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Only A Teacher
Schoolhouse Pioneers
Henry Adams
Catharine Beecher
John Dewey
Elaine Goodale Eastman
Charlotte Forten
Margeret Haley
Horace Mann
Julia Richman
Laura Towne

Catharine Beecher (1800-1878)

Catharine Beecher was born into a prominent family at a time when even wealthy women received minimal formal education. From a family of crusaders (her sister was abolitionist author Harriet Beecher Stowe), Beecher took up the cause of educational reform and the promotion of women as teachers. As the country expanded and the common school began to vie with the church for position in American society, educational reformers like Beecher recognized the school's responsibility to stress the moral and physical, as well as intellectual, development of children. The country's rapid growth also led to a greater need for teachers. While men were leaving teaching and pursuing work in the developing fields of business and industry, Beecher recognized the untapped potential in the growing population of educated women and advocated for the wider education of females to fill this increasing need for teachers.

Catharine Beecher managed to get an education primarily through independent study, and she became a schoolteacher in 1821. In 1823, she co-founded the innovative Hartford Female Seminary, whose purpose was to train women to be mothers and teachers. In 1829, she published a seminal essay on the importance of women as teachers, "Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education." In this essay, she promoted women as natural teachers, but also advocated for an expansion and development of teacher training programs, claiming that the work of a teacher was more important to society than that of a lawyer or doctor.

In 1841, she published her most well-known work, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, which aimed to codify domestic duties and emphasized the importance of women's labor. Beecher extolled the feminine virtues and believed that femininity was innately suited to the responsibilities of both mothers and teachers. Beecher did not believe that women necessarily had to marry and have children, as she herself never did. A single woman could become a teacher, thus allowing her to share her feminine virtues with society and preparing her for the role of mother she might eventually assume.

A mass of contradictions, Beecher championed the intellectual capabilities of women, but remained an anti-suffragist throughout her life, believing that women could best influence society by their work in the home and the schoolhouse. In her "Address to the Christian Women of America" in 1871, she also expressed her concern that suffrage would cause "the humble labors of the family and school to be still more undervalued and shunned."

As she grew older, she continued to work tirelessly on behalf of the teaching profession. In the 1830's, she moved to the Midwest with her father and began her campaign for more schools and teachers on the midwestern frontier. In 1852, she founded the American Woman's Educational Association with the goal of recruiting and training teachers for frontier schools. She continued to advocate for teachers until her death in 1878. Although she was influential in providing women with the education necessary to become teachers, her efforts to transform teaching into women's work ultimately led to a further decline in the social esteem accorded the teaching profession.

In Her Own Words

"Woman's great mission is to train immature, weak and ignorant creatures to obey the laws of God; the physical, the intellectual, the social and the moral." -- An Address to the Christian Women of America

"It is to mothers and to teachers that the world is to look for the character which is to be enstamped on each succeeding generation, for it is to them that the great business of education is almost exclusively committed. And will it not appear by examination that neither mothers nor teachers have ever been properly educated for their profession?" -- Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education

"[Women] have acquired wisdom from the observation and experience of others on almost all other subjects, but the philosophy of the direction and control of the human mind has not been an object of thought to study. And thus it appears that, though it is woman's express business to rear the body and form the mind, there is scarcely anything to which her attention has been less directed." -- Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education

"That there is a best way of teaching as well as of doing everything else cannot be disputed, and this can be no more learned by intuition than can any of the mechanical arts." -- Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education

"If all females were not only well educated themselves but were prepared to communicate in an easy manner their stores of knowledge to others; if they not only knew how to regulate their own minds, tempers, and habits but how to effect improvements in those around them, the face of society would be speedily changed." -- Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education

Scholars on Catharine Beecher

Nancy Hoffman
Professor of Education, Brown University


Catharine Beecher was a woman who in many ways was an extraordinary entrepreneur. She had a school when she was very young, she developed this passion about sending women to civilize young children in what was then the west. She also took upon herself to write a book- several books, instructing women on the domestic virtues. So, the contradictions there are that while she was on the one hand creating the philosophy that linked school with home and was very committed to helping women develop housewifery as a profession, she was living the life of a professional woman herself, doing none of the things, in the sense, she was arguing housewives ought to do.

Beecher was telling women they should be teachers, but she certainly saw teaching as an extension of the domestic role. She was not telling them that they should be physicians, lawyers, bankers, that they should be industrialists. She, in many ways, was the person who most fully spelled out the connection between learning the domestic virtues and carrying them out in the school room as well as in the home in rather similar ways.

Beecher was very much aware that women's talents were wasted, particularly women of the upper middle classes and middle classes, if they didn't marry and did not have children. And in some ways, Catharine Beecher's most poignant sentences to me, which are repeated in other works of the period, talk about middle class women essentially as ornaments in their father's parlors, waiting. There was nothing that an unmarried woman could do except be a resident in her home and her intellectual talents would not be stimulated or used.

Kathleen Weiler
Professor of Education, Tufts University


Catharine Beecher says you've got all these young women who are essentially bored and wasting their life in frivolous gossip and fashion and so they should become school teachers and do something that is morally good and prepares them for motherhood.

Further Reading

Beecher, Catharine.
Evils Suffered by American Women and Children: The Causes and the Remedy, 1846
Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1843
True Remedy for the Wrongs of Women, 1851
Hoffman, Nancy. Woman's True Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching, 1981
Sklar, Katherine Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in Domesticity, 1973





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