A Pioneer in Women’s Education
American author and educator, Catherine Beecher believed that a woman’s role as educator and moral guide for her family was the basis of a well-ordered society. While she might have balked at being called a feminist (she did not support suffrage), her new theories about a woman’s place contributed to a growing feminist attitude that a woman did not have to be weak and passive, but could be a strong and important member of her community.
Catherine Beecher (also spelled Catharine) was born September 6, 1800 in East Hampton, New York to the prominent Beecher family, who greatly influenced American culture and politics during the late nineteenth century. Catherine was the eldest of 13 children born to Presbyterian minister Dr. Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote Beecher, eight of whom survived infancy. Her parents had a strong influence on the values she held as an adult.
When Catherine was nine, the family moved to Litchfield, Connecticut. The following year, she entered the Litchfield Female Academy, taught by a innovative educator, Sarah Pierce. Pierce had opened the school in 1792, with plans to teach only a few girls in of her home, but with an increased demand for education after the American Revolution, the school grew into a much larger building.
Pierce believed that men and women were intellectually equal, and young Catherine absorbed some of Pierce’s revolutionary ideas. 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 she 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. The younger children looked up to Catherine as the head of the household, and she remained exceptionally close to her father even after he married Harriet Porter the following year. With Harriet, Lyman Beecher fathered three more sons and a daughter.
Catherine remained at home for another year before taking a teaching job in New London, Connecticut in 1818. While still in her teens, Catherine wrote several poems and ballads that were circulated among local literary circles. She also had poems published in the Christian Spectator under the signature C.D.D.
In 1821 she became a teacher at a school in New Haven, Connecticut. After reading one of her poems, Yale University professor of natural history Alexander Fisher inquired about the author and a relationship developed between the two, and they were engaged in 1822. Beecher was not only in love with Fisher, but also delighted by the prospect of becoming a part of the scholarly community of Yale.
As an active advocate of education, Fisher decided to travel to Europe to visit universities and educational institutions, to observe the different methods of teaching in foreign countries, and to meet men distinguished in the fields of mathematics and natural philosophy. His ultimate goal was to garner more appreciation for the sciences and to promote the importance of college in America.
The news Fisher had died in a shipwreck off the coast of Irelandoff the coast of Irelandoff the coast of Ireland on his way back from Europe devastated Catherine. She mourned her fiance and spent time with his family. Fisher’s brother began giving lessons to her in mathematics to keep her mind off the great loss. From this point forward, Beecher vowed to concentrate all of her energies to what would become her passion, the education of women. She never married.
Career in Education
With her sister Mary, in 1823 Catherine Beecher founded a school for girls in Hartford, Connecticut, aimed at training women to become mothers and teachers. Some of the subjects she hoped to teach Beecher had not yet learned herself: her brother Edward then was head of the Hartford Latin School, and she started taking lessons in Latin with him only weeks before she began teaching it. Her students performed excellently at the yearly exhibitions and surprised the many people who did not expect girls to do well.
In most female schools of that era, students were expected to learn little more than the fine arts and languages, but Beecher combined a solid core of courses in algebra, chemistry, history, Latin, philosophy and rhetoric. In her 1829 essay, “Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education,” Beecher wrote:
For the brothers of a family the well-endowed college, with its corps of professors, each devoted to one department of knowledge, and with leisure to perfect himself in it and teach it in the most complete manner – for the sisters of the family only such advantages as they could get from one teacher in one room, who had the care of teaching in all branches…
As the movement to improve educational opportunities for women gained ground, Beecher’s school began to attract so many students that it was hard to accommodate them all. She successfully sought donations and expanded her school to become Hartford Female Seminary, hiring eight teachers who focused on a few subjects so that each was taught in a “complete manner.”
Beecher was also a pioneer in physical education for females. Believing that girls ruined their health with tight corsets, poor diets and culturally-imposed fragility, she introduced calisthenics into the curriculum. She often had visitors who wanted to open similar schools; many graduates of Hartford Female Seminary went on to teach in these schools. She also wrote textbooks used in her school and in those that emulated it.
The institution was very successful, and Beecher became a popular and respected figure in Hartford. Her accomplishments and her growing reputation as a talented teacher inspired Beecher to write about her educational philosophy. She believed that the primary goal of education should be to provide a basis for the development of the student’s conscience and moral makeup.
She attempted to hire an associate principal to manage this kind of instruction in her school. Beecher believed her school could change the world, and wanted the best female educators available. She approached Mary Lyon (who would found Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1836) and then her associate Zilpah Grant to join her as instructors at Hartford Female Seminary. Lyon and Grant both declined.
