When Catharine Beecher’s fiancé died at sea in 1822, she used the small inheritance he bequeathed to her to co-found the Hartford Female Seminary, an innovative school that offered young women the opportunity to study subjects that had traditionally been part of the male curriculum. Instead of a focus on “domestic” education, a rigorous plan of study challenged students in rhetoric, logic, Latin, algebra and philosophy. The expansion of academic opportunities for women established Beecher’s legacy as one of the most important educational reformers of the 19th century.
Catharine Esther Beecher was the eldest child of the Reverend Lyman Beecher and his first wife, Roxana Foote Beecher. The Beechers were a prominent Connecticut family, known for their commitment to abolition and reform. Catharine’s sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was the author of the influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and her half-sister was the suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker. Catharine Beecher was educated at home and sent to a private school in Litchfield, but because of the school’s limited curriculum for young girls, she was largely self-taught in the subjects only available to men.
She brought this knowledge—and a passion for teaching—to the Hartford Female Seminary and later to the Western Female Seminary in Cincinnati, Ohio. The schools’ missions were not only to simply educate women, but also to train females as teachers who would fill a growing need in the rapidly expanding country. While Beecher’s seminaries retained a commitment to a separate, domestic sphere for women, her schools were also remarkable for their model of mutual instruction and their collegial, egalitarian policies. In addition to her schools and advocacy of teacher-training, Beecher wrote cookbooks, textbooks, advice books, newspaper articles and essays. In 1850, she helped organize the American Women’s Educational Association. Among her publications are 1842’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy, For the Use of Young Ladies at Home, and at School and The American Woman's Home: Or, Principles Of Domestic Science; Being A Guide To The Formation And Maintenance Of Economical, Healthful, Beautiful, And Christian Homes, co-authored with her sister Harriet and published in 1869.
A portrait in contradictions, Catharine Esther Beecher was a pioneer who dedicated her life to the education of women, yet believed that women should be subordinate to men. She championed education reform and the promotion of women as teachers who would be responsible for the moral, intellectual and physical upbringing of American children. At the same time, she was not an abolitionist like her sister Harriet, and unlike her half-sister Isabella, she opposed women’s suffrage. She believed that women could best influence society in their roles as housewives and mothers, and yet she herself was neither a wife nor a mother, supporting herself as a writer, lecturer and educational entrepreneur until her death in 1878.
During This Time
1800 - 1920: Industrialization & Reform
When the Declaration of Independence announced that all men are created equal, the path to citizenship for both blacks and women had begun. Despite not having the right to vote, women had long petitioned governors and legislatures to articulate a family grievance. Activist women presented to the U.S. Congress a large-scale innovative petition on behalf of abolition. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is widely credited with stirring public opinion, especially among women, to anti-slavery sentiments. Helped by women’s efforts, abolitionists eventually secured their goal in the three post-Civil War amendments.
Work in activities such as anti-slavery, temperance and moral reform led some middle-class women to the cause of women’s rights. They challenged the ideal of “separate spheres,” insisting on the same rights to life, liberty, property, and happiness as men. Through Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lobbying, New York gave women control over their property, wages, and children. In 1848, Stanton and others met in Seneca Falls to discuss the “repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman.” The resulting Declaration of Sentiments asserted that “woman is man’s equal.”
The early industrial economy had changed women’s lives. Textile production shifted from home to factory towns where farm daughters hoped wage labor would open new opportunities. Arrangements seemed ideal, until declining profits caused owners to slash wages to reduce costs. Lowell women walked out in 1836, and later petitioned the legislature to investigate deteriorating conditions. The labor force also changed as more immigrants arrived, delegated to poorly paid factory and domestic work.
In the Progressive Era, some benevolent women were committed to helping working-class women, and their needs received increased publicity after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire in 1911. Others addressed civic concerns, established settlement houses, worked for protective labor legislation, and tried to ban child labor. Clerical work in offices opened up as a desirable field for women, and some gained greater entry into various professions, including medicine, law, social work, nursing, and teaching.
Determined suffragists persisted in their political protests even after World War I broke out in 1914. Finally, seventy-two years after the Seneca Falls convention, employing new tactics and strategies, and a long, hard struggle at the state and national levels, the elusive goal was reached. The 19th amendment, proposed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1920, prohibited restrictions on the right to vote based on sex. It was one of the most successful mass movements in the expansion of political democracy in American history.
An important expression of feminism (calling for change in women’s private lives, not in their public roles) was the campaign in favor of access to birth control. Nurse Margaret Sanger spoke and wrote on its behalf, though her mailings were judged as violating the anti-obscenity Comstock laws. In 1916, after opening the first birth control clinic in the country, she was arrested and sentenced briefly to jail. For forty years she promoted contraception as an alternative to abortion, foreshadowing Planned Parenthood.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.