American author and educator Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) was responsible for creating a new social attitude that placed greater value on women's work in the home and their role as educators and moral guides for the young. Her book Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) was a best-selling work that provided practical household advice while extolling the virtues of domestic life. She also was an active proponent for the creation of schools for women, arguing that for their special role as instructors of children, women required a thorough education.
Catharine Beecher was a nineteenth century proponent of women's rights and education for women. While she did not advocate a radical change in women's roles, she did fight for increased recognition of the importance of the work women did in managing homes and raising families. She also believed that women should expand their place in society by becoming teachers, allowing them to use their nurturing skills and moral conscience in a professional sphere. To encourage the spread of these ideas, Beecher published a number of books providing guidance and praise for domestic life, such as her extremely popular Treatise on Domestic Economy (1843). She also founded schools and organizations devoted to training women to become teachers. Beecher held the view that the woman, as educator and spiritual guide for families, was the basis of a well-ordered and moral society. This theme contributed to a growing feminist attitude that women did not have to be weak, passive creatures, but could be strong, contributing members of their communities.
Beecher was born September 6, 1800, in the town of East Hampton on Long Island, New York. She was the oldest child of Lyman and Roxanna Ward Beecher. Each of her parents had a strong influence on the values she touted as an adult. Her father was a Presbyterian minister who came from a family of Calvinist colonists. He was a prominent figure in the evangelical religious movement of the early 1800s known as the Second Great Awakening. His strong personality and religious convictions were apparent not only in the religious revivals that he held, but in his dominant presence in the Beecher home as well. Beecher's mother, also from a respected family, played a traditional role in the home and attempted to pass along her domestic skills to her children. Beecher was ambivalent about both the religious and domestic aspects of her life as a young woman. She initially disliked domestic duties, preferring to spend her time outside or studying. Later in life, however, she came to view domestic responsibilities as a valuable and sacred contribution to home and community. Similarly, her religious instincts fluctuated throughout her life, and she never was able to come to terms with her faith.
The Beechers moved to Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1809. The following year, Beecher entered Miss Pierce's school, a well-respected institution for young women. Her education there stressed not only the acquisition of social skills, but also the growth of a moral consciousness and leadership abilities. Beecher thrived at the school, but was forced to leave at the age of 16 after the death of her mother. She returned home to tend to the domestic duties of the household, including raising her younger brothers and sisters and doing the cooking and sewing for the family. After her father remarried in 1817, she remained for another year at home before taking a teaching job in New London, Connecticut, in 1818.
Focused on Education of Women
At the age of 22, Beecher was engaged to a Yale University professor of natural history named Alexander Fisher. Her choice was not a whole-hearted one, however. While her father was quite pleased with Fisher, Beecher herself was concerned that his unaffectionate nature would not make him an ideal husband. The marriage never occurred—Fisher was killed in a shipwreck off the coast of Ireland in the spring of 1822. Beecher never again entertained thoughts of marriage. Instead, she turned her energies to what would become her life's main passion, the education of women.
In 1823, Beecher opened the Hartford Female Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut. At her school, she combined a solid core of courses in algebra, chemistry, history, Latin, philosophy, and rhetoric with an emphasis on developing the moral and religious character of her students. The institution was very successful, and as its principal, Beecher became a popular and respected figure in Hartfield. Her accomplishments and her growing reputation as a talented teacher inspired Beecher to write about her educational philosophy. In her 1829 essay, "Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education, " she declared that the primary goal of education should be to provide a basis for the development of the student's conscience and moral makeup. To facilitate this kind of instruction in her school, Beecher unsuccessfully sought to hire an associate principal to manage the teaching of religion. Failing to secure an assistant, Beecher suffered from a nervous breakdown and left the school in the hands of her sister Harriet for several months while she recovered. Upon her return, she took on the task of religious and moral instruction herself.
With the beginning of the 1830s, Beecher became more interested in the roles her female students would take on in society. While she believed that running a home and raising a family was an important and influential contribution by women, she also felt that women should be given more responsibility and respect outside the home. She saw the field of teaching as the perfect professional arena for women—it allowed them an independent and consequential role in their community, but at the same time it was an acceptably "feminine" role. In addition, the growing populations of the western areas of the country were creating an increased demand for teachers. Beecher was appalled that in states like Ohio, perhaps one third of children did not have access to schools.
