Women Public Speakers in the United States, 1800-1925: A Bio-Critical Sourcebook

By Karlyn Kohrs Campbell | Go to book overview
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EMMA HART WILLARD

(1787-1870), pioneer educator and lobbyist

SISTER SHARON DEI

Higher education for women was not a popular cause in the early nineteenth century. Although some clergy and more enlightened male citizens encouraged parents to educate their daughters, few Americans supported advanced learning for girls. Education for women was feared. Some distinguished medical men warned that overtaxing the youthful female brain would drain blood from the reproductive organs and lead to problems in childbearing. Wits joked about who would make the pies and puddings if women became scholars. Doomsayers predicted that college-bred females would never marry or, worse yet, that educated brides would bring their books to bed. Moralists feared that the home and family would suffer from radical ideas of "free love" and political equality. Many more worried that too much education might lure young women from their proper sphere, the home, which protected and thrived on the virtues proper to middle-class American womanhood.

In 1822, while dedicating a female seminary at Saugus, Reverend Joseph Emerson said:

[M]ay we not indulge the enrapturing hope, that the period is not remote, when female institutions, very greatly superior to the present, will not only exist, but be considered as important, as are now our colleges for the education of our sons. The distinguished honor is probably reserved for our rising republic, to exhibit to the world examples of such female seminaries as the world has never witnessed. ( Green, 1979:39)

He was prophetic, but few of his contemporaries would have agreed with him. A majority of women tended to side with critics who felt that female higher education harbored dangers for society. Prominent male supporters included Henry Barnard, Matthew Vassar, Edward Hitchcock, Charles Burroughs, Thomas Gallaudet, and William Russell ( Cole, 1940:7). The handful of early women advocates for higher education for their sex, such as Emma Hart Willard, Catharine Beecher, Mary Lyon, and M. Carey Thomas, were forced to argue with great skill to achieve their initial goal: founding schools where young women could continue their education to prepare themselves scholastically and professionally for a productive and intellectually active life. That objective was made more difficult because the age enshrined females in the home and deemed it improper for women to speak in public.

There were few schools or prepared teachers at all educational levels. In colonial America, education had been a luxury. Dame schools provided boys and girls with the rudiments of literacy and arithmetic. Although the founders of the Republic had stressed the importance of an educated electorate, education

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