Catharine Beecher: Activist for Women in Education

Catharine Beecher
Portrait of Catharine Beecher author of 'Treatise on Domestic Economy', circa 1850s. Fotosearch / Getty Images

Catharine Beecher was an American author and educator, born into a family of religious activists. She spent her life working to further the education of women, believing that educated and moral women were the foundation of family life in society.

Catharine Beecher Fast Facts

  • Born: September 6, 1800 in East Hampton, New York
  • Died: May 12, 1878 in Elmira, New York
  • Parents: Lyman Beecher and Roxana Foote
  • Siblings: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher
  • Known For: American activist who believed that educated and moral women were the foundation of an upright society. She worked to further educational opportunities for women in the nineteenth century but opposed women's suffrage.

Early Life

Catharine Beecher was the eldest of 13 children born to Lyman Beecher and his wife, Roxana Foote. Lyman was a Presbyterian minister and outspoken activist, and was the founder of the American Temperance Society. Catharine's siblings included Harriet, who would grow up to be an abolitionist and write Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Henry Ward, who became a clergyman whose activism included social reforms and the abolitionist movement.

Like many young ladies at the time, Catharine, who was born in 1800, spent the first ten years of her life being educated at home. Later, her parents sent her to private school in Connecticut, but she was dissatisfied with the curriculum. Subjects like mathematics, philosophy, and Latin were not available in girls' schools, so Catharine learned these on her own.

After her mother died in 1816, Catharine returned home and took over the running of her father's household and supervision of her younger siblings; a few years later she began working as a teacher. By the time she was 23, she and her sister Mary had opened the Hartford Female Seminary to provide educational opportunities for girls.

The Beecher Family
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Activism

Catharine believed that it was important for women to be well-educated, so she taught herself all sorts of subjects that she could then pass along to her students. She learned Latin from her brother Edward, the headmaster of another school in Hartford, and studied chemistry, algebra, and rhetoric. She presented the novel idea that young women could learn all of these subjects from a single teacher, and soon her school was in high demand.

She also believed that ladies benefited from physical activity, which was a revolutionary concept. Catharine disdained the poor health that was brought on by tight corsets and poor diets, so she developed a calisthenics plan for her students. She soon began writing about her curriculum, to serve as a guide for other teachers. Catharine felt "the primary goal of education should be to provide a basis for the development of the student’s conscience and moral makeup."

Catharine Beecher c. 1860
Catharine Beecher. Black & Batchelder / Schlesinger Library / Public Domain

As her students grew up and moved on, Catharine shifted her focus to the roles that they would eventually play in society. Although she strongly believed that child-rearing and running the domestic aspects of a home were a source of pride for women, she also felt that women were entitled to respect and responsibility outside of their roles as wives and mothers. In the 1830s she followed her father, Lyman, to Cincinnati, and opened the Western Female Institute.

Her goal was to educate women so they could become teachers, which had traditionally been a male-dominated profession. Catharine, who never married, saw women as natural teachers, with education as an extension of their roles as the guides of domestic home life. Because more men were leaving the world of education to go into industry, training women as teachers was a perfect solution. After a few years, she closed the school due to a lack of public support.

The Beechers were not popular in Cincinnati because of their radical abolitionist views, and in 1837 Catharine wrote and published Slavery and Abolition with Reference to the Duty of American Females. In this treatise, she argued that women needed to stay out of the abolition movement because of the potential for violence, and instead needed to focus on creating moral and harmonious home lives for their husbands and children. This, she believed, would give women power and influence.

Her work A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, published in 1841, promoted the responsibility of girls' schools to teach not only intellectual pursuits, but also physical activity and moral guidance. The work became a best-seller, offering helpful suggestions on how to manage domestic life. Women needed a solid educational foundation to manage their homes, she felt, using this as the foundation from which they could change society.

Miss Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper
Front page of "Miss Beecher's Housekeeper and Healthkeeper". Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Although Catharine felt women needed to be educated, she also believed they should stay out of politics, and was opposed to women earning the right to vote.

Legacy

Over her lifetime, Catharine opened numerous schools for women, wrote dozens of essays and pamphlets for causes in which she believed, and lectured around the country. Through this work, she helped gain respect for the role of women in society, and encouraged women to find employment as teachers. This helped to change the way society looked at education and careers for women.

Catherine died on May 12, 1878, while visiting her brother Thomas. After her death, three different teaching universities named buildings in her honor, including one in Cincinnati.

Sources

  • Beecher, Catharine E, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. “The Project Gutenberg EBook, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, by Catherine Esther Beecher.”A Treatise on Domestic Economy, by Catherine Esther Beecher, Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org/files/21829/21829-h/21829-h.htm.
  • “Catherine Beecher.” History of American Women, 2 Apr. 2017, www.womenhistoryblog.com/2013/10/catherine-beecher.html.
  • Cruea, Susan M., "Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement" (2005). General Studies Writing Faculty Publications. 1. https://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/gsw_pub/1
  • Turpin, Andrea L. “The Ideological Origins of the Womens College: Religion, Class, and Curriculum in the Educational Visions of Catharine Beecher and Mary Lyon.” History of Education Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 2, 2010, pp. 133–158., doi:10.1111/j.1748-5959.2010.00257.x.