Founded School for Teacher Training
To encourage more women to become teachers, Beecher realized, there needed to be more opportunities for women to be educated and trained for the profession. She made it her mission to provide such training. In 1831, she left the East Coast to join her father in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he had been name president of the Lane Theological Seminary. There she opened the Western Female Institute, a school devoted to instructing young women so that they, in turn, could instruct others. Beecher hoped that her school could serve as a model for a nationwide system of teacher colleges. She presented her ideas on the subject in an 1835 lecture that was published under the title "An Essay on the Education of Female Teachers." In Cincinnati, she began a fundraising effort to support her school and the creation of similar schools. But Beecher was not well-liked in the city; many people felt that she was a cultural elitist. Her abolitionist views were also suspect in an area divided on the issue of slavery. Unable to win the financial or philosophical support of residents, enrollment in Beecher's school steadily declined until it was finally forced to close in 1837.
The townspeople's opinions apparently had little effect on Beecher's own values, however. That same year, she published a tract that called on women to unite against the system of slavery, titled "Slavery and Abolition with Reference to the Duty of American Females." In this essay, Beecher began to formulate her idea that women could have a powerful influence on the character of the nation by creating a virtuous and harmonious domestic realm, in this way providing a stable, moral basis for society. Writing became the new channel through which Beecher attempted to spread her philosophy and make a living. She began to turn out a large amount of material, but it was not until the publication of her Treatise on Domestic Economy in 1841 that she finally reached the wider audience that she sought. The book was an incredible success, going through almost 15 printings in as many years and earning her fame across the nation.
Celebrates Domesticity in Best-seller
The Treatise provided women with a practical and moral guide to domestic life. It presented information on such topics as cooking, child care, and general health care. In this way, it presented a handy single source of household knowledge that had not existed before. But even more important was the philosophy in which Beecher couched her advice. She saw such domestic concerns not as mundane drudgery but as "the greatest work, " a devotion to the welfare of others that provided the basis of a healthy society. The mission of women, according to Beecher, was to form the moral and intellectual character of children, and in order to fulfill this duty successfully, women required a quality education. Through their examples of skilled nurturing and intelligent teaching, women could use their home life as a secure base from which to reach out and create change in the rest of society. Beecher's ideas did not radically attack traditional gender roles, rather it justified and glorified them. This support of the family and social hierarchy struck a chord of comfort and stability in the public, making Beecher a celebrity.
With the success of her book, Beecher was able to found the Women's Education Association in New York in 1852. The organization was devoted to raising funds for the establishment of women's schools. Beecher was never satisfied with the amount of money raised by the organization (it eventually dissolved in 1862), so she undertook a number of public appearances across the country in which she solicited donations, promoted women's education, and discussed her books. She also sought donations from friends and relatives for her education ventures. She further supported educational causes by attending teacher's conferences and sustaining a correspondence with a wide range of people.
In the last years of her life, Beecher returned to the East, where she lived with various relatives. She had a particularly close relationship with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, best-known as the author of the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The sisters worked together to write an 1869 sequel to the Treatise on Domestic Economy entitled The American Woman's Home. Beecher was active in fighting for women's education for the rest of her years. She died in Elmira, New York, on May 12, 1878. Through her writings, public appearances, and the schools she helped to found, Beecher had helped to gain recognition for the value of women's work in society. Although she did not challenge the traditionally subordinate place of females, she did present a new vision of women as a strong and influential force that helped to determine the direction and conscience of the nation. Her emphasis on bringing women into the teaching profession also changed notions about women's education and careers, providing a basis for the continued growth of feminist thought in the nineteenth century.
Further Reading on Catharine Beecher
See also Barker-Benfield, Graham J., and Catherine Clinton, Portraits of American Women, St. Martin's Press, 1991; Kerber, Linda K., and Jane S. DeHart, Women's America, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 1991; and Sklar, Kathryn Kish, Catharine Beecher: A Study in Domesticity, W. W. Norton, 1976.