Education of Women

views updated May 11 2018

Education of Women


Womens Roles. The dearth of formal educational opportunities for women in the eighteenth century did not mean that women lacked education; they had an extensive and complex education that centered around managing a household and raising children. The skills necessary for this were daunting. A woman had to not only make the familys clothing but also to produce the cloth. She had to cook, process, and preserve food from crops she had planted and tended; to acquire at least a rudimentary knowledge of herbal medicines and how to apply them; to act either as a midwife or to assist midwives and know something about birthing; to tend the livestock and take care of the dairy; to educate young children; and sometimes to help with the family business. To master these skills young women learned from their mothers or served as apprentices or domestic servants to other families. Girls, like boys, were also educated in schools outside the home or by tutors who were hired by their families. Girls and boys went to dame schools up to the age of about seven. Most dame schools were private and taught by women (dames) in their own houses. After this some girls received a secondary education with the boys, were tutored at home, or went to private

schools. However, educational opportunities for girls varied from colony to colony.

New England. In colonial New England young girls and boys attended dame schools for their first education. For many girls this would be the only formal education they would receive, but the boys were prepared here for the town schools. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries some town schools were open to girls, but most were attended only by boys. After the middle of the eighteenth century female attendance at town schools became more common, but the quality and quantity of learning was not equal to that of boys until the nineteenth century. Typically during this time girls were taught separately from boys, usually after the boys had left for the day or during the summer months. There were no all-female town schools until 1773, when a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, teacher opened a school for girls to learn reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography. If girls wanted to supplement their rudimentary dame school education, they could pay a fee to attend a private school, sometimes called an adventure, venture, or evening school, taught by individual schoolmasters or mistresses. Before the Revolution some private schools for girls opened, a few of which later evolved into female academies.

Middle Colonies. The Dutch Reformed Church in New York and the Quakers and various German sects in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were more liberal than the English colonists in New England in providing both boys and girls an equal elementary education, even though womens roles everywhere centered on the family and household. German schools were set up in churches, which administered them, though some German children were tutored in private homes. Moravians believed females had the same learning ability as males, so they established not only schools for boys and girls but also girls schools. In the Dutch Reformed Church the sexes were not treated equally, but girls were provided with at least an elementary education. The church established various schools during the Revolutionary era; in Pennsylvania alone there were thirty-six Dutch Reformed Church-affiliated schools by 1783, attended by more than one thousand students. For Quaker children a practical education, such as an apprenticeship to a trade, was most important, but Quakers also started many schools for boys and girls and some for girls only. The most important of the girls schools was the one founded in Philadelphia by Anthony Benezet in 1754. Here girls could study reading, writing, arithmetic, and English grammar. Another Philadelphia school was opened by Mary McAllester in 1767 for girls who wanted to board. Females in the Middle colonies could also attend private or evening schools, which enabled them to achieve a higher level of education.


In 1753 the Moravians purchased one hundred thousand acres in North Carolina and called their tract Wachovia. During the next fifteen years they established several settlements there: Bethabara, Bethania, and finally Salem in 1766, which became the main town. In 1772 Salem was still small, with no more than twelve houses clustered near the large town square. Two larger buildings sat opposite each other on the square. One was the Single Brothers House, and the other was the Gemein Haus, where the Moravian congregation met for services.

In 1766 a group of Single Sisters arrived in Bethabara from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where they started the first Single Sisters choir. On 9 April 1772 many of the Single Sisters moved to Salem to live at the Gemein Haus. One of these was Elisabeth Oesterlein, who was chosen to open a school for girls in the Gemein Haus. Classes started at the end of April with only three girls, aged two and a half, four and a half, and eight. Moravians believed in starting education for their children early, and Oesterlein herself began her schooling at the age of two. She received a shilling a week for the two younger girls and six pence for the eight-year-old, who probably required less care. Two years later, in 1774, the school had seven girls of varying ages, who attended at irregular times and days. Some parents allowed their daughters to stay for only one hour a day, others for a few weeks at a time. If the parents needed them at home, the girls were taken out of school and sent back later.

