If Not for Her Sex: The Mysterious Education of American Women, 1750-1850

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If Not for Her Sex: The Mysterious Education of American Women, 1750-1850

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The topic of educating middle and lower class women, in 1750-1850, has been sparsely annotated in historical research. Historical research hinted that these women were educated far beyond the “female arts,” but little else was written to indicate how women, without substantial means, were able to acquire higher education. Interwoven through historical research on higher education, however, were nuanced mentions that women were educated for professions and acquired high-level literacy. Due to the dearth of research on women’s education during this period, I decided to focus my study on the first women’s post-secondary school: the Moravian Seminary for Young Ladies in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Other resources unearthed curriculums of both the Moravian Seminary for Young Women and Mount Holyoke. I looked into their archives to understand who their marketed audience was and what kinds of learning materials were used to teach female students. From the curriculum, I hoped to find women’s motivations for seeking post-secondary education and what women expected from gaining this education. In the 1700s women that were Quakers or Moravians experienced more acceptance and open access to higher education compared to that of their non-secular counterparts. Most [Puritan] women could read, but not write, as it was not deemed necessary for their education. The women that did pursue post-secondary education discontinued this pursuit once married. The general idea about educating lower and middle class women was that it allowed them the ability to educate their children. In the 1800s, most women who sought education, regardless of class, became educated to be useful to their families and communities. Usefulness was of the utmost importance for all genders, post-revolution, to aid in building the new nation. Usefulness was found inside and outside the home, in the public and private spheres. The conclusions drawn from my research reasserted the lack of primary resource documentation of women’s education, particularly in the 1700s and early 1800s. The historical research of women pursuing higher education in early America needs further attention. Discovering how higher education informed the lives of all sexes in the 1700s and 1800s can give us a fuller picture of their contributions to our present. It could aid historians in understanding the lives of a sex that have been obscured by the category of Private Sphere for too long.


University of Minnesota M.A. thesis. June 2017. Major: Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development. Advisor: Karen Miksch. 1 computer file (PDF); vi, 70 pages.

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Palmer, Amy. (2017). If Not for Her Sex: The Mysterious Education of American Women, 1750-1850. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/190585.

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