Catharine Beecher

views updated May 23 2018

Catharine Beecher

American author and educator Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) was responsible for creating a new social attitude that placed greater value on women's work in the home and their role as educators and moral guides for the young. Her book Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) was a best-selling work that provided practical household advice while extolling the virtues of domestic life. She also was an active proponent for the creation of schools for women, arguing that for their special role as instructors of children, women required a thorough education.

Catharine Beecher was a nineteenth century proponent of women's rights and education for women. While she did not advocate a radical change in women's roles, she did fight for increased recognition of the importance of the work women did in managing homes and raising families. She also believed that women should expand their place in society by becoming teachers, allowing them to use their nurturing skills and moral conscience in a professional sphere. To encourage the spread of these ideas, Beecher published a number of books providing guidance and praise for domestic life, such as her extremely popular Treatise on Domestic Economy (1843). She also founded schools and organizations devoted to training women to become teachers. Beecher held the view that the woman, as educator and spiritual guide for families, was the basis of a well-ordered and moral society. This theme contributed to a growing feminist attitude that women did not have to be weak, passive creatures, but could be strong, contributing members of their communities.

Beecher was born September 6, 1800, in the town of East Hampton on Long Island, New York. She was the oldest child of Lyman and Roxanna Ward Beecher. Each of her parents had a strong influence on the values she touted as an adult. Her father was a Presbyterian minister who came from a family of Calvinist colonists. He was a prominent figure in the evangelical religious movement of the early 1800s known as the Second Great Awakening. His strong personality and religious convictions were apparent not only in the religious revivals that he held, but in his dominant presence in the Beecher home as well. Beecher's mother, also from a respected family, played a traditional role in the home and attempted to pass along her domestic skills to her children. Beecher was ambivalent about both the religious and domestic aspects of her life as a young woman. She initially disliked domestic duties, preferring to spend her time outside or studying. Later in life, however, she came to view domestic responsibilities as a valuable and sacred contribution to home and community. Similarly, her religious instincts fluctuated throughout her life, and she never was able to come to terms with her faith.

The Beechers moved to Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1809. The following year, Beecher entered Miss Pierce's school, a well-respected institution for young women. Her education there stressed not only the acquisition of social skills, but also the growth of a moral consciousness and leadership abilities. Beecher thrived at the school, but was forced to leave at the age of 16 after the death of her mother. She returned home to tend to the domestic duties of the household, including raising her younger brothers and sisters and doing the cooking and sewing for the family. After her father remarried in 1817, she remained for another year at home before taking a teaching job in New London, Connecticut, in 1818.

Focused on Education of Women

At the age of 22, Beecher was engaged to a Yale University professor of natural history named Alexander Fisher. Her choice was not a whole-hearted one, however. While her father was quite pleased with Fisher, Beecher herself was concerned that his unaffectionate nature would not make him an ideal husband. The marriage never occurred—Fisher was killed in a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland in the spring of 1822. Beecher never again entertained thoughts of marriage. Instead, she turned her energies to what would become her life's main passion, the education of women.

In 1823, Beecher opened the Hartford Female Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. At her school, she combined a solid core of courses in algebra, chemistry, history, Latin, philosophy, and rhetoric with an emphasis on developing the moral and religious character of her students. The institution was very successful, and as its principal, Beecher became a popular and respected figure in Hartfield. Her accomplishments and her growing reputation as a talented teacher inspired Beecher to write about her educational philosophy. In her 1829 essay, "Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education, " she declared that the primary goal of education should be to provide a basis for the development of the student's conscience and moral makeup. To facilitate this kind of instruction in her school, Beecher unsuccessfully sought to hire an associate principal to manage the teaching of religion. Failing to secure an assistant, Beecher suffered from a nervous breakdown and left the school in the hands of her sister Harriet for several months while she recovered. Upon her return, she took on the task of religious and moral instruction herself.

