Choosing to Teach

Routine of Teaching

Notable Teachers
Women's Education
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Choosing to Teach

Daguerrotype of an unknown school class

School group in front of school, undated
Photograph Collection

Teaching became a source of income and self-sufficiency for women in the early nineteenth century. Women began teaching in rural schools in the same years that the manufacture of cloth--spinning and weaving--moved from the home to factories. Losing this source of income, typically the only other options for women's paid work were factory work or piece work, paid housework, and a very few trades like decorative painting and printing.

The feminization of teaching evolved piecemeal. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, women proved their intellectual abilities. This became apparent at the public examinations of female and coeducational academies. At first, Northern women taught young children in district schools. During westward expansion, there were hundreds of sparsely settled rural districts and rural schools (and teaching opportunities) proliferated in the North. Young women had relatively few other opportunities to earn an income and were an obvious labor source across New England and New York. The wages for this work were minimal, but women had limited options to extend their education. By the 1830s and 1440s, seminaries and academies routinely admitted women who took the advanced courses to prepare themselves for the better paying teaching positions in academies and seminaries. Even here, women were paid about half of what a man earned for the same work.1

In the South, schooling was still considered a family's perogative, and home schooling was common, as was attendance at a female seminary.2

Selected Letters About Choosing to Teach

Letters to Lydia Clark, pg. 4
Letter to Lydia Clarke, pg. 4
Clarke Family Papers

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"Well, I thought about it, Lyd not a little and finally decided to become a 'school ma'am'"



"So you are teaching school really! My little sister. . . preceptress of an Academy and in LITCHFIELD how come you to think you could undertake it?"
>

Letter to Sarah Lyons, June 13, 1847
Letter to Sarah Lyons, June 13, 1847
Elizabeth Holister Walker Papers
Letter from teacher in Lexington, Kentucky
Letter from teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, Nov. 27, 1858
American Education Collection, C. Smith

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"she feeling unhappy and restless. . .declared to herself she would take a change. Thereupon, she wrote to Mrs. Willard that she wished to teach."



"I had taken the idea into my head that I would like to teach - I asked him how I should proceed. . .He said if I really wanted to try a teachers life - I must write to some of my friends who were in the way to do so, to let me know of any vacancy they might hear of. . ."
>

Letters to Lydia Clark, pg. 2
Letters to Lydia Clarke, May 5, 1860, pg. 2
Clarke Family Papers
Margaret Bailey autobiography
Margaret Bailey autobiographical sketch, no date
Norton Strange Townsend Papers

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"one of my teachers was invited to take charge of Putnam Sem in this state & she very considerately & kindly invited me to come with her, which I was very glad to do, instead of teaching a district school. . ."



"Miss Gilbert is rather singular. She is about 40 years of age. She has been quite a belle of New York in her younger years, but being reduced in affluence as well as increased in age, she does not attract so many admirers. . . She is the Instructress in Music and French."
>

Letters from Troy Female Seminary, June 24, 1821
Letter from Troy Female Seminary, June 24, 1821
Cole Family Papers
Sophia Sawyer Papers, Byfield
Sophia Sawyer Papers, Byfield, Dec. 23, 1812
Sophia Sawyer Papers

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"I mentioned to Mrs. E[merson] that I hoped to obtain the school which Maria taught she said if I took that. . .she would look out for me, and if she could not get [me that] one, she would try for another."



"If she [the prospective teacher] can get here [Lexington, KY] in three weeks she will have. . .ten weeks, which will give her $25.00. It will cost her $50.00 to make the journey both ways."
>

Letter from Lexington, KY
Letter from teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, Nov. 27, 1858
American Education Collection, C. Smith
Letter from Emma Clark Green
Letter from Emma Clark Green, Sept. 23, 1846
Emma Green Papers

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"Times are such now days that in order to give satisfaction in teaching the teacher has got to make some progress in knowledge from year to year. . ."



"I have to study hard in order to sustain myself [as teacher]."
>

Letters to Lydia Clark, pg. 8
Letters to Lydia Clark, May 5, 1860, pg. 8
Clarke Family Papers
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Routine of Teaching

As this title suggests, teaching was feminized in the nineteenth century. School reformers in the 1840s and 1850s managed to pass laws in many states that established tax-supported primary schools open to all whites--and in many states, to be built within walking distance. The number of schools increased, and to train teachers for these schools, and to elevate the skill levels of these teachers, states opened teacher training schools called "normal schools" and charged low tuitions. Teacher training schools taught from systematized textbooks like this one. This standardization and codification cooled the fire and energy of the early school reformers however, a teacher's personality remained an important factor in their effectiveness and satisfaction with their chosen profession.3

Samuel Hall, School-keeping

Samuel Hall, Lectures to Female Teachers on School-keeping

Women teachers, even graduates of the training colleges, earned half the salary of a man in the same position with the same qualifications; the smaller salaries paid to women was a key factor in their ascendance in the profession by the 1870s. By then, women held posts as superintendents of school districts, although it remained rare for a woman to supervise a man. At the end of the century, a backlash against women principals and superintendants eliminated women from positions of authority in the profession.4

Selected Letters About the Routine of Teaching

Letter to Betty Crowder
Letter to Betty Crowder, dated Sept. 23, pg. 2
American Education Collection, Betty Crowder

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"each teacher attends to her own girls, shops for them, attends to having their clothes made, takes them to the photograph gallery and Dentist's office and all such places. . ."



