Student questions for "Women and Education"
As you read through the materials for this project, keep in mind these central questions:
1.What role did Elizabeth Murray play in the education of her nieces?
Some questions to consider as implications of the broad question:
a.Why was education so important to Murray?
b.What kind of education did she provide for her nieces?
c.What resources enabled Murray to provide this education?
2.What does this activity reveal about opportunities for female education and the nature of female education in the colonial period?
I. Introduction (Student Essay)
Read through this essay. It will provide you with important background information about education in the colonial period, especially the opportunities available for females. The essay will assist you in thinking about the first questions above.
II. Document list:
Document 1: Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 190. Since the first European colleges had developed primarily as a means of training ministers and later lawyers, their colonial American descendents continued to focus heavily on the classics of literature. Because education was considered preparation for participation in politics, it was not thought necessary to educate women as they would not participate in politics.
Document 2: Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 192-193. This excerpt argues offers an argument on the significance in the disparity between men's and women's educations: writing allows people to expand their social networks beyond the distance of face-to-face communication and gives them access to a broader range of information that offsets the dangers of provincialism. Women's lack of education, therefore, made their lives less advanced than their male counterparts, who generally enjoyed the advantages of written communication.
Document 3: Patricia Cleary, Elizabeth Murray: A Woman's Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), 72. Though Massachusetts residents supported the importance of education propositionally, public schools and compulsory education were slow to develop. Furthermore, such development was quite uneven, varying dramatically from town to town. Despite this variation, the general pattern indicates that education for girls lagged behind that of boys.
Document 4: Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 198. Since education was thought to be appropriate only for men, the anxious conclusion followed that women who were educated would somehow lose their female character and become male, blurring the boundary between the sexes.
Document 5: Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 259. Adventure schools provided a means for additional education for motivated girls from families with at least moderate financial means. They offered a limited education, however, that focused on "ornamental skills" that made girls into attractive potential spouses, rather than giving them practical abilities to cope with politics, budgets, and other practical matters.
Document 6: Kenneth Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England: An Enquiry into the Social Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West (New York: Norton, 1974), 39. Kenneth Lockridge, Literacy in Colonial New England: An Enquiry into the Social Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West (New York: Norton, 1974), 39. While literacy rates of men and women were closest in New England, even there more men were literate than women. By the late eighteenth century, literacy became nearly universal for males in New England, while "women's literacy stagnated below the half-way level." The gap was even wider in the rest of the colonies as well as in England.
Document 7: The Old Deluder Act (1647) From Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (1853), II: 203. This document reveals the religious motivation for early education efforts and helps explain why New England (arguably the most religiously fervent colonial region) had the earliest schooling system. It also offers an important reminder on the cautions of using documents appropriately. Students should note the early date of the original document and recognize that by the mid-18th century (the era of the events under investigation), beliefs about the importance of education were much less likely to invoke supernatural concerns. Also, the fact that this is a legal document indicates what lawmakers desired to happen, not what necessarily transpired. In fact, public education was much slower to develop than this document would indicate (see secondary document excerpt Patricia Cleary, Elizabeth Murray: A Woman's Pursuit of Independence in Eighteenth-Century America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000), 72).
Document 8: Papers of Jeremy Belknap, III, Collections of the MHS, LIV (Boston, 1891) as cited in Mary Beth Norton, Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), 260. Belknap's disparaging reflections on the state of female education in revolutionary era Boston indicate that it was mostly ornamental and not at all practical. Few women, he concludes, could write clearly and with good style. Students should be cautious about the hint of condescension in Belknap's tone toward both women and perhaps others who, because of class, are not skilled in proper style and spelling.
Document 9: Elizabeth Murray, Boston Evening-Post, March 1753, "Shop Advertisement and Embroidery Lesson." This document indicates one of the ways women could earn extra income: by teaching other females to embroider. It also suggests the importance of "ornamental" skills for middle class women, as needlework embroidery is not a completely practical skill like knitting or sewing, but one that enables women to create decorative items.
Document 10: Elizabeth [Murray] Smith to James Murray, 26 February 1770. In this fascinating letter, Murray reveals her attitude toward female education as she writes to her brother regarding her niece and his daughter, Polly. In contrast to many middle class women who supported the ornamental education so popular for females at the time, Murray worries about the dangers Polly becoming "a fine lady." Instead, she has taught Polly practical skills of arithmetic and bookkeeping, skills that will enable her to live on her own without depending upon her father financially. She also disagrees about a plan to have Polly train at a milliners in London as unhelpful, since the nature of running a business in London is quite different from that of Boston. Murray strikes a very independent, pragmatic, and perhaps, empowering, ideal of women's education in strong contrast to most of her peers.
Document 11: Elizabeth [Murray] Smith to Mrs. Deblois, 13 April 1770. Even more blatantly than the above letter, Murray here expresses her opinion on the negative effects of a traditional education for females. Rather than enabling them to survive on their own financially, ornamental education merely makes females silly, superficial, and dependent upon others.
Document 13: Benjamin Rush," Thoughts upon Female Education," 1787. Since most early education remained in the home, the domain of the wife and mother, it followed logically that women ought to be educated themselves so they could better prepare their children for the responsibilities of citizenship. This argument did not take hold immediately, but it did begin to change people's thinking so that by the mid 1800s, large numbers of women were being educated and some were even attending college.