Catharine Beecher on the Role of Women as Teachers

Catharine Beecher (1800–78) was born into a family of social activists—one sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and advocate for the abolition of slavery, and another was Isabella, and who advocated for women’s right to vote. Catharine disagreed with Isabella, believing that it was not the proper role of women to vote. Rather, they should be home-makers and teachers. A single woman for her whole life, she founded a school, the Hartford Female Seminary, in 1823, and wrote a number of books articulating her views on the role of women as teachers. Here, Beecher explains why she believes teaching should be a women’s profession:

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? What is the profession of a Woman? Is it not to form immortal minds, and to watch, to nurse, and to rear the bodily system, so fearfully and wonderfully made, and upon the order and regulation of which, the health and well-being of mind so greatly depends?

But let our most of our sex upon whom these arduous duties devolve, be asked; have you ever devoted any time and study, in the course of your education, to nay preparation of these duties? Have you been taught anything of the structure, nature and the laws of the body, which you inhabit? Were you ever taught to understand the operation of diet, air exercise and the modes of dress upon the human frame? Have the causes which are continually operating to prevent good health, and the modes by which it might be perfected and preserved ever been made the subject of any instruction? …

[Is] it not the business, the profession of the woman to guard the health and form the physical habits of the young? And is not the cradle of infancy and the chamber of sickness sacred to woman alone? And ought she not to know at least some of the general principles of that perfect and wonderful piece of mechanism committed to her preservation and care?

Have you been taught the powers and faculties of the human mind, and the laws by which it is regulated? Have you studied how to direct its several faculties; to restore those that are overgrown, and strengthen and mature those that are deficient? Have you been taught the best modes of communicating knowledge as well as of acquiring it? Have you learned the best mode of correcting bad habits as well as forming good ones? Have you made it a habit to find how a selfish disposition may be made generous; how a reserved temper may be made open and frank; how pettishness and ill humour may be changed to cheerfulness and kindness? Has any woman studied her profession in this respect? … No; we 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 …

And it is the teachers of children who are thus to cooperate with parents and who in many cases have much the most influence in forming both mental and moral habits. But teachers have never been properly instructed in their professions, and of course they cannot properly teach other to perform the same duties … [It] is not to be expected that many pupils will improve upon the modes pursued by those who have had the formation of their own minds, and thus the evil is perpetuated though society in all its various interests both of family and school 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. The time may come when the world will look back with wonder to behold how much time, and effort have been given to the mere cultivation of memory, and how little mankind have been aware of what every teacher, parent and friend could accomplish the social and moral character of those with whom they are surrounded.

Beecher, Catharine. 1829. Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education: Presented to the Trustees of the Hartford Female Seminary, and Published at their Request. Hartford CN: Packer & Butler. pp. 7–8, 10–11, 15. || WorldCat

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