The Ages of Women
Part I of this anthology presents a view of women's lives as written by themselves and most often for other women. The five sections of Part I correspond to major stages in early American women's lives: their development from youth to young womanhood; their education (informal and formal); their domestic lives; their participation in work outside the domestic arena; and their final thoughts as they neared death.
Probably no issue crosses the stages of women's lives with such importance as does that of education. In tribal societies, education for young women was skill-oriented. In Plains tribes dominated by the buffalo culture, knowing how to tan and dress hides was as important as cooking. A young woman's tools were as likely to be a scraper (to clean the inside of the hide) and a flesher (to work the hide into the proper thickness) as a ladle or a kettle. In pueblo societies (which have existed in the Southwest for more than 3,000 years), farming was the central focus, and the skills of harvesting corn and producing meal for a variety of dishes were a necessary part of a girl's education. In all tribes, women and men alike were expected to learn the spiritual and cultural customs of their society. For many Native American women, the act of passing to the next generation the legends and origin stories as well as events at council meetings and other community gatherings was an integral facet of home education. In a community with no written language, the oral traditions passed down by native women were equivalent to Euro-Americans' editorials, essays, poetry, and fiction. They were the perpetuators of culture; although individual women's names may be lost to us, a study of various tribes' legends reveals what behaviors by women were valued or admonished and how girls and young women were educated to participate in their culture.
For most Euro-American women, there were similar attitudes about education--the learning of household duties and spiritual and cultural customs was the first stage of their educational process. However, because the colonists were linked to a culture that emphasized the written word, issues of literacy pervade the history of Euro-American women's education. Because the European settlers believed that women's intellect was inferior to men's, women's education was often neglected in pre-Revolutionary America. Yet it was not completely absent. When girls in middle-and upper-class families learned to