Girls in America’s First Public Schools

The experiences of female students and teachers in the first public schools were much different than their experiences in today’s schools.  The main reason that girls were allowed to attend school in the mid-nineteenth century was because they would someday become mothers and would be responsible for the early education of their young sons.  Public schools sought to teach girls patriotism and good morals so that they would pass on these values to their children.

Schoolbooks tried to instill morals in young girls.  For example, in “Character of a Young Lady,” Noah Webster wrote “the love of virtue is Sophia’s ruling passion.  She loves it, because no other thing is so lovely: she loves it, because it is the glory of the female sex: she loves it as the only road to happiness, misery being the sure attendant of a woman without virtue.”  A virtuous woman would be qualified to raise her own children and run her own household.  These were the chief duties of women in the nineteenth century, and their schoolbooks prepared them for these tasks rather than for careers outside the home.  Webster’s character Sophia “prepares herself for managing a family of her own by managing that of her father.  Cookery is familiar to her…her chief view, however, is to serve her mother, and lighten her cares.” 

The emphasis on women’s domestic role was also evident in the types of lessons that female students received.  Although female students in the lower grades received some instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, the older children’s lessons focused more on their future roles as wives and mothers.  Education reformer Catherine Beecher recommended that girls between ages ten and fifteen should concentrate on domestic skills rather than subjects such as English or science.  Lessons often focused on household tasks like sewing.  In a letter to her former teacher, Missouri public school teacher Martha Rogers wrote that “the parents are very desirous that their daughters should learn needlework.”  The lack of supplies in frontier schools made Martha’s task temporarily impossible, but she was determined that her students would learn this vital skill in the future.

The early public schools not only offered separate lessons for girls, but they also physically separated girls from boys.  Girls and boys entered the schoolhouse through different doors and put their coats in separate coatrooms.  The stove in the middle of the schoolroom served as a dividing marker between the girls who sat on one side of the room and the boys who sat on the opposite side.  Laura Ingalls Wilder’s school experience in Minnesota and Dakota Territory reflected the segregation of girls and boys.  As a student, she sat at a desk with another girl, separated from the boys.

Just as boys and girls learned separately from each other, male and female teachers were also given separate tasks.  Nineteenth century public schools generally employed men to teach the more difficult subjects or to serve as principals.  Iowa teacher Augusta E. Hubbell wrote to her former mentor that “I was much disappointed in the character of my school.  You know they wished a teacher of the higher English branches, but when I arrived a gentleman was employed to teach the higher department, and my pupils were all small children.”  Most female public school teachers taught younger students and had little opportunity for advancement.  Nevertheless, teaching gave women their first opportunity to make a living in a respected profession.  The presence of female teachers also inspired young girls to continue learning and eventually form their own careers.  

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