At first the curriculum was a simple one: reading, writing, sewing, and knitting. However, in 1779 the elders remarked that the girls were not learning arithmetic, probably because Sister Oesterlein did not know any. In 1780, when Sister Oesterlein married the town potter, Sister Catherine Sehner took over the girls school and added arithmetic to the curriculum. Neither Sister Oesterlien nor Sister Sehner could afford to live on the meager salary afforded them as they were responsible for paying for their own room, board, and clothing. The elders agreed to pay the teachers in the girls and boys schools from the congregation treasury, which for Sister Sehner was four shillings a week. Even though the town and surrounding area suffered looting during the Revolutionary War, neither the girls nor the boys schools closed, even for a day.

The girls school remained small during the 1780s, with no more than twelve girls in attendance at any one time, including one black girl from an outlying farm. The school remained at the Gemein Haus until the end of the century. In 1804 the school moved into new buildings and became a boarding school, which was the foundation of the Salem Female Academy and College.

Source: Frances Griffin, Less Time for Meddling: A History of Salem Academy and college, 1772-1866 (Winston Salem, N.C.; J.F Blair 1979).

The South. The geography of the South, with its scattered farms and plantations, made a New England-style town school system difficult if not impossible to organize. Therefore the education of white females was not as advanced as it was in the Middle colonies and New England, and, as a result, the literacy rate was lower. Education of most children was a private family affair, with the exception of a few private schools in urban areas such as Charleston, South Carolina. Mothers taught their young children at home. After this rudimentary education wealthier families hired tutors for additional education, primarily for their sons. While daughters were also educated by their brothers tutors, the purpose of education for them was to prepare for marriage and family and was more ornamental. Girls learned music, dancing, art,

fancy needlework, conduct and etiquette, and perhaps conversational French in addition to whatever basic education they received in reading, writing, and arithmetic. The prevailing cultural attitude toward womens education was that it was not appropriate or necessary for women to pursue intellectual subjects. Girls from poorer families were educated according to the regulations of their apprenticeships or could attend free schools where available. The education clause in apprenticeships for girls in Virginia usually stipulated that they be taught to read, or to read the Bible, and learn household skills and sewing. In North Carolina the apprenticeship regulations for education were not always upheld, and though some girls were taught to read and even write, others were required to learn only spinning and other household duties. In Maryland and South Carolina, masters were not required to school apprentices. Free schools were free only to those children who could not afford to pay tuition; otherwise, parents paid tuition. Both boys and girls attended these schools but with different conditions; usually boys were required to attend for longer periods of time and were taught different subjects. Charitable organizations also set up schools and scholarships. Most poor children received no education at all, and those that did learned only the rudiments of reading and writing.


Huey B. Long, Continuing Education of Adults in Colonial America (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Publications in Continuing Education, 1976);

Averil Evans McClelland, The Education of Women in the United States: A Guide to Theory, Teaching, and Research (New York: Garland, 1992);

Daniel Blake Smith, Inside the Great House: Planter Family Life in Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake Society (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1980);

Barbara M. Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985);

Julia Cherry Spruill, Womens Life and Work in the Southern Colonies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1938);

Thomas Woody, A History of Womens Education in the United States (New York & Lancaster, Pa.: Science Press, 1929).

Women's Educational Equity Act

views updated May 18 2018


WOMEN'S EDUCATIONAL EQUITY ACT (1974), passed as part of the Special Projects Act contained in the Education Amendments of 1974. The purpose of the act was to promote educational equality for women in the United States, an equality that Congress had mandated two years before in Title IX of the 1972 Education Act Amendments. The act also authorized federal grants to develop and evaluate curricula and textbooks; to promote educational equity for disabled women and girls; to help unemployed women and female dropouts; and to encourage women to develop math and science skills. In 1991 Congress appropriated about $2 million to achieve these goals.


U.S. Department of Education. Women's Educational Equity, Act Program: Report of Activities, 1988–1992. Washington, D.C.: 1992.

Irwin N.Gertzog

See alsoDiscrimination: Sex ; Women's Rights Movement .