With the beginning of the 1830s, Beecher became more interested in the roles her female students would take on in society. While she believed that running a home and raising a family was an important and influential contribution by women, she also felt that women should be given more responsibility and respect outside the home. She saw the field of teaching as the perfect professional arena for women—it allowed them an independent and consequential role in their community, but at the same time it was an acceptably "feminine" role. In addition, the growing populations of the western areas of the country were creating an increased demand for teachers. Beecher was appalled that in states like Ohio, perhaps one third of children did not have access to schools.

Founded School for Teacher Training

To encourage more women to become teachers, Beecher realized, there needed to be more opportunities for women to be educated and trained for the profession. She made it her mission to provide such training. In 1831, she left the East Coast to join her father in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he had been name president of the Lane Theological Seminary. There she opened the Western Female Institute, a school devoted to instructing young women so that they, in turn, could instruct others. Beecher hoped that her school could serve as a model for a nationwide system of teacher colleges. She presented her ideas on the subject in an 1835 lecture that was published under the title "An Essay on the Education of Female Teachers." In Cincinnati, she began a fundraising effort to support her school and the creation of similar schools. But Beecher was not well-liked in the city; many people felt that she was a cultural elitist. Her abolitionist views were also suspect in an area divided on the issue of slavery. Unable to win the financial or philosophical support of residents, enrollment in Beecher's school steadily declined until it was finally forced to close in 1837.

The townspeople's opinions apparently had little effect on Beecher's own values, however. That same year, she published a tract that called on women to unite against the system of slavery, titled "Slavery and Abolition with Reference to the Duty of American Females." In this essay, Beecher began to formulate her idea that women could have a powerful influence on the character of the nation by creating a virtuous and harmonious domestic realm, in this way providing a stable, moral basis for society. Writing became the new channel through which Beecher attempted to spread her philosophy and make a living. She began to turn out a large amount of material, but it was not until the publication of her Treatise on Domestic Economy in 1841 that she finally reached the wider audience that she sought. The book was an incredible success, going through almost 15 printings in as many years and earning her fame across the nation.

Celebrates Domesticity in Best-seller

The Treatise provided women with a practical and moral guide to domestic life. It presented information on such topics as cooking, child care, and general health care. In this way, it presented a handy single source of household knowledge that had not existed before. But even more important was the philosophy in which Beecher couched her advice. She saw such domestic concerns not as mundane drudgery but as "the greatest work, " a devotion to the welfare of others that provided the basis of a healthy society. The mission of women, according to Beecher, was to form the moral and intellectual character of children, and in order to fulfill this duty successfully, women required a quality education. Through their examples of skilled nurturing and intelligent teaching, women could use their home life as a secure base from which to reach out and create change in the rest of society. Beecher's ideas did not radically attack traditional gender roles, rather it justified and glorified them. This support of the family and social hierarchy struck a chord of comfort and stability in the public, making Beecher a celebrity.

With the success of her book, Beecher was able to found the Women's Education Association in New York in 1852. The organization was devoted to raising funds for the establishment of women's schools. Beecher was never satisfied with the amount of money raised by the organization (it eventually dissolved in 1862), so she undertook a number of public appearances across the country in which she solicited donations, promoted women's education, and discussed her books. She also sought donations from friends and relatives for her education ventures. She further supported educational causes by attending teacher's conferences and sustaining a correspondence with a wide range of people.

In the last years of her life, Beecher returned to the East, where she lived with various relatives. She had a particularly close relationship with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, best-known as the author of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The sisters worked together to write an 1869 sequel to the Treatise on Domestic Economy entitled The American Woman's Home. Beecher was active in fighting for women's education for the rest of her years. She died in Elmira, New York, on May 12, 1878. Through her writings, public appearances, and the schools she helped to found, Beecher had helped to gain recognition for the value of women's work in society. Although she did not challenge the traditionally subordinate place of females, she did present a new vision of women as a strong and influential force that helped to determine the direction and conscience of the nation. Her emphasis on bringing women into the teaching profession also changed notions about women's education and careers, providing a basis for the continued growth of feminist thought in the nineteenth century.

