U.S. Educational History

Women in Education

            Throughout the history of Colonial America and the United States, females have had an evolving role. The action of girls and women in the past has affected the education and range of opportunities in the present. Beginning in the 1600s there was a lack of schooling, but not educational opportunities, for girls. In the 1700s this began to change as academies for young ladies were created. The first chartered academy was the Young Ladies Academy, opened by John Poor. Marking a change, in the 1800s, seminaries were created by women for women. One example of such is Catharine Beecher and the Hartford Seminary for Girls in Hartford. In the 1900s, there is even more of a marked changed with Christa McAuliffe being chosen to be the first teacher-astronaut and held up then and now as a hero in education. In the 2000s, there is the recognition and publicity brought to the Mendez v. Westminster case through awarding Sylvia Mendez the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

            There has been a perception of a lack of educational opportunities for girls and women in colonial America. One reason for this perception is due to policies that excluded females from their schools.  For example, in Farmington, Connecticut in 1687, the town council stated schooling was to be provided for all children, excluding girls. In addition, a woman gave the first plot of ground for a free school in New England yet “schooling was withheld from girls there for a long period of time” (Matthews, 2001). It is believed Puritans saw little need for instruction of females and feared instruction could be detrimental.

            However, other historians believe by focusing on the education girls received in schools limits our understanding of the educational opportunities girls had. In 1642 the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed an education law that mentioned both girls and boys.  Girls also received education, although not necessarily technical “schooling”, at home. In addition, girls participated in apprenticeships during which their master would often be required to educate. Long describes how a master was reprimanded by the town for failing to provide instruction for his apprentice (1975). Long also points out how the standards we hold for higher places of education, such as Harvard and Yale, were not as rigorous as they are today. Nevertheless, women were not accepted at these schools and therefore their education was limited by today’s standards. There was not total equality in terms of formal schooling, even if girls had more educational opportunities then some acknowledge.

            According to Linda Kerber, after the Revolutionary War there occurred a change in the attitude of educating girls with the rise of a post-revolutionary republican ideology. In addition to this republican ideology, the Enlightenment was occurring with new beliefs regarding women’s intellectual abilities. There also existed “practical needs for literacy and numeracy skills in the new republic” (Nash, 171-2). Although there were other female academies before 1787 (including the Moravian Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1741), the Young Ladies Academy in Philadelphia was the first chartered school for girls in the United States. Academies founded before the Young Ladies Academy. The Young Ladies Academy was founded by John Poor and a committee of men obtained its charter. The course of study at this school included the basic reading, writing, spelling, and arithmetic, but also geography, vocal and instrumental music, and astronomy (Savin and Abrahams, 59).  Dr. Benjamin Rush gave the address at the 1787 commencement exercises and stated that girl’s education should prepare her for “a general intercourse with the world, but to be an agreeable companion for a sensible man.”

            Catherine Beecher’s Hartford Female Seminary in Hartford devoted itself to “providing religious training, homemaking skills, and a degree of intellectual development for women” (Matthews, 2001, 3). In addition, Beecher encouraged women becoming employed as teachers (Preston, 1993, 533). Beecher herself was a teacher, teaching at a private school in New London, Connecticut (553). However the teaching of young children and even older girls was not of interest to her. Instead she focused on promoting the education of women in order to expand their influence on a local and national level (533). Beecher believed teaching was a “women’s ‘natural’ domestic” duty (535). She started three seminaries aimed towards the upper middle class (in Hartford in 1823, the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati in 1833, and the Milwaukee Female College in 1850). With all three schools, she relied on wealthy benefactors who were largely unsympathetic which led to the decline of these schools (Turpin, 2010, 147, 152).  Beecher also wrote extensively, including a Treatise on Domestic Economy, The True Remedies for the Wrongs of Women and Woman’s Suffrage and Woman’s Profession. In these writings she encouraged women to become teachers. When the number of female teachers increased, she urged the higher pay of teachers and the treatment of them with the same equality of legal and medical professions, or even with the equality of male teachers (Preston, 1993, 535-6).

