A book in the Alice’s collection provides a window into this pivotal moment. William Woodbridge and Emma Willard’s Universal Geography was co-authored by one of the pioneers of women’s education, and this particular copy was owned by a young lady who would later attend a pioneering institution for women’s higher education.
Emma Hart was born in 1787 in Berlin, Connecticut to a farming family. When she was only twenty years old, she became the principal of Middlebury Female Seminary in Middlebury, Vermont, where she also met her husband John Willard. She gave up teaching after her marriage, but a few years later, with the family in difficult financial circumstances, she opened her own school with a more rigorous curriculum than the one offered at the Seminary.
|Emma Hart Willard|
Willard’s experiences at Middlebury led her to become more active in the movement for female education, and in 1819 she published An Address to the Public...Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education. While nominally addressed to the members of the New York State legislature, it was really meant for a wide audience. In it, Willard laid out what she thought were the defects in the current system of female education and made an argument for publicly-supported female seminaries.
Although the legislature rejected her proposal, the Willards moved to New York, first to Waterford and then to Troy, where the Troy Female Seminary opened in 1821. Although she was very careful not to refer to her school as a college, Willard clearly modeled it on those elite male institutions. At Troy, girls could learn mathematics, philosophy, and science, in addition to the subjects that were traditionally thought appropriate for women (reading, writing, arithmetic, perhaps a little history and French). Willard felt that the “ornamental” branches of drawing, music, and dancing could be part of a seminary curriculum, but needlework, other than the purely useful sort, she regarded as “a waste of time.”
|It's literally a Temple.|
The copy of Universal Geography in the Alice’s collection belonged to Margaret Tufts of New Haven, Connecticut. Margaret was born in 1815, the daughter of Matthias and Matilda Tufts. Matthias Tufts was a ship carpenter and a member of the New Haven School Society (essentially the board for the city’s public schools), which suggests that he had an interest in the subject of education. We don’t know where Margaret was a student in 1833, when she acquired this textbook—she could have attended one of the half a dozen young ladies’ academies in New Haven, or been a boarding pupil at a school like Troy Female Seminary. But wherever it was, her education did not end there. In 1837, she became one of the first students at a new institution that was just opening in Massachusetts, the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.
Despite the similarities between Amherst and Mount Holyoke, one was a college while the other was a seminary. There was simply too much resistance to the idea of admitting women to the power and prestige associated with a college education. As one historian has written, “The college world was a fraternity all its own, a time-hallowed preserve of masculine identity, masculine knowledge, masculine privilege, and masculine society, where the elite white men who regarded leadership and public power as their birthright were trained. To either admit women to that fraternity or countenance their acquiring too many of its trappings was more than undesirable; it was inconceivable.”
Over the next few decades, some of that resistance would be chipped away, and true colleges for women, offering bachelor’s degrees, would be founded. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary would become a college in 1888. However, neither Mary Lyon nor Margaret Tufts lived to see that happen. Margaret became a teacher in New Haven after graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1840. In 1842, she married Sherman Booth, a noted abolitionist, and in 1848 they moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so he could establish the abolitionist newspaper that came to be known as the Wisconsin Free Democrat. The Booths had three children who died in infancy, and Margaret herself died in 1849 shortly before her 34th birthday.
Many thanks to my grad school colleague and dear friend Caroline Hasenyager, for patiently answering my questions about early-19th century women’s education, and allowing me to quote from her dissertation, “Peopling the Cloister: Women’s Colleges and the Worlds We’ve Made of Them.”
If you are interested in learning more about the history of women’s education, here are a few good books:
Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (1976)
Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth Century Beginnings to the 1930s (2nd ed., 1993)
Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America’s Republic (2006)