At the same time she was appealing to Grant to serve as associate principal, Beecher was also appealing to Hartford’s rich elite to put the seminary on firm footing. She sought $22,000, arguing that a permanent seminary would draw at least that much to Hartford each year from the new students it would attract. These elite, however, was unwilling to risk investing when no well-known educator would fill the new position.
Consequently, Beecher suffered a nervous breakdown and left the school in the hands of her sister for several months while she recovered. Upon her return, she took on the task of religious and moral instruction herself.
In the early 1830s, Beecher became more interested in the roles her female students would play in society. Running a home and raising a family were important, she stated, but women should also be given more responsibility and respect outside the home. She believed that teaching was the perfect profession – it allowed women to be independent and influential in their community, and it was acceptably feminine.
After operating her Hartford school for eight years (1823-1831), she left it to a colleague and moved west when Lyman Beecher became president of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. The growing populations of the western areas of the country were creating an increased demand for teachers, and Beecher made it her mission to provide the education women needed to join the profession.
She opened the Western Female Institute, which she hoped could serve as a model for a nationwide system of teacher colleges. 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. Her abolitionist views were not popular in an area divided on the issue of slavery.
Unable to win support of residents, enrollment in Beecher’s school steadily declined until she was finally forced to close it in 1837. She then turned to working on the famous McGuffey readers, the first nationally adopted textbooks for elementary students.
That same year, she published “Slavery and Abolition with Reference to the Duty of American Females.” In a critique of abolitionism in the form of a letter to Angelina Grimke, Beecher argued that, because of the violence generated by the anti-slavery movement, women should not be involved. In this essay, she began to formulate her idea that women could have a powerful influence by creating a virtuous and harmonious home life.
Writing became Beecher’s new means of earning a living and spreading her philosophy. 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). This was a practical and moral guide to domestic life on such topics as cooking, child rearing and general health care – a single source of household knowledge that had not existed before.
The book was an incredible success, earning her national fame. According to Beecher, the mission of all women should be to form the moral and intellectual character of children, and in order to fulfill that duty, women required a quality education. Through nurturing and teaching, women could use their home life as a base from which to create change in the rest of society. Her support of the family and social hierarchy made Beecher a celebrity.
From then on, Beecher traveled between homes of family and friends, supporting herself with lectures and books. The Duty of American Women to Their Country (1845) argued for free public education to protect the still-new democracy. In 1852 she founded the American Woman’s Educational Association, which aimed to send teachers west to build schools in the developing frontier.
At the same time, Beecher also expanded the definition of education to include what was later termed home economics. The Domestic Receipt Book (1846) demonstrated that although she had become a traveling, professional woman who did not maintain a home, she remembered from her early years how much skill was required to efficiently run the era’s large households.
Beyond cooking, cleaning and other work, her definition of essential household knowledge also included the maintenance of good health. Her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, joined her in updating these views with The American Woman’s Home (1869). During this time, Catherine also was an active proponent for the creation of more schools for women.
Catherine Beecher not only did not join her sisters in support of the suffrage movement, but even wrote against it in The True Remedy for the Wrongs of Women and Woman Suffrage and Woman’s Profession (1871). She might have been aware that had she been a boy, she would have joined her brothers in the clergy. Because she could not do that, she became an unofficial preacher to women.
In the last years of her life, Beecher returned to the East, where she lived with various relatives.
Although she could be considered elderly in the 1860s and 1870s, Beecher returned briefly to teaching, probably seeking both income and an established position. She suffered numerous nervous collapses and was a patient in more than a dozen sanitariums during her lifetime, probably because of the repression of her abilities that society imposed on her.
Catherine Beecher died at age 77 on May 12, 1878, while living with her brother Thomas in Elmira, New York; she is buried there.
Through her writings, public appearances and the schools she helped to found, Beecher helped to gain recognition for the value of women’s work in society. Although she did not challenge the 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. In “Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education,” she wrote:
If all females were not only well educated themselves but were prepared to communicate in an easy manner their stores of knowledge to others; if they not only knew how to regulate their own minds, tempers and habits but how to effect improvements in those around them, the face of society would be speedily changed.
It is to mothers and to teachers that the world is to look for the character which is to be enstamped on each succeeding generation, for it is to them that the great business of education is almost exclusively committed. And will it not appear by examination that neither mothers nor teachers have ever been properly educated for their profession?
Catharine Esther Beecher
Gale Encyclopedia of Biography: Catharine Beecher
The Ideological Origins of the Women’s College: Religion, Class, and Curriculum in the Educational Visions of Catharine Beecher and Mary Lyon – PDF