The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women's Rights and Woman's Sphere

By Jeanne Boydston; Mary Kelley et al. | Go to book overview

2 Catharine Esther Beecher:
"The Distinguishing Characteristics of My Own Mind"

AT the height of her career in the mid-nineteenth century, Catharine Esther Beecher was one of the most famous women in America. She had first gained prominence as a teacher and a staunch advocate of improved education for women. Over the course of her lifetime, Beecher founded three academies for young women;1 authored textbooks on domestic science, arithmetic, physical education, and moral philosophy; and worked tirelessly to promote the entry of females into the teaching profession.

Early on, Beecher's work in women's education led her to a second career. Writing on subjects as diverse as religion, health, family life, abolitionism, and women's rights, she emerged as an influential voice in reflecting and shaping how middle-class Americans in the nineteenth century thought about themselves and their world. Beecher helped form the vision of the American home as a refuge from society. She opposed Calvinism and aided in creating the Victorian ethos that replaced it. She presided over the birth of a gender ideology that has survived into the late twentieth century. In all this, her impact on American cultural and social history extended far beyond the perhaps several thousand women who were her students.2

Beecher's two careers were but dual aspects of a single life project--to promote the independent power and status of women, or, as she put it more pragmatically seven years before her death, "to train woman for her true business and then pay her so liberally that she can have a house of her own whether married or single."3 It was a formulation full of paradox. For Beecher, at the core of the concept of woman's "true business" was the traditional notion of a world divided by gender. To men, she assigned the rough and tumble arenas of politics and business; to

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