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I. Feminine Ignorance

Unfortunately when we attempt to discover just how thorough woman's mental training was in colonial days we are somewhat handicapped by the lack of accurate data. Here and there through the early writings we have only the merest hints as to what girls studied and as to the length of their schooling. Of course, throughout the world in the seventeenth century it was not customary to educate women in the sense that men in the same rank were educated. Her place was in the home and as economic pressure was not generally such as to force her to make her own living in shop or factory or office, and as society would have scowled at the very idea, she naturally prepared only for marriage and home-making. Very few men of the era, even among philosophers and educational leaders, ever seemed to think that a woman might be a better mother through thorough mental training. And the women themselves, in the main, apparently were not interested.


The result was that there long existed an astonishingly large amount of illiteracy among them. Through an examination made for the U.S. Department of Education, it has been found that among women signing deeds or other legal documents in Massachusetts, from 1653 to 1656, as high as fifty per cent could not write their name, and were obliged to sign by means of a cross; while as late as 1697 fully thirty-eight per cent were as illiterate. In New York fully sixty per cent of the Dutch women were obliged to make their mark; while in Virginia, where deeds signed by 3,066 women were examined, seventy-five per cent could not sign their names. If the condition was so bad among those prosperous enough to own property, what must it have been among the poor and so-called lower classes?

We know, of course, that early in the seventeenth century schools attended by both boys and girls were established in Massachusetts, and before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth there was at least one public school for both sexes in Virginia. But for the most part the girls of early New England appear to have gone to the "dame's school," taught by some spinster or poverty-stricken widow. We may again turn to Sewall's _Diary_ for bits of evidence concerning the schooling in the seventeenth century: "Tuesday, Oct. 16, 1688. Little Hanah going to School in the morn, being enter'd a little within the Schoolhouse Lane, is rid over by David Lopez, fell on her back, but I hope little hurt, save that her Teeth bled a Little; was much frighted; but went to School."[43] "Friday, Jan. 7th, 1686-7. This day Dame Walker is taken so ill that she sends home my Daughters, not being able to teach them."[44] "Wednesday, Jan. 19th, 1686-7. Mr. Stoughton and Dudley and Capt. Eliot and Self, go to Muddy-River to Andrew Gardner's, where 'tis agreed that £12 only in or as Money, be levyed on the people by a Rate towards maintaining a School to teach to write and read English."[45] "Apr. 27, 1691.... This afternoon had Joseph to School to Capt. Townsend's Mother's, his Cousin Jane accompanying him, carried his Hornbook."[46]

And what did girls of Puritan days learn in the "dame schools"? Sewall again may enlighten us in a notation in his _Diary_ for 1696: "Mary goes to Mrs. Thair's to learn to Read and Knit." More than one hundred years afterwards (1817), Abigail Adams, writing of her childhood, declared: "My early education did not partake of the abundant opportunities which the present days offer, and which even our common country schools now afford. I never was sent to any school. I was always sick. Female education, in the best families went no farther than writing and arithmetic; in some few and rare instances, music and dancing."[47]

The Dutch women of New York, famous for their skill in housekeeping, probably did not attend school, but received at home what little they knew of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Mrs. Grant, speaking of opportunities for female education in New Amsterdam in 1709, makes it clear that the training of a girl's brain troubled no Hollander's head. "It was at this time very difficult to procure the means of instruction in those inland districts; female education, of consequence, was conducted on a very limited scale; girls learned needlework (in which they were indeed both skilful and ingenious) from their mothers and aunts; they were taught too at that period to read, in Dutch, the Bible, and a few Calvinist tracts of the devotional kind. But in the infancy of the settlement few girls read English; when they did, they were thought accomplished; they generally spoke it, however imperfectly, and few were taught writing. This confined education precluded elegance; yet, though there was no polish, there was no vulgarity."[48]

The words of the biographer of Catherine Schuyler might truthfully have been applied to almost any girl in or near the quaint Dutch city: "Meanwhile [about 1740] the girl [Catherine Schuyler] was perfecting herself in the arts of housekeeping so dear to the Dutch matron. The care of the dairy, the poultry, the spinning, the baking, the brewing, the immaculate cleanliness of the Dutch, were not so much duties as sacred household rites."[49] So much for womanly education in New Amsterdam. A thorough training in domestic science, enough arithmetic for keeping accurate accounts of expenses, and previous little reading--these were considered ample to set the young woman on the right path for her vocation as wife and mother.

This high respect for arithmetic was by no means limited to New York. Ben Franklin, while in London, wrote thus to his daughter: "The more attentively dutiful and tender you are towards your good mama, the more you will recommend yourself to me.... Go constantly to church, whoever preaches. For the rest, I would only recommend to you in my absence, to acquire those useful accomplishments, arithmetic, and book-keeping. This you might do with ease, if you would resolve not to see company on the hours set apart for those studies."[50] In addition, however, Franklin seems not to have been averse to a girl's receiving some of those social accomplishments which might add to her graces; for in 1750 he wrote his mother the following message about this same child: "Sally grows a fine Girl, and is extreamly industrious with her Needle, and delights in her Book. She is of a most affectionate Temper, and perfectly dutiful and obliging to her Parents, and to all. Perhaps I flatter myself too much, but I have hopes that she will prove an ingenious, sensible, notable, and worthy Woman, like her Aunt Jenny. She goes now to the Dancing-School..."[51]