Revolutionary Visions: Women’s Initiative(s)
“…we are favoured with opportunities of improvements, of which thousands of our sex are denied.” — Molly Wallace, to the Yound Ladies’ Academy, 1794
istorians continue to debate the impact of the Revolution on women’s education. Material evidence is difficult to interpret: women’s copybooks from before and after the Revolution, for example, differ little in content or style. Without doubt, though, the amount of public discussion concerning women’s education increased dramatically. New periodicals like the Lady’s Magazine focused attention on what women in the new republic should learn, how they should be taught, and by whom.
In addition, the 1780s and 1790s witnessed a number of important educational experiments for women in Pennsylvania. Among the best known of the new schools founded in Philadelphia was the Young Ladies Academy. Sponsored and supervised by many of Philadelphia’s male religious and political leaders, including Benjamin Rush, the Academy offered a Franklinian curriculum to its students: reading, writing, English grammar, mathematics, geography, rhetoric, composition, chemistry, and natural philosophy. It also gave young women a visible civic role by holding annual public examinations for graduates. These events, which were well attended by prominent Philadelphians, featured orations by students, prize awards for academic merit, and sermons by male visitors.
Benjamin Rush gave his lecture Thoughts Upon Female Education in 1787 at the first public ceremony. Rush also taught a chemistry course at the school: shown here is a page from his manuscript lectures. Rush believed in education for women, up to a point; he hoped that, once trained, they would serve as good republican mothers for their sons. Some Academy students dared to challenge limitations imposed by men. In a 1794 speech, Priscilla Mason argued, “our high and mighty Lords (thanks to their arbitrary constitutions) have denied us the means of knowledge, and then reproached us for the want of it.”
earby, a group of Quaker women began an ambitious school project in 1796. The Aimwell School (likely one of the first schools to take a name that reflected its aspirations) was created not for the daughters of wealthier families but for poor girls, most of whom were accepted at no charge. Although a Quaker school, Aimwell was operated independently by its female founders. It began in the home of one of them, Anne Parish, on North Second Street, and soon moved to a nearby schoolroom. Enrollments and attendance varied from as few as ten to as many as fifty students. Eight Quaker women each took turns teaching “some of the most useful branches of learning, such as sewing, Reading, Writing & Arithmetic,” until the success of the school compelled them to hire a paid teacher. The school continued in a modified form into the twentieth century.
ilcah Martha Moore is well known to historians as the author of an important commonplace book containing poetry and prose by several authors, which Moore circulated among her friends. After the Revolution, Moore, a former Quaker, published one of the most popular collections of readings for use in schools, entitled Miscellanies, Moral and Instructive. She prefaced the volume with a statement by Franklin praising the book’s contents and its utility in the classroom. With proceeds from sales of her book, Moore began a school for indigent girls in Montgomery County. She taught there until her death in 1829, leaving an endowment to continue the school.
his globe—a sampler made of silk wrapped over stuffing, with ink highlights for the continents—was made at the Westtown School in Chester County in the early nineteenth century. Many female students at Westtown may have made such samplers. The globe, which is still in Westtown’s collection, represents an alliance of craft and curricular study. One might call it an interdisciplinary object: it suggests an ambitious effort at Westtown to combine traditional elements of women’s learning like embroidery, long used to teach letters, with newly important subjects of study like geography, and with traditionally male subjects like navigation.