Further Reading

See also Barker-Benfield, Graham J., and Catherine Clinton, Portraits of American Women, St. Martin's Press, 1991; Kerber, Linda K., and Jane S. DeHart, Women's America, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 1991; and Sklar, Kathryn Kish, Catharine Beecher: A Study in Domesticity, W. W. Norton, 1976. □

Beecher, Catharine (1800-1878)

views updated May 18 2018

Catharine Beecher (1800-1878)



An Evangelical Childhood . Born in 1800 as the eldest child of Lyman Beecher, Catharine Beecher enjoyed a special relationship with her high-spirited father when he was a young, dynamic minister first on Long Island and then in Litchfield, Connecticut. Raised on a New England farm, Lyman Beecher played pranks on his eleven children, joined them in chopping wood and hoeing the garden, and participated with gusto in their rural tramps and games. He also taught them his robust Calvinism, badgering them with reminders of sin and a vividly imagined hell. Yet Catharine also was influenced by her genteel mother, Roxana Foote Beecher, as well as the education she received from age ten in the works of eighteenth-century British authors, admonitions to female virtue, and the genteel accomplishments at Sarah Pierces Litchfield Female Academy. A lively and intelligent child, Catharine excelled in social situations and participated vigorously in school and community contests and games. On Roxanas death from consumption in 1816, she assumed full care of her seven younger siblings until her fathers remarriage a year later. When in her early twenties she had not yet experienced conversion, her father pressed the issue until she fell ill. Catharine could not feel guilty enough to submit. Her religious crisis intensified when her fiance, Alexander Metcalf Fisher, died in a shipwreck, and Lyman Beecher intimated that the young man may have been damned. Catharines loss became a theological confrontation with her father and her God. Unable to accept eternal punishment for those who died without conversion, she immersed herself in intellectual study and did not join a church until she left the family home and moved to Hartford, Connecticut.

Becoming an Educator. In Hartford, Beecher achieved both personal and professional independence through the school she started in 1823, the Hartford Female Seminary. Living in a rented home with her siblings Mary, Harriet, and Henry, she appropriated for herself her fathers cultural leadership in 1826 by initiating a revival in her school. She also became an educational reformer and entrepreneur, introducing an advanced curriculum for girls and raising funds for a building. As she worked out ideas she published in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, Founded upon Experience, Reason, and the Bible in 1831, she rejected the evangelical conversion experience and concluded that salvation could be achieved through a blameless life. Women, she believed, should submit their self-interest to the general good in order to act as moral guardians and shape the nations standards. Merging her fathers evangelical goals with her mothers refined gentility, Beecher turned her seminary to the training of teachers, who, she hoped, would exert a restraining moral influence on the democratic nation. When she accompanied her father on his move to Cincinnati in 1832, she planned to duplicate her Hartford success in the West, organizing within a year her Western Female Institute. This Cincinnati school soon resembled a conventional female academy and failed within four years. Beecher did not give up. In 1835 she joined Lyman Beechers plea for education in the West, publishing an address she delivered to women in the East, An Essay on the Education of Female Teachers. Like her father, Beecher played on Eastern fears, urging the training of female teachers to civilize immigrants and the lower classes. One-third of Western children, she estimated, were unschooled; as men sought wealth in the market economy, the task of a national system of moral education would fall to energetic and benevolent women such as herself. Three years later, when she published The Moral Instructor for Schools and Families (1838), Beecher assumed the role that would bring her national acclaim; rejecting the individualized conversion experience of evangelical Calvinism, she focused on the family as a socializing force and the cultivated conscience as an agency of moral authority appropriate for the rapidly expanding democratic society.

Domestic Ideology . In 1841 Catharine Beecher wove these themes into her discussion of The Peculiar Responsibilities of American Women, which introduced her Treatise on Domestic Economy. Urging women to support democratic institutions, she argued that to achieve social order hierarchical relationships also had to be maintained. Reiterating the responsible free agency she had learned from her father, she insisted that in democratic America, women could choose their superiors, submitting voluntarily to their husbands. American women would not participate in political life, yet they would mold the minds, morals, and manners of their children. Their reward would be participation in the providential plan as democratic equality spread throughout the world. As Beecher went on to instruct women in principles of domestic economy, she sought to transcend barriers of region and social class, creating national allegiance to a common culture. Democratizing the genteel values with which she had been raised, she argued that refinement was compatible with work. All was moving and changing in nineteenth-century America, she wrote: economic fortunes rose and fell; people in new settlements lived in log cabins; domestic servants were difficult to obtain; and individuals of all social classes mingled with and emulated those of larger means. According to Beecher, a democratic lady in her neat oilcloth apron need not forego gentility even as she performed her own domestic work. In a democracy, she argued, mothers should teach daughters, and teachers their pupils, that it was refined and ladylike to engage in domestic pursuits.

