Evolution Of Women’s Education In The United States

WHILE the people of Massachusetts were still living in log huts, the school had its separate home, and as early as 1642 the selectmen of every town were “required to have a vigilant eye over their brethren and neighbors, to see that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in their families as not to endeavor to teach, by themselves or others, their children and apprentices so much learning as may enable them to read the English tongue and obtain a knowledge of the capital laws, upon penalty of twenty shillings for each neglect therein,” and one man must be spared from the plow and the gun, “to teach, in every township whose number had increased to fifty households.” This led to the district school, which served the early scattering communities well, but was a hindrance at a later period.

The principle that the education of the people is the safeguard of the State was at once recognized, and also the right of the State to compel the attention of parents to it. Religious and industrial instruction were provided for, and thus the great questions which are now taking the lead in our country were anticipated in the beginning by those whom Macaulay calls “the men illustrious forever in history, the founders of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

And equally with the firm foundation for rudimentary instruction, the higher education was kept in mind, and provision made for the high or Latin school, leading up to the university.

But, provident as our fathers were, they did not foresee the part which women were to take in the future life of the Republic, and failed to provide for their public education on the same broad basis as that of men. And yet Mary Dyer and Anne Hutchinson introduced the woman question into the councils of the colony, and so opened it that it has been kept open till this hour, when it is still awaiting an answer from the justice of the State.

But while the colony made little provision for the education of women, yet, as many of them came from the best class in England, much attention was paid to the private instruction of the daughters of good families. Anne Dudley Bradstreet published a volume of poems in 1650, although she records in her verse the opposition made to her literary occupation.

The public schools established in 1635 made small provision for women, and even in 1789, when both sexes were to be admitted, the girls could only attend from April to October. The rule which was adopted, “that no children under seven years should be received in the schools,” proved advantageous to women, for, as many thought instruction needful for children at an earlier age, Sunday-schools added secular instruction to their religious work, and as these schools were under the care of female teachers, a body of experienced women were ready to take charge of the primary schools when they were established, thus introducing the employment of women as teachers, which forms so marked a feature in our schools. The charity schools also helped to correct the inequality in the education of boys and girls, as they were in most instances established by ladies for girls only.

While speaking of primary education I should mention its last development in the “Kindergarten,” which was begun in Boston, from whence it has spread over the country. Miss Elizabeth P. Peabody, whose life has been devoted to education, first introduced Froebel’s system into this country by a small kindergarten, established in Boston in 1861. Mrs. Pauline Agassiz Shaw established and supported for fifteen years sixteen free kindergartens, which she eventually presented, fully equipped, to the city of Boston. Mrs. Shaw has initiated and carried on, at her own expense and under her active supervision, experiments and instruction in manual training for public-school children, normal classes in kindergarten, and manual training for teachers, as well as industrial schools, vacation schools, and day-nurseries for the poor children in the crowded districts of Boston. She is now supplementing this work by liberal university extension plans for the benefit of the same localities. Mrs. Shaw’s private preparatory school for boys and girls holds a unique position among educational institutions. In the course of study pursued, the natural sciences and their co-relation with all other branches of education hold an important place. The value of Mrs. Shaw’s work can hardly be overestimated, it is so far-reaching in its wisdom and its influence. Miss Blow has done a similar work for St. Louis and the West.

The “grammar schools” have always furnished the most important part of instruction to the mass of people in Massachusetts. They were open to girls, but under varying conditions. The question of co-education of the sexes was differently settled, according to the prejudices of school boards or the local condition of the school.

At the present time great differences in this respect may be found. In some towns all the schools are alike open to both sexes; in others the two unite in the primary school, are separated in the grammar schools, and come together again in the high school. The high schools are generally open to both sexes, except in the old part of Boston, where ancient prejudice leads to the duplication of the high and Latin schools, and in some towns where an endowed school for girls w as already in existence.

While the public schools were thus progressing, both in their methods of work and their relation to women, it would be unfair not to recognize the service done by many large private schools and academies, some of which have retained public confidence for many years, advancing with the demands of the times. Without detracting from the merits of others, I would specially name the Mt. Holyoke Seminary, founded by Mary Lyon in the western part of the State. This was originally established in the interest of the (so called) Evangelical churches, and its object was understood to be to train women for mission life, as the wives of missionaries going out to foreign service.

But, however much this purpose narrowed the scope of instruction in its earlier days, the institution has broadened and liberalized until now it has lately received the charter of a college, and its graduates are often highly accomplished in branches not specially adapted to work among the heathens.

Its original plan, like that of Wellesley College, contemplated the union of industrial labor with study, and so made a valuable contribution toward the discussion of the question now so prominent–industrial education. The academies generally admitted both sexes, and thus naturally solved the question of co-education.

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