Catharine Beecher devoted most of her life to the cause of women’s education, believing that women were responsible for the education and moral development of the next generation.
"If all females were not only well educated themselves but were prepared to communicate in an easy manner their stores of knowledge to others; if they not only knew how to regulate their own minds, tempers, and habits but how to effect improvements in those around them, the face of society would be speedily changed."
"It is to mothers and to teachers that the world is to look for the character which is to be enstamped on each succeeding generation, for it is to them that the great business of education is almost exclusively committed. And will it not appear by examination that neither mothers nor teachers have ever been properly educated for their profession?" (1)
-- Catharine Beecher, Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education
Catharine Beecher was born in East Hampton, New York to the prominent Beecher family; more than any other family, they influenced American culture and politics during the late nineteenth century. Catharine was the eldest of 13 children born to Dr. Lyman Beecher, a Presbyterian minister known for his evangelism. Her mother, Roxana (Foote) Beecher died when Catherine was sixteen, and the bond between this eldest child and her father became even stronger. The younger children looked up to her as the head of the household, and she remained exceptionally close to her father even after he married Harriet Porter the following year. Eight of Roxana’s children survived infancy; with Harriet, Lyman Beecher fathered three more sons and a daughter.
That daughter grew up to be the famed Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist who wrote the wildly popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). The book broke records by selling over 500,000 copies within five years of being published. Isabella Beecher Hooker also became a well-known suffrage leader, while Edward Beecher was a pastor and educator who became the first president of Illinois College and formed the first anti-slavery society in Illinois. Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet’s full brother and Catharine’s half-brother, was one of the best known men of the mid-nineteenth century: pastor of Brooklyn’s fashionable Plymouth Church, he attracted thousands to lectures supporting abolition of slavery, temperance, and women’s suffrage. His sermons were printed and widely circulated each week. He was also involved in one of the era’s most scandalous events: he had an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, a member of his congregation and a women’s rights leader. Her husband sued Beecher, but after a six-month trial, the all-male jury acquitted him.
These radical siblings were not exactly what Catharine Beecher had intended when she acted as head of the large family, which also often included extended family and many visitors, as well as servants. When Catharine was nine and her mother still alive, the family moved to Litchfield, Connecticut. Here she studied at the Litchfield Female Academy, taught by a groundbreaking educator, Sarah Pierce. Pierce had opened the school in 1792, with plans to only teach a few girls in of her home, but with an increased demand for education after the American Revolution, the school grew to a much larger entity. Pierce believed that men and women were intellectually equal, and young Catharine absorbed some of Pierce’s revolutionary ideas.
While still in her teens, Beecher produced several poems and ballads that were circulated among local literary circles. She also had poems published in the Christian Spectator under the signature C.D.D. After reading one such poem, Professor Alexander Fisher inquired about the author and thus began a relationship between the two. Fisher and Beecher were soon engaged. Beecher not only was in love with Fisher, but also delighted by the prospect of moving to New Haven and the scholarly community of Yale. The news Fisher had died in a shipwreck on his way back from Europe was devastating. She mourned her fiancé and spent time with his family. While there, Fisher’s brother began giving her lessons in mathematics to keep her mind off the great loss. From this point forward, Beecher vowed to divert all of her energies to the field of education.
With her sister Mary, she founded a girl’s school in Hartford, Connecticut, aimed at training women to become mothers and teachers. Some of the subjects she hoped to teach Beecher had not yet learned herself: her brother Edward then was head of the Hartford Latin School, and she started taking lessons in Latin with him only weeks before she began teaching it. Her students performed excellently at the yearly exhibitions and surprised the many people who did not expect girls to do well. Beecher’s school began to attract so many students that it was hard to accommodate them all.