Teachers for the West. In the 1840s Beecher became the promoter and publicist of an organization ostensibly headed by her brother-in-law Calvin Stowe that proposed to raise funds to send young women as missionary teachers to the West. In 1847 she trained thirty-five young women in Albany, New York, and thirty-five more in Hartford to travel to Western states to teach district and subscription schools, found Sunday schools, and serve as moral influences in their communities. Eventually this Central Committee for Promoting National Education, which was moved to Cleveland by its general agent William Slade and renamed The National Board of Popular Education, sent out as many as 450 female teachers. After a confrontation with Slade, Beecher founded The American Womens Educational Association (AWEA) in 1852, seeking to replace the rural missionary teacher with womens colleges in urban settings. In the early 1850s she focused her attention on The Milwaukee Female College, where she hoped to prepare young women to be professional teachers and homemak-ers. By 1856, however, Beechers plan to establish a home in Milwaukee had not materialized, and she withdrew from the college and resigned from the AWEA to end her career as an educator. Like her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, she continued to ponder her heritage of New England Calvinism until she became an Episcopalian. Returning to Hartford, she briefly resumed her work at the still successful Hartford Female Seminary until she retired to her brothers home in Elmira, New York, shortly before her death in 1878.


Catharine Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy (Boston: T. H. Webb, 1841);

Milton Rugoff, The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harper & Row, 1981);

Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).

Beecher, Catharine Esther

views updated Jun 11 2018

BEECHER, Catharine Esther

Born 6 September 1800, East Hampton, New York; died 12 May 1878, Elvira, New York

Daughter of Lyman and Roxanne Foote Beecher

Sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Catharine Esther Beecher was an educator and writer who attempted to expand the domestic power of women. Following the death of her mother, Beecher, age sixteen and the eldest of 13 children, assumed the family and household responsibilities.

After the death of her fiancé, Alexander Metcalf Fisher, Beecher established the Hartford Female Seminary in May 1823 with the money inherited from him. She also organized the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati (1832-1837) and the Ladies' Society for Promoting Education in the West, and helped to establish three female colleges (in Burlington, Iowa, in Quincy, Illinois, and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin). Although Beecher left the Hartford Female Seminary in 1831, it was considered one of the most significant advances made in early-19th-century education for women. It marked Beecher's first attempt to redefine a new relationship with American culture for herself and for other women.

The author of over 30 books, Beecher expanded the sentimental view of women as saintly and moral creatures, complements of their immoral and competitive mates. She maintained that the American woman had difficult and peculiar duties which derived mainly from the crudeness and disorder of an expanding nation. She asserted in Letters on Health and Happiness (1855) that "it is obvious that Providence designed that the chief responsibility of sustaining the family state, in all its sacred and varied relations and duties, should rest mainly on the female sex." Beecher's most popular volumes were A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) and Domestic Receipts (1846). The former had three editions and 17 printings between 1841 and 1856, while the latter had ten editions and 17 printings. They were published for the use of young wives and reflect both the need for practical advice and the social milieu of mid-19th-century America.

In The Elements of Mental and Moral Philosophy (1831), Beecher asserted that woman was the moral guardian of her culture. Common sense must be used to determine morality, and personal conscience must dominate over doctrine. This position moved theology to social grounds and placed Beecher in direct conflict with her father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, a Calvinist.

