Beecher, Catharine (1800–1878)

views updated

Beecher, Catharine (1800–1878)

American educator and writer who campaigned for women to assume the role of redeemers of their society through values learned in their domestic duties as mothers and wives. Born Catharine Esther Beecher on September 6, 1800, in East Hampton, Long Island; died on May 12, 1878, in Elmira, New York; daughter of the Reverend Lyman andRoxana (Foote) Beecher ; sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe; attended a private school in Litchfield, Connecticut; no other formal education; never married; no children.

Moved with Beecher family to Litchfield, Connecticut (1810); became woman of the house after the death of her mother (1816); taught school in New London (1820); death of fiancé Alexander Metcalf Fisher (1822); opened Hartford Female Seminary (1823); moved to Cincinnati, where she established the Western Female Institute (1831); took part in a published exchange with Angelina Grimké over abolitionism and the duties of American women (1837); toured the West, establishing female teaching academies (1837–47); founded the National Popular Education Association, later known as the American Woman's Educational Association (1847); taught briefly in Massachusetts and Connecticut; wrote ondomestic science and critiqued the direction of American feminism up to the time of her death.

Selected publications:

The Elements of Mental and Moral Philosophy, Founded on Experience, Reason, and the Bible (1831); Letters on the Difficulties of Religion (1836); A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841); The Duty of American Women to Their Country (1845); The Domestic Receipt Book (1846); Common Sense Applies to Religion (1857); The American Woman's Home (1869).

In 1822, Catharine Beecher's four-month engagement to Alexander Metcalf Fisher, a professor of mathematics at Yale known for his winsome personality and brilliant scholarship, ended with his death in a shipwreck at sea. The loss became the defining event in the life of the light-hearted and delicately pretty young woman. Beecher had been raised as the dutiful daughter of an evangelical Presbyterian minister and was personally filled with the Calvinist beliefs of predestination and unmerited grace. As a bereaved fiancée, Beecher felt the burden of a theological concern beyond the weight of ordinary grief, knowing that Fisher had not demonstrated the conversion experience essential to Calvinism. The fear of how Fisher's soul might spend eternity was to cause her to reject her previous life as vain and worldly, and to pursue a lifelong crusade of reform activities related to the education of women.

Born in East Hampton, Long Island, Catharine Beecher was the oldest of four daughters of the eight surviving children born to her mother Roxana. Her father, the Reverend Lyman Beecher, was active in the temperance and other reform movements and became famous for his dedication to defending Calvinism against the varied intellectual challenges of the day. Her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe would grow up to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. By 1810, the ever-growing family had moved to Litchfield, Connecticut, a lively community of culture and advanced social thought. With the death of her mother when Catharine was 16, she was put in charge of the household for about a year, until her father's remarriage to Harriet Porter . At that time, the young Catharine wrote a deferential letter of welcome to her new stepmother, who would give birth to three more Beecher sons and one more daughter.

Catharine's formal education was limited to a brief period of attendance at a private girls' school in Litchfield; her most significant learning came from her reading and from life in the Beecher household, where ideas about literature,

religion, and reform were constantly under discussion. Before she met Fisher, Beecher had been a school teacher in New London, Connecticut. In the year following his death, she began to define a new calling for herself as the leader of a crusade to encourage women in the exercise of their moral stewardship, and in 1823 she founded the Hartford Female Seminary. While her outward personality grew more somber, the inner pilgrimage which she had begun (and which she would explore over the years in her writings) would eventually result in her rejection of Calvinism's creed. Although she continued to attend her father's church during his lifetime, after his death she and her sister Harriet both joined the Episcopal Church.

There seems to be no very extensive sphere of usefulness for a single woman but that which can be found in the limits of a school room.

—Catharine Beecher

In 1831, Beecher followed her family to Cincinnati, where she founded the Western Female Institute; it was one of several educational institutions where she was to work preparing women to be teachers in the American West. The same year, she also wrote her first published treatise, The Elements of Mental and Moral Philosophy, Founded on Experience, Reason, and the Bible, which she had privately printed. The work was an exercise in "Scottish commonsense" philosophy, in which human nature learns, via reasoning and study of the Biblical scriptures, to develop the moral sense the author saw as common to all humanity. In language both sober and metaphysical, Beecher explored the idea of the harmony established when natural order contained a moral order which provided the best guide to a proper social order. The point of view was essentially a socially conservative one. Its assertion of a social system which provided moral guidance grounded in God was a message of reform against the behavior of those who ignored the "voice" of their own innate moral reason.

During the 1830s, Beecher wrote several volumes on the practical application of religion to daily life and also took up the issue of abolition, on which she stated her views in An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism With Reference to the Duty of American Females, published in 1837. The issue of abolition, growing crucial in her time, provides a good example of the way in which Beecher's conservative outlook often isolated her from the major developments in the history of American reform. Believing that good manners were essential even in social agitation and debate, she held that all Christian women were abolitionists by definition but urged gradual rather than immediate emancipation. In her view, meekness and tact were desirable in any criticism of the slaveholders. In the heat of reform, women must not lose their innate qualities of moral goodness and superiority. Although slavery was acknowledged as evil, the means to attack it must be predicated on expediency.

