by the cruel Simon Legree. The story appeared in regular installments in the National Era magazine from June 5, 1851, through April 1, 1852, and a huge number of readers followed the story and waited eagerly for the next installment. When Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in book form in 1852, more than three hundred thousand copies were sold. The story was cast as fiction, but it touched the conscience of a nation already on edge due to the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853 to counter the critics who complained that her novel had exaggerated the brutality of slavery. Stowe's book generated new discussions about slavery and morality, and historians agree that it played a role in sparking the American Civil War (1861–65). When Stowe visited the White House in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) reportedly greeted her with the words, "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."
The Female Academy remained a Pierce family project throughout its early years, with Sarah bringing in her own sisters and her brother-in-law as staff. Pierce would also hire women, frequently former students, to teach additional courses as needed. In 1814, Pierce brought her nephew, John Pierce Brace, onto the faculty to introduce more-advanced courses. Brace, a Williams College graduate, instituted classes in logic, philosophy, Latin, botany, mineralogy, and astronomy.
Pierce continued teaching history and the arts. She showed great care and concern for her pupils. When her students found their existing textbooks dull, she wrote and published her own four-volume Universal History texts. They were written in the form of questions and answers to stimulate the students' interest. Pierce experimented with innovative ways to reinforce geography and history lessons, encouraging students to draw and paint maps and charts of historical events. Botany lessons were often illustrated with watercolor drawings. Although she was primarily interested in a strong academic curriculum, Pierce saw to it that her students also received adequate physical exercise. She was often seen leading the entire student body on brisk morning and evening walks through Litchfield. Until poor health prevented it, Pierce would take her customary walk through the hills even during the roughest of Connecticut winters.
Enrollment peaked in 1816, when 150 students attended the Female Academy. Students ranged in age from seven years to early twenties. A small number of local boys were later included at the school. The Reverend Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), a prominent clergyman in town, provided religious instruction. In return for teaching, Reverend Beecher received free tuition at the school for three of his children, including his daughter Harriet Beecher Stowe (see box). The curriculum of the Female Academy was similar to that of men's colleges in New England. Requirements for graduation were very demanding. Because educational opportunities for women were so few, and the cost so high, a woman's advanced degree became a status symbol among the wealthy. Many affluent parents became willing to invest as much in their daughters' education as they did in the education of their sons.
Loss of prominence
John Pierce Brace took on additional responsibilities as associate principal of the school and in 1825 became principal. In 1827, the school once again expanded its property and was incorporated with a board of directors under a new name, the Litchfield Female Academy. The Litchfield Law School began to lose its prominent position in the late 1820s because competing law schools had opened at Harvard (in 1817) and Yale (in 1824). The town of Litchfield began to feel the loss of students and a resulting loss of influence as two other Connecticut towns, New Haven and Hartford, surpassed it in importance.
Sarah Pierce retired from teaching in 1833, and the Litchfield Female Academy officially closed its doors in 1856. In a way, Pierce's own influence became a factor in causing the decline of her academy: She so inspired her students that many of them opened competing schools of their own. Catharine Beecher, sister to Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a former Female Academy student who opened the Hartford Female Seminary and drew away many students to her institution. John Pierce Brace left Litchfield in 1827 and moved to Hartford, where he accepted the post of principal at the rival Hartford Female Seminary.
In 1851, Connecticut Superior Court chief justice Samuel Church (1785–1854) declared that the Female Academy was historically and socially significant in the cause of advancing educational opportunities for women in the United States. Happily, Sarah Pierce lived long enough to hear these words of recognition. Former students described Pierce as a small woman with a slender build. She had bright blue eyes, a fair complexion, and an ability to faithfully follow all of the standards that she demanded of her students. Pierce never married or had any children of her own; instead she dedicated her life to running her school and teaching her students. Not long before her death, she lost her sight and much of her stamina because of an illness that caused a slight paralysis. Sarah Pierce died in Litchfield on January 19, 1852, at the age of eighty-four. She was buried in West Cemetery in Litchfield; her school closed shortly thereafter.
For More Information
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.
Kirkham, E. Bruce. The Building of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1977.
Vanderpoel, Emily Noyes. More Chronicles of a Pioneer School: From 1792 to1833. New York: Cadmus Book Shop, 1927.
"A History of the Litchfield Female Academy." Litchfield Historical Society.http://www.litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org/history/histfemacademy.html (accessed on August 17, 2005).