            Christa McAuliffe was a science teacher from New Hampshire who was chosen as the first citizen to go into space. Before the launch, there was much media and publicity surrounding McAuliffe with McAuliffe being treated as a minor celebrity. McAuliffe became a historical figure as the first teachernaut and her resulting death. The explosion of the space shuttle shortly after its launch killed McAuliffe as well as the other crew members. As a result of her death, Congress created the Christa McAuliffe Fellowship Program which “awards one-year sabbaticals to one classroom teacher in each of the 50 states and U.S. territories for study, research, or academic improvement” (Burkhalter, McLean, and Jones, 1).As a teacher, McAuliffe taught about the roles women had in American history, when she herself would soon become one of these one women looked upon as a role model for teachers and women (Buchanan, 1999). On the morning of the launch, worries about the freezing night temperature postponed the launch temporality but just before 11:30, they launched. After the explosion it was discovered the booster rockets had been in fact damaged by the cold weather (Buchanan, 1999). The goal of putting a teacher into space was framed by contemporary press as “to rekindle the public excitement surrounding the earliest U.S. space flights by sending someone who could tell other people what it feels like up there” (Van Bierma and McElwaine, 1985). Her death was viewed as a sacrifice for education and she is viewed to this day as a hero for education

            On February 16, 2011, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sylvia Mendez, a civil rights activist who “advocates for excellence and equality in classrooms across America” (White House, 2011). As a child Sylvia Mendez was denied the right to attend the local school as it was “white-only” and instead had to attend Hoover Elementary, a two room shack (Leal, 2007). Her parents, Felícita and Gonzalez Mendez, sued Westminster school district in the case Mendez v. Westminster, and ended school segregation in California. (McCormick and Ayala, 2007, 2). Mendez is often viewed as a predecessor to Brown v. Board of Education. However, it did not become Brown. This was due to the fact it was not a part of the litigation campaign in response to Plessy v. Ferguson. Also during the case a stipulation was agreed upon that Mexican Americans were in fact white.  Westminster District was claiming the discrimination that occurred was not due to racism towards Mexican Americans, another white race, but was related to the language barrier that existed. The Mendezs’ agreed Mexican Americans were white since it allowed the case to skirt the state law which permitted the desegregation of the schools for Mexican Americans (Saenz, 2004, 2-4). Mendez has not been as recognized until recent years when it has become more publicized. Now, Sylvia Mendez speaks to children on the importance of taking advantage of the educational opportunities available to them (White House, 2011).

            Women’s role and place in education has evolved from little formal recognition to leaders in the forefront. From a secondary place in education to Catharine Beecher to Christa McAuliffe to Sylvia Mendez, women in education will continue to have larger and more influential roles, continuing to shape the classroom, from within and beyond it.


Buchanan, D. (1999).  Air & Space. Chelsea House Publishers. 1999

Burkhalter, B.B., McLean, J.E., & Jones, M.E. (2004). Recipients’ Views of the Role of Christa McAuliffe Fellowships in Science Education. Science Educator. 13 (1), 49-57.

 History of Education Journal, 8 (2), 58-67.

Leal, Fermin. A Desegregation Landmark. (2007, March 21). The Orange County Register

Matthews, B. (2001). Women, education and history. Theory Into Practice, 15 (1), 47-53.

McCormick, J. & Ayala, C.J. (2007). Felícita La Prieta Méndez and the end of Latino school Segregation. CENTRO Journal, 19 (2), 13-35.

Nash, M.A. (1997). Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia.  Journal of the Early Republic, 17 (2), 171-191.

 Preston, J.A. (1993). Domestic Ideology, School Reformers, and Female Teachers: Schoolteaching Becomes Women’s Work in Nineteenth-Century New England.  The New England Quarterly, 66 (4), 531-551.

 Savin, M.B. & Abrahams, H.J. (1957). The Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia.

Turpin, A.L. (2010). The Ideological Origins of the Women’s College: Religion, Class, and Curriculum in the Educational Visions of Catharine Beecher and Mary Lyon. History of Education Quarterly, 50 (2), 133-158.

Van Biema, D.H. & McElwaine, S. (1985, August 5).  Christa McAuliffe Gets NASA’s Nod to Conduct America’s First Classroom in Space. People, 24, 28-32.

White House. (2011). 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom Recipient – Sylvia Mendez. Retrieved from http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2011/02/16/2010-presidential-medal-freedom-recipient-sylvia-mendez

Saenz, T.A. (2004). Mendez and the Legacy of Brown: A Latino Civil Rights Lawyer’s Assessment .Berkley Women’s Law Journal. 19 (2), 276 – 282.




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