"I have 19 girls. . .I have charge of the washing, ironing, mending, & making their clothes."
>

Sawyer, Letter from Brainerd, Georgia
Sophia Sawyer, Letter from Brainerd, Georgia, May 24, 1824, pg. 2
Sophia Sawyer Papers
Letter from Sarah Lyons
Letter from Sarah Lyons, June 13, 1847, pg. 2
Elizabeth Holister Walker Papers

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"I am heartily tired of teaching school at least in this place. "


"But with all its labor I am enjoying my teachers life - I shall learn to love many of my pupils very dearly - and I hope to win their affections"
>

Letters to Lydia Clark, pg. 8
Letters to Lydia Clark, May 5, 1860, pg. 8
Clarke Family Papers
Letters to Lydia Clark, pg. 5
Letters to Lydia Clark, May 5, 1860, pg. 5
Clarke Family Papers

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"the sum of my several classes is one hundred and fifty scholars. . .Oh Lyd, imagine again how formidable to me seemed this rush of human beings at first."


"Teaching is a kind of treadmill, mental treadmill, the monotony of the labor wearies as much as the labor, and the mental nerves and muscles must rest."
>

Letter from teacher in Lexington, Kentucky
Letter from teacher in Lexington, Kentucky, Nov. 27, 1858
American Education Collection, C. Smith
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Notable Teachers

Troy Female Seminary Postcard Photo
Rensselaer County Atlas 9

Before 1800 when academies for women became popular, few women had an education that would qualify them to teach. Female education was a luxury for the well-to-do or a privilege of daughters whose fathers were highly educated. Because women in general had little opportunities to learn, there were few women with the necessary education to provide leadership in women's education. There were notable exceptions like Sarah Pierce of Litchfield Female Academy. However, her prominence was known locally or by word of mouth, since there was limited mail or stage coach transportation.5 This changed in the 1820s when the printing industry and mail service sparked an explosion in literacy and print. As an example, Sarah Pierce's students, Catharine and Harriet Beecher, replicated many of Pierce's teaching practices at the Hartford Female Seminary which they operated, but they became renowned when they published essays on women's education that were read by a national audience.6

Emma Willard, was the best known educational leader in the early nineteenth century, primarily because she published and lobbied for her ideas. In 1819, she petitioned the New York legislature to provide funding for a female seminary in the same way the state funded young men's academies. Her efforts failed, but her writing stirred support among many up and coming entrepreneurs in New York. The businessmen of Troy, built a large female seminary in which Willard continually expanded the intellectual content in the curriculum.7

Mary Lyon, less of a writer than the Beechers and more religious than Emma Willard, built Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary with donations from farm women in New England. There she instituted a system of student labor that defrayed student expenses, lowered economic distinctions between students, and embedded a high quality intellectual education in an evangelical milieu.8

While these founders of female seminaries demonstrated enormous leadership within their female institutions, most of the teachers hired in the Midwest by the 1850s had been educated in coeducational academies, where female leadership was consistently subordinated to those of a male principal.

Selected Letters About Mary Lyon and Emma Willard.

Bethlehem Tuition for Elizabeth Barras
Letter to Dennis Cooley, Feb. 1824
Dennis Cooley Papers

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Mary Lyon wrote, "I attended to this case myself, & decided it myself, because I had so much anxiety about her doing well. I thought it best for her to study Latin."


I cannot say anything more or less of Mrs Willard than that she is the most perfect model of female perfection that I ever beheld. She is well calculated to fill the station she now occupies. Her society is very much courted by every person about her.
>

Letters from Troy Female Seminary, June 24, 1821
Letter from Troy Female Seminary, June 24, 1821
Cole Family Papers
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Reading Between the Lines

Educational leaders have center stage in the historical narrative, not always because of their actual impact at the time, but because they encapsulate in their person the drama of the changes taking place around them.

Writing the history of the evolution of the female curriculum relies heavily on the pronouncements by women educators like Catharine Beecher and Emma Willard. After reading these letters, do you think students--as consumers--played a role? How would our understanding of women's education change if we gave the student's perspective the center stage?

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Related Primary Source Materials at the Clements Library
Abbott, Jacob Teacher. . . 1833
Beecher, Catharine Essay on the education of female teachers 1835
Dall, Caroline Wells College, market, court 1867
Hall, Samuel Read Lectures to female teachers on school-keeping 1832
Hamilton, Elizabeth Letters on the elementary principles of education 1803
Lancaster, Joseph Improvements in education. . . 1807
Phelps, Almira Lincoln Female student 1836
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Secondary Sources for Student Life

1Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990, 45-55.

2Blandin, I. M. E. History of Higher Education of Women in the South Prior to 1860. New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1909. This older work is the classic account of Southern women's education, and argues for its high standards in scholarship.

3Kaestle, Carl F. Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983. This book provides a basic account of the emergence of public schooling and the profession of teaching in the nineteenth century.

4Ibid.. Catharine Beecher. An Essay on the Education of Female Teachers: written at the request of the American Lyceum and communicated at their annual meeting, New York, May 8th, 1835. New York: Van Nostrand and Dwight, 1835. Beecher argued that women were suited to be teachers because they could be paid half of a man's wage. While unjust by today's standards, it reflected social norms of the 1800s.

5Brickley, Lynne Templeton. "Sarah Pierce's Litchfield Female Academy, 1792-1833." Ed.D. diss., Harvard University, 1985.

6Information about Catharine Beecher was taken from Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1973.

7Scott, Anne Firor. "The Ever Widening Circle: The Diffusion of Feminist Values from the Troy Female Seminary, 1822-1872." History of Education Quarterly 19 (1979): 3-25.

8Sklar, Kathryn Kish. "The Founding of Mount Holyoke College," in Women of America: A History, ed. Carol Ruth Berkin and Mary Beth Norton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

9Beers, Frederick W. County atlas of Rensselaer, New York. From recent and actual surveys and records under the superintendence of F. W. Beers. New York: F. W. Beers and Co., 1876.

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