The South Carolina-born abolitionist Angelina Grimké wrote a rejection of Beecher's position, using the language of Garrisonian absolutism. In her Letters to Catharine E. Beecher in Reply to an Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, Grimké denounced slaveholders as evil and nonslave holders as guilty of sin for doing nothing to stop the evil institution. There were many differences between these two thinkers, but the prevailing distinction may have been that Grimké was "born a lady" and expressed herself as a liberated person, while Beecher's more modest background inclined her to strive for respectability by urging self-improvement for herself and other women.

In 1837, Beecher's Cincinnati school was closed. She spent the next decade touring the American West, setting up a number of female teaching academies, while writing the books that were to insure her fame and historical reputation. In 1841, she published A Treatise on Domestic Economy, followed by The Duty of American Women to Their Country (1845) and The Domestic Receipt Book (1846). In all these works, she promoted the merits of a thrifty household supervised by a wise and loving wife acting in the role of domestic engineer, a perspective that underlines the nature of her dispute with other feminists and feminism: she remained a genteel critic of slavery and was a foe of the franchise for women, believing that women's true role as redeemers rested in their domestic duties as mothers and wives.

Beecher's books sold well; nearly a quarter-century after they first appeared, she revised and rewrote them, with the help of Stowe, for publication as The American Woman's Home in 1869. Although her message did not please feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony , Beecher manifested a presence and an influence in her day, based on the division (pointed up by her position) between autonomous and domestic expressions of feminism in American history.

Autonomous feminism recognized the equality of the sexes in regard to the right of citizenship, as well as in the marketplace and in general social life. In contrast, domestic feminism derived from both the conjugal family and the social stresses that were a part of economic growth. In the cultural veneration of the modern family and the home, women placed family and home life first and then extended these domestic values to civil society, the state, and the world.

Beecher was among the champions of domestic equality, who believed that women had special civilizing qualities needed by family, home, and state. Her domestic feminism took the form of outrage over how far the actual life experiences of women differed from her ideal, and it offered a set of principles around which society could consolidate. Her ideal was a well-ordered self-sufficiency, expressed through means that included furniture, architecture, and human relationships. The home was viewed as the natural place for women and the basic building block of a good society; it stood for certainties and completion that could unite personal and national goals.

Catharine Beecher, like others in her family, sought to establish the cultural dominance of these ideas in 19th-century America by rescuing the nation from a secular and self-indulgent existence. Her particular contribution was a vision of the manner in which the female might shape the home, and thus the nation, into a kinder as well as more efficient organization. In that endeavor, Beecher saw the need for female sacrifice, as opposed to the franchise for women. In the course of her long and productive life, her philosophy of domestic feminism changed tactics, eventually linking antebellum moral reform to the Victorian science of society, while continuing to allow women to express the superiority of their domestic virtues.

Unfortunately for her historical reputation, many women embraced other expressions of feminism, in particular the right to vote. Even so, the legacy of Catharine Beecher is complex: though she wanted careers for women, she did not agitate for rights for women; she was a capable educator, shrewd and hard-working, with a strong mind and will, but she was never willing to struggle for the liberation of women. Rebellious spirit and a style grounded in libertarian idealism were not for her; she strove instead for women's self-improvement. Nevertheless, she was a vital part of 19th-century reform and the larger story of American feminism.

In the 1850s, in a gesture that expressed both 19th-century sentimental values and a desire for private grief, Beecher visited the family home of Alexander Fisher, where she sat by the fire and burned all the letters exchanged by the ill-fated couple. She taught for brief periods in Massachusetts and Connecticut and lived throughout her life with various members of her family. When she died, in 1878, she was in Elmira, New York, at the home of her half-brother Thomas. Of the institutions she established, only the Milwaukee Normal Institute remains, though under a different name.


Rugoff, Milton. The Beechers, An American Family in the Nineteenth Century. NY: Harper & Row, 1981.

Sklar, Kathryn K. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973.

suggested reading:

Boyston, Jeanne. The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women's Rights and Woman's Sphere. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Caskey, Marie. Chariot of Fire: Religion and the Beecher Family. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977.

French, Earle A., ed. Portraits of a Nineteenth Century Family. Hartford, CT: Stowe-Day Foundation, 1976.

Pickens, Donald K. "Domestic Feminism and the Structure of American History," in Contemporary Philosophy. Vol. 12. November–December 1989, pp. 14–22.


The Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College has a large collection of Catharine Beecher's letters.

Donald K. Pickens , Professor of History, University of North Texas, Denton, Texas