May 20: Catharine Beecher Opens Hartford Female Seminary

 

Today in 1823, the first classes were held at the Hartford Female Seminary, a revolutionary new school for girls founded by author and education pioneer Catharine Beecher.

One of the few extant images of the Hartford Female Seminary’s building on Pratt Street.

Born into the wealthy and influential Beecher family in 1800, Catharine Beecher wholly devoted herself to advancing the education and betterment of young women after her fiancé died in a tragic boating accident in 1822.  While she firmly believed that a woman’s proper place was in the domestic sphere — a stance that put her at odds with 19th century suffragists, including her sister Isabella Beecher Hooker — Catharine also believed that girls were just as mentally capable of learning scientific and philosophical subjects as boys.  A prolific author, Beecher published several popular books in her lifetime, including cookbooks, political treatises, advice books, and textbooks covering a range of topics from ancient history to biology and physical education.

A page from Catharine Beecher’s book, Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families.

Beecher’s Female Seminary, attended by girls ages 12 and older, represented a giant leap forward for the education of young American women by embracing what was traditionally considered a “male” curriculum.  While most “dame schools” of the early 19th century focused on manners, modern languages, fine arts, and narrowly-proscribed swaths of “polite” literature, students at the Hartford Female Seminary studied geography, world history, Latin, rhetoric, philosophy, and the natural sciences.  Beecher was also an outspoken advocate for physical education for young women; her guide to children’s calisthenics, published in the 1850s, included instructive drawings that depicted girls as well as boys engaging in healthful exercises.

Enrollment at the Seminary quickly increased to 100 full-time pupils in just three years, forcing the institution to build a new, Neoclassical-style building at 100 Pratt Street in Hartford.  In addition to promoting a rigorous education curriculum for girls, Beecher also encouraged them to become teachers themselves.  She founded the American Woman’s Educational Association in 1852 in order to recruit and train female teachers for the purpose of building model schools in the western territories of the United States.  Her fierce advocacy forever changed the character of American women’s education — beginning on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Michael Sturges, “Catharine Beecher, Champion of Women’s Education,” connecticuthistory.org

Catharine Beecher,” Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame

“Catharine Esther Beecher,” National Women’s History Museum