In most female schools of that era, students were expected to learn little more than the fine arts and languages, but Beecher attempted a plethora of subjects -- and was keenly aware of the necessarily inadequate result. In response to the problem that she found herself encountering, Beecher wrote “Suggestions on Education.” She explained:
“For the brothers of a family the well-endowed college, with its corps of professors, each devoted to one department of knowledge, and with leisure to perfect himself in it and teach it in the most complete manner—for the sisters of the family only such advantages as they could get from one teacher in one room, who had the care of teaching in all branches; and she asked what but superficial knowledge could be the result of such a system.”(2)
She successfully sought donations and expanded her school to become Hartford Female Seminary, hiring eight teachers who focused on a few subjects so that each was taught in a “complete manner.” Beecher’s school gained attention, and she often had visitors who wished to open similar schools; many graduates of Hartford Female Seminary went on to teach in these schools. She also wrote textbooks used in her school and in those that emulated it. Even more unconventional than these educational innovations, however, was the introduction of calisthenics, for she also believed that girls ruined their health with tight corsets, poor diets, and culturally-imposed “fragility.” Catherine Beecher arguably can be termed the pioneer of physical education for females.
After operating her Hartford school for eight years, from 1823 to 1831, she left it to a colleague and moved west when Lyman Beecher became president of Lane Theological Seminary, a progressive Cincinnati institution. Ohio was still a frontier, however, not comparable to Connecticut’s affluent and educated populace, and Catherine Beecher’s Western Female Institute soon faced bankruptcy. Her problems exacerbated by the nation’s first serious depression in 1837, she turned to working on the famous McGuffey readers, the first nationally-adopted textbooks for elementary students.
From then on, Beecher traveled between homes of her numerous family and friends, supporting herself with lectures and books. The Duty of American Women to Their Country (1845) argued for free public education to protect the still-new democracy. She followed up on that in 1852 by founding the American Woman’s Educational Association, which aimed to send teachers west to build schools to the developing frontier.
At the same time, Beecher also expanded the definition of education to include what later was termed home economics. A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) and The Domestic Receipt Book (1846) demonstrated that although she had become a traveling, professional woman who did not maintain a home, she remembered from her early years how much managerial skill indeed was required to efficiently run the era’s large households. Beyond cooking, cleaning, and other work (without electrical appliances), her definition of essential household knowledge also included the maintenance of good health. Her popular sister Harriet joined her in updating these views with The American Woman’s Home (1869).
Catharine Beecher not only did not join her sisters in support of the suffrage movement, but even wrote against it in The True Remedy for the Wrongs of Women and Woman Suffrage and Woman’s Profession (1871). She was far too conservative to have ever endorsed the ordination of women into the clergy, but she probably was aware at some deeper level that had she been a boy, she would have joined her brothers in the clergy. Because she could not do that, she sublimated the energy that propelled her and became an unofficial preacher to women. Her books preached a moralistic, even anti-modern, message; she advocated self-sacrifice, modesty, and frugality along with hints on baby care and cooking. She portrayed home and school as omnipotent societal forces, so important that women should limit their lives to them.
Although she could be considered elderly in the 1860s and 1870s, Beecher returned to brief teaching stints, probably seeking both income and an established position. She died at 77, deeply embarrassed by the recent scandals attached to her half-brother Henry. Despite her advocacy of good health, Catherine Beecher nonetheless suffered numerous nervous collapses and was a patient in more than a dozen sanitariums during her lifetime. The repression of ability that her culture imposed on her finally came to an end while she was living with her brother Thomas in Elmira, New York. She lectured to the young women of Elmira College and probably suffered a stroke; she is buried there.
The Beecher Tradition
PBS: Biography on Catharine Beecher
Open Collections Program: Catharine Beecher
Boydston, Jeanne. The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women’s Rights and Woman’s Sphere. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1993.
Cross, Barbara M. “Catherine Beecher,” in Notable American Women, 1607-1950. Volume One. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Harveson, Mae E. Catharine Esther Beecher, Pioneer Educator, 1932.
Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher. “Catherine Beecher,” in Our famous women : An authorized record of the lives and deeds of distinguished American women of our times : an entirely new work, full of romantic story, lively humor, thrilling experiences, tender pathos, and brilliant wit, with numerous anecdotes, incidents, and personal reminiscences. Hartford, CT: A. D. Worthington, 1884.
Weatherford, Doris. American Women’s History: An A to Z of People, Organizations, Issues, and Events. New York, NY: Patience Hall General Reference, 1994.
White, Barbara A. The Beecher Sisters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003
Woody, Thomas. A History of Women’s Education in the United States. New York, NY: The Science Press, 1929.