Background on Women and Education
In the colonial period, economic opportunity was based heavily on one¿s education. Education often took the form of practical apprenticeships. But throughout the eighteenth century, increasing numbers of individuals began receiving formal schooling.(1) Since colleges had developed primarily as a means of training ministers and later lawyers, they were focused heavily on reading the Bible and classics of literature. Pre-collegiate education focused on many of the same subjects. While some of these subjects were not especially practical, they still provided graduates with a significant advantage in the job market. The ability to read documents, especially legal ones, and to perform some mathematical calculations were required skills for succeeding in business.
Widespread public education was slow to develop in the colonial period, even in New England where it was thought to be a priority. As far back as 1647 Massachusetts had enacted a law that required every town of fifty families or more to contribute funds through taxes to establish public schools, since Satan preyed on people's ignorance to lead them into evil. But this law was slow to affect the development of public schools, because most people were settled too far apart to support a school. As population gradually increased, the number of people living in particular villages eventually grew large enough to support public education. By the early 1700s, public schools were beginning to be common, though their quality often remained very questionable.
Throughout the colonial period, education was generally based on gender. As historian Patricia Cleary points out, "While some communities provided funds as early as the 1760s for teaching girls basic literacy skills, others, including Boston, did not do so until decades later."(2) The predictable consequence was the significant gap in literacy between males and females.While literacy rates of men and women were closest in New England, even there more men were more literate than women. By the late eighteenth century, literacy became nearly universal for males in New England, while "women's literacy stagnated below the half-way level."(3) The gap was even wider in the rest of the colonies as well as in England. Education was costly to the family, even if no tuition was charged for attending, since children were not available to provide labor while they attended school. So it made little sense to invest in educating girls, when their education would provide little financial benefit to the family. The common assumption was that education was a means of preparation for a role in public life. Women, by definition, were not a part of that public life. Many people also believed that females were intellectually inferior to males and probably could not, or should not, be educated in the same manner as males.
Families that chose to educate their girls had a few options. One was to enroll girls in a "dame school." These schools were usually run on an informal and impermanent basis by women who wanted to earn some income without making a significant financial investment. The teachers were often not well-educated themselves and, as a result sometimes offered little more than babysitting. As Mary Beth Norton concludes, a girl in the colonial era "could progress beyond these bare rudiments only through some combination of her initiative, the inclination of her parents, and the proximity of one of the "adventure schools" that, before the 1780s, constituted the sole means through which girls could gain access to advanced training."(4) Adventure schools, available only to those who could afford them, stressed "ornamental accomplishments:" skills that were expected to make young women into attractive wives. Girls were taught "music, dancing, drawing and painting, fancy needlework, and handicrafts."(5) One New Englander summed up the limitations of the education available to girls in Boston in the 1780s: "[W]e don't pretend to teach ye female part of ye town anything more than dancing, or a little music perhaps, I will venture to say that a lady is a rarity among us who can write a page of commonplace sentiment, the words being well spelt, & ye style & language kept up with purity & elegance."(6)
The American Revolution began to change the public¿s ideas about women and education. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence actively promoted education for women. He argued that a Republic, as America had become in breaking from the monarchy of England and establishing representative government, required informed, knowledgeable citizens to survive. Since most early education remained in the home, the domain of the wife and mother, it followed logically that women ought to be educated themselves so they could better prepare their children for the responsibilities of citizenship. This argument did not take hold immediately, but it did begin to change people's thinking so that by the mid1800s, large numbers of women were being educated and some were even attending college.
1. Kenneth A. Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England: An Enquiry into the Social Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West (New York, 1974), 50-51.
2. Patricia Cleary, Elizabeth Murray: A Woman's Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America(Amherst, 2000), 72.
3. Lockridge, 38.
4. Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (New York, 1980), 259.
5. Norton, 259.
6. Quoted in Norton, 260.