04 Apr

Margaret A. Nash, Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840 (2005)

 Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840 examines “how women’s opportunities for higher education progressed from the scattered and short-lived academies of the late-eighteenth century to the permanent and highly academic seminaries of the antebellum era” (4). Margaret Nash argues that these early academies institutionalized women’s right to education and set “in motion a commitment to accesses to equal education for women” (116). Academics in the early American Republic catered to white, middle-class women and upheld notions of intellectual equality. Many women and men, teacher and students, valued learning for learning’s sake.


Chapters 2 and 3 examine the theories behind women’s education and the actual educational practices of women immediately after the American Revolution. Women’s education was discussed in terms of Enlightenment rationalism. Americans who supported female’s capacity to learn drew on John Locke’s theory of child development. Lock suggested that males and females possessed equal potential in education. Locke described the infant’s mind as a tabula rasa, or a blank state, that could be influenced by teachers and parents. Locke advocated the same education for males and females since both were equally capable of harnessing the powers of reason. Americans also drew on René Descartes and François Poullain de la Barre, to support their arguments that women enjoyed intellectual equality. Others looked to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or on Education to support their arguments that men and women possessed intellectual differences based on biological capabilities.

Women’s education was also discussed in terms of civic republicanism. Nationalists, like Noah Webster and Benjamin Rush, recognized the role of women in educating moral, intelligent, and unified citizens. According to this logic, women needed to be properly educated so they could instruct the next generations of American citizens. Women held power over their husbands, other men, and children and, therefore, could shape the virtue of citizens and the nation. Women’s education was also discussed in terms of the personal rewards of education. According to Nash, these rewards included: the pure pleasures of learning; the ability of education and arts to bring one closer to the divine and a Protestant ethos; helping women cope with harsh marriages; improving household management; and supporting self-sufficiency. Discussions and practices of women’s education immediately after the American Revolution reflected “both the rhetoric of human rights and Enlightenment ideals about intellectual equality” (12).

Chapter 3 examines the academic and non-academic subjects of men’s and women’s academies of the early national period. Nash argues that because of beliefs about Enlightenment rationalism and civic republicanism, pedagogy and curricula were similar for both men and women in most academies. Chapter 4 investigates the relationship between class and female education. Nash argues that women viewed education as part of their emerging “middle-class” identity. Education was an emblem of class society. Americans also justified women’s education because it was related to evangelicals’ emphasis on education for the Christian progress of the nation. Chapter 5 argues that women pursued education because they yearned to learn. Chapter 6 examines the ways women’s education was bounded by race and class for the creation of a white middle-class.


Women’s Education in the United States elevates the study of women’s education in the early American Republic. Nash makes key theoretical moves that historians should imitate. First, Nash situates the most famous female academies and their founders (Catherine Beecher’s Hartford Theological Seminary, Emma Willard’s Troy Female Seminary, and Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) within the larger female academy movement from the 1790s to 1840s. Nash argues that while well-known, these schools are no different in terms of curriculum and pedagogy than other female academies. This allows historians to understand that thousands of girls and women pursued education during this time as part of their middle-class identity. It also helps historians to see how male and female educators supported women’s education. Looking at an array of academies also allows scholars to see Troy, Hartford, and Mount Holyoke in their own context and not simply as precursors to women’s higher education in post-bellum America. These three schools were all founded by 1840. Thus, rather than a beginning, these schools mark a pinnacle in women’s education. Situating these schools in their own context also helps historians realize that these schools were not inferior to later women’s colleges or men’s schools of the same period. These three schools were a part of the flourishing of women’s higher education in the early Republic, not just the forerunners of higher education.

Nash also challenges historians to look beyond the ideology of separate spheres as they examine female education in the early American republic. Historians often deem these early academies as inferior because they examine these schools through the lens of the ideology of separate spheres. This ideology assumes that there was a strong distinction between male and female education. This has led scholars to assume that either women were intellectually inferior to men, women’s schools were intellectually inferior to men’s schools, or that the larger public did not support women’s education. Nash reminds scholars that the reality of the ideology of separate spheres has been challenged. Advice literature argued for this division, but many women did not adhere to it. Moreover, the ideology of separate spheres has been challenged because of its reliance on the clear distinctions between public and private. Scholars have shown that these lines were fuzzy at best. The lines between public and private were permeable and constantly negotiated.

Nash argues that the ideology of separate spheres has harmed studies of women’s education. It assumes that women were being trained for passive, familial roles. Thus, historians examine schools for their ability to transcend or confer domestic ideology to female students. The ideology of separate spheres has also dismissed the public and private nature of academies.

Nash concludes that historians should move beyond study the ideology of separate spheres when they study women’s education in the early American Republic. This moving beyond recognizes that the phrase “woman’s sphere” was used throughout the nineteenth century. But, it also recognizes that the phrase was not clearly defined in society or individual’s minds. Thus, “using ‘separate spheres’ ideology limits our understanding to explain women’s education in this period because it necessarily limits outs understand both of education and of the construction of gender” (12).

Despite Nash’s insistence and willingness to move beyond the ideology of separate spheres, she does not always do so. This is particularly clear in her reading of Catherine Beecher. Nash makes it clear that historians have misread the ideology of separate spheres. Actual nineteenth-century women did not relegate their activities to the private, or domestic sphere. Nevertheless, Nash argues that Beecher espoused the ideology. By this phrase, Beecher meant that “women should concern themselves with the ‘private sphere’ of home and children, while men should involve themselves in the ‘public sphere’ of paid employment outside the home and in the realms of politics and government” (2-3). Did Beecher actually say this? No. Scholars have traced this reading of the ideology to Engels and Marx’s critique of capitalism which imbibed their own readings of separate spheres into capitalism. Moreover, Beecher did not say this because she did not use the phrase “separate spheres.” If historians want to transcend separate sphere ideology they must stop attributing the phrase and its connotations to nineteenth-century women. Beecher, like other women did use the phrase “women’s sphere.” As Nash notes in her conclusion, Beecher used this phrase to talk about the domestic and social roles of women. These social roles included the professionalization of teaching and missionizing which were not private or domestic. Nevertheless, Nash concludes that for Beecher the woman’s sphere was the home and classroom. Beecher though that “women should leave the realm of politics to men.” By politics Nash seems to mean the public sphere. Nash, like other historians, re-inscribe Beecher in the realm of separate spheres. Beecher cannot escape because historians will not read her work without the lens of separate spheres. Historians must ask what nineteenth-century Americans meant by “woman’s sphere,” politics, and religion to really transcend “separate spheres” ideology. Despite Nash’s own ability to move beyond the spheres in her reading of Beecher, her work is an important contribution to studies of women’s education and religion in the early American Republic.

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