Archive Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Uncategorized

Women’s Education in the Early American Republic

We’ve treated the Protestant educational legacy at various times here in the past: see, for example, this; or this; or this.

One aspect we haven’t touched on is the premium that Presbyterians in particular placed on the education of women. This is arguably a legacy of the Ulster Presbyterianism of the Scotch-Irish, who insisted that their daughters as well as their sons receive a proper education. After all, one cannot very well read the Bible or the catechism without it. 

One sees it, too, in the writings of American Founder Benjamin Rush, himself a (sort of) Presbyterian, though of English rather than of Ulster descent. (I’ve mentioned Rush on TCI a couple of times before; his record is far from perfect.)

Thus in a 1798 address on “the mode of education proper in a Republic,” Rush includes near the end a plea for women’s education, not least for its important civic function in a commonwealth that was to be governed as the fledgling United States was. Indeed, like Aristotle Rush though that modes of education had to be tempered to types of constitutions or regimes:

The business of education has acquired a new complexion by the independence of our country. The form of government we have assumed, has created a new class of duties to every American. It becomes us, therefore, to examine our former habits upon this subject, and in laying the foundations for nurseries of wise and good men, to adapt our modes of teaching to the peculiar form of our government.

And in this new experiment, he believed, educated women had a crucial and indispensable role to play:

I beg pardon for having delayed so long to say any thing of the separate and peculiar mode of education proper for women in a republic. I am sensible that they must concur in all our plans of education for young men, or no laws will ever render them effectual. To qualify our women for this purpose, they should not only be instructed in the usual  branches of female education, but they should be taught the principles of liberty and government; and the obligations of patriotism should be inculcated upon them. The opinions and conduct of men are often regulated by the women in the most arduous enterprizes of life; and their approbation is frequently the principal reward of the hero’s dangers, and the patriot’s toils. Besides, the first impressions upon the minds of children are generally derived from the women. Of how much consequence, therefore, is it in a republic, that they should think justly upon the great subject of liberty and government!

He does not, it is true, believe that male and female education should be identical; but the scope he recommends is much broader than what had theretofore been contemplated. And in any case, without the “buy-in” of republican mothers, “no laws will ever render [our plans of education for young men] effectual.” 

Beyond that–beyond soliciting women’s agreement about the education of others–he believed that they themselves must receive in particular a political or civic education such that they, too, would see themselves as part of the commonwealth in partnership with men. He thought this to be self-evident for a couple of reasons: first, because of a general belief about the interrelationship of the sexes (men often do what they do, says Rush, to get the girl, and it is more likely that they will go to great lengths for the sake of republican virtue if there is a woman waiting at the other end who applauds and approves of republican virtue); and second, because of the irreplaceable role of women in motherhood (for they are the first and perhaps most formative educators of their children).

For these reasons, primarily civic and familial, with the latter as the chief ingredient for the well-being of the former, Rush promoted the reconfiguration of women’s education as it had been practiced in most places up to his day. 

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.