Learning to Stand & Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic

Learning to Stand & Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic

Learning to Stand & Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic

Learning to Stand & Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic

Synopsis

Education was decisive in recasting women's subjectivity and the lived reality of their collective experience in post-Revolutionary and antebellum America. Asking how and why women shaped their lives anew through education, Mary Kelley measures the significant transformation in individual and social identities fostered by female academies and seminaries. Constituted in a curriculum that matched the course of study at male colleges, women's liberal learning, Kelley argues, played a key role in one of the most profound changes in gender relations in the nation's history: the movement of women into public life.

By the 1850s, the large majority of women deeply engaged in public life as educators, writers, editors, and reformers had been schooled at female academies and seminaries. Although most women did not enter these professions, many participated in networks of readers, literary societies, or voluntary associations that became the basis for benevolent societies, reform movements, and activism in the antebellum period. Kelley's analysis demonstrates that female academies and seminaries taught women crucial writing, oration, and reasoning skills that prepared them to claim the rights and obligations of citizenship.

Excerpt

In an essay that appeared in the School Gazette, which students published at Hartford Female Seminary in the 1820s, one student took stock of the aspirations generated in becoming a learned woman and of the risks in claiming that mantle in post-Revolutionary and antebellum America. The author, who chose to remain anonymous, asked her classmates to consider an “Enigma.” She introduces herself as “both the feminine and neuter gender.” There are those who disdain her as a deviant, as “a good for nothing weed growing out of doors.” Uneasy in her presence, they “would be glad to be rid of me.” But she is not so easily dismissed and instead is always present in the hours devoted to schooling in the seminary’s Study Hall. In those hours and in that setting, she reckons, “my company is welcome to all.” Students reading their classmate’s “Enigma” might have looked around the Study Hall to try to identify the author. Was she the current editor? Or was she instead one of the other contributors to the Gazette? Then they might have turned to an equally important project—deciphering the code and solving the riddle. Did the author’s subject symbolize the promise of an advanced education for women? Did that education challenge conventional gender relations? Still playful and still elusive, the anonymous author might have answered both of these questions in the affirmative, telling her classmates that this was the “Enigma.”

The student who calculated the potential benefits and costs was an actor in one of the most profound changes in gender relations in the course of the nation’s history—the movement of women into public life. In asking how and why post-Revolutionary and antebellum women shaped their lives anew, Learning to Stand and Speak measures the significance of this transformation in individual and social identities. As the subtitle, Women, Education, and Public Life, suggests, it looks to the role schooling at female academies and seminaries played in mediating this process. In recasting women’s subjectivity and the felt reality of their collective experience, that education was decisive. Employing the benefits

1. “Enigma,” School Gazette, I, no. 3 (n.p., n.d.), 3, Hartford Female Seminary Collection, Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, Conn.

2. Among the many meanings attributed to “subjectivity,” the one that has most resonance for these post-Revolutionary and antebellum women comes from Jürgen Habermas: “Subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was always already oriented to an audience.” In connecting this “core of the private” to a world beyond the interior self, Habermas aptly describes

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