The major characteristic of Beecher's Christianity, however, was passivity, not social activity. She spoke against active abolitionism, asserting in An Essay on Slavery (1837) that "Christianity is a system of persuasion, tending, by kind and gentle influence, to make men willing to leave their sins." Beecher maintained women had a proper place, a proper sphere, and that place was out of politics and within the home, influencing men through quiet, proper petition and through the education of their children.

One of Beecher's concerns was the ill health of American women. She described reported symptoms of female invalidism in Woman Suffrage and Woman's Profession (1871), frequently using the term "delicate." She surveys women in various American cities, listing such symptoms as sick headaches, pelvic disorder, consumption, dyspepsia, asthma, bronchitis, liver disorder, palsy, scrofula, and chills, adding with alarming frequency: "Do not know one perfectly healthy woman in the place." Because of Beecher's conviction that the illness of American women was both symptom and cause of the disorder in American society, she wrote The American Woman's Home (1869) with her sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, as coauthor. The home and the guardian of its healthful state, woman, was intertwined in Beecher's mind with the state of American society. Thus she elevated the importance of women's health and role to national importance. She asserted that women, like men who must be trained for professions, must be fully trained for their roles in the classroom and the family. Her religious language was a conscious attempt to invoke religious sanction of her assertion of the importance of woman's role in the home. She perceived "the family state as the earthly illustration of the heavenly kingdom, and in it woman is its chief minister."

In this haven of secularized religion, the home, Beecher demanded better ventilation, the introduction of green plants, dress reform, proper food, and the avoidance of too much "intellectual taxation." She and her sister provided many practical suggestions for yards and gardens, for infant care, for earth closets (commodes), for everything necessary for the maintenance of the home.

As might be expected, Beecher was an avid opponent of woman's suffrage, attempting instead to expand the woman's base of domestic power. Although she advocated democracy, she did not feel it led to women's active participation in politics and to furthering social change. Instead she asserted there was a social order based on age, health, and the most important distinction, gender; thus there was still hierarchy in the American democracy.

Beecher is a transitional figure whose writings influenced women to move from a state of subordination to one in which they attempted to secure a greater role in their changing, shifting society. She was confronted by a competitive society in which men aggressively sought wealth and position, and she perceived this activity as unworthy of women. Women, unlike men, could effect change only by influence and passivity. Aggression and force were male prerogatives. Beecher's solution was to create a quiet eye of the storm and to call it the "American Home." There women could rule supreme and men could return for moral refreshment and rest. In this quiet haven, the American Home, Beecher placed her sentimentalized version of the American woman. She herself never married.

Other Works:

Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education (1829). Arithmetic Simplified (1832). Primary Geography (1833). The Lyceum Arithmetic (1835). An Essay on the Education of Female Teachers (1835). Lectures on the Difficulty of Religion (1836). The Moral Instructor (1838). Letters to Persons Who Are Engaged in Domestic Service (1842). The Duty of American Women to Their Country (1845). Truths Stranger Than Fiction (1850). The True Remedy for the Wrongs of Women (1852). Physiology and Calisthenics (1856). Common Sense Applied to Religion (1857). Calisthenic Exercises (1860). An Appeal to the People (1860). Religious Training of Children in the School (1864). Principles of Domestic Science (with H. B. Stowe, 1870). Work for All, and Other Tales (1871). Woman's Profession as Mother and Educator (1872). Miss B.'s Housekeeper and Healthkeeper (1873). The New Housekeeper's Manual (1873). Educational Reminiscences and Suggestions (1874).


Bruland, E. B., Great Debates: Ethical Reasoning and Social Change in Antebellum America: the Exchange Between Angelina Grimke and Catherine Beecher (1990, 1991). Cross, B. M., The Educated Woman in America (1965). Douglas, A., The Feminization of American Culture (1977). Grimke, A. E., Letters to Catherine E. Beecher: In Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, Addressed to A. E. Grimke (1978, 1883). Harveson, E. M., Catharine E. Beecher (1932). Lindley, S. H., Woman's Profession in the Life and Thought of Catherine Beecher: A Study of Religion and Reform (1974). Sklar, K. K., Household Divinity: A Life of Catherine Beecher, (dissertation, 1969). Sklar, K. K., Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (1973). Woody, T., A History of Women's Education in the United States (1966).

Other reference:

AQ (Summer 1966). Civil War History (June 1971).


Beecher, Catharine (1800-1878)

views updated May 11 2018

Catharine Beecher (1800-1878)


Advocate for womens education

Activist Family. The oldest child of Lyman Beecher, the nations most prominent evangelical preacher of the 1820s and 1830s, and the sister of Henry Ward Beecher (the Shakespeare of the pulpit, as he came to be known) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Toms Cabin in 1852), Catharine grew up in a home actively engaged in saving souls and reforming society. Born in isolated and rural East Hampton, Long Island, at the age of nine she moved with her family to fashionable and class-conscious Litchfield, Connecticut. Although in East Hampton, Catharines parents taught her at home, when her family relocated, she began attending a private girls school. At sixteen the death of her mother forced Catharine to take charge of the Beecher household. It was then that she decided to go into teaching so that she could contribute to the family income. Absorbing her fathers phenomenal energy and abounding sense of mission, Catharine quickly rose to prominence.

Philosophy of Nurturing. Beecher devoted most of her life to explaining and implementing her philosophy of womens education at a time when many Americans questioned the necessity of educating females. Central to her beliefs about women and education was the idea of mothers and teachers as natural nurturers of young people. She felt strongly that it was vital for mothers and teachers actively to take part in the business of education. She believed that women had a special duty to sustain the moral and social fabric of each generation of Americans. The peculiar responsibilities of American women was how she described a womans duty in her famous Treatise on Domestic Economy, published in 1841. In the matters pertaining to the education of their children ... and in all questions relating to morals or manners, they [American women] have a superior influence. Throughout her numerous publications Beecher argued repeatedly that womens innate domestic and teaching abilities, properly defined, were not only the basis of womens social advancement but also the foundation of social order. The future of American democracy itself, she argued, depended on the intellectual and moral character of the mass of people. The shaping of that character, she concluded, was committed mainly to the female hand. This social vision demanded that women receive the proper training to carry out their unique domestic mission, and Beecher dedicated her life to providing such education for the women of the United States.

Womens Institutions. Beechers career as an educator and advocate for womens expanded social role flourished in the dynamic environment of antebellum America. In 1823 she founded one of the fledgling nations most rigorous academies of higher education for women, the Hartford (Connecticut) Female Seminary. The Hartford school offered one of the few places in America where women could go for education beyond the elementary level. The seminary taught grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, chemistry, mathematics, and many of the other subjects found in the curricula of mens colleges. In 1832 she followed her father and siblings to Cincinnati, where she established and directed the Western Female Institute (18321837), which carried on the work that she had begun in Hartford. In 1847 Beecher founded the Board of National Popular Education, which recruited hundreds of young schoolmarms for the new states. Five years later she helped create the American Womens Educational Association. In addition to founding various institutions and organizations for womens education Beecher actively promoted and embraced the vision of the common school movement that Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and others were leading. As she began to devote an increasing amount of her time and effort to school reform, her ideas about womens role in society and the importance of public education melded into a sort of personal crusade that she never relinquished until her death at the age of seventy-eight.

Woman of Her Time. Catharine Beecher was an untiring organizer of womens schools and colleges and a resourceful fighter for the advancement of female teachers. As a prolific writer and educator Beecher led the way in vocalizing the importance of professionalizing womens domestic and educational roles. She was in the end, however, a product of her environment. In expressing her views about the expanded power of women in the domestic sphere, she rarely criticized the political, social, and economic inequalities that divided men and women. Rather, Beecher tried to reconcile the many middle-class women who read her books and attended her schools with the existing patterns of female subordination in America. In fact Beecher did not support the first movement for womens rights. Beechers views appear tame compared with those of the more-radical female activists of her day, but her lifelong efforts guaranteed that women would exert increasing influence on the developing nation. In the end Beecher helped to pave the way for modern assumptions about the place of women in American society.


Joan Burstyn, Catharine Beecher and the Education of American Women, New England Quarterly, 47 (1974): 386-403;

Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (New York: Norton, 1976).

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