Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Education of a Confederate Woman

As I mentioned in my last blog entry, one of the subjects I studied this year about the Victorian era is "The Education of a Confederate Woman." It turned out to be a fascinating journey into history, with some surprising (at least, to me) results!

Define Your Terms
First off, what did "education" mean in the Victorian era? Webster’s 1828 Dictionary gives us a clue:

The bringing up, as of a child, instruction; formation of manners. Education comprehends all that series of instruction and discipline which is intended to enlighten the understanding, correct the temper, and form the manners and habits of youth, and fit them for usefulness in their future stations. To give children a good education in manners, arts and science, is important; to give them a religious education is indispensable; and an immense responsibility rests on parents and guardians who neglect these duties.

Whew! That's a lot more than what we typically call "education" today! Victorians evidently took academic instruction seriously. To them, a good education prepares you for every aspect of life: physical, mental, and spiritual.

The Right Time Frame
If education is meant to prepare someone with the skills and maturity for life, then it's important to view an educational process within its own time frame. We shouldn't judge an educational system based on our society’s needs – instead we should figure out what knowledge and skills were necessary for that time period before deciding if someone was well-educated or not. Some requirements for maturity transcend all eras, right? But many skills are specific to a certain time frame. We could say that someone who doesn’t have computer skills is uneducated. But in the 1800s, computer skills weren’t necessary. Duh. They'd probably think we're uneducated if we don't know how to milk a cow!

Victorian Interest In Women’s Education
There was a rise in interest in women’s education during the 1800s for several reasons. One reason was that there was a rise in American belief that we should have an educated citizenry. And mothers were the first, and sometimes only, teachers of their children so it made sense to educate them so that they in turn could properly educate their children. Benjamin Rush, one of our country’s founders wrote a treatise called "Thoughts Upon Female Education" in 1787. In it he stated this: "The equal share that every citizen has in the liberty and the possible share he may have in the government of our country make it necessary that our ladies should be qualified to a certain degree, by a peculiar [or particular] and suitable education, to concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government."

A second reason for the rising interest in women’s education was that the industrial revolution provided women with more time for reading and study. Gas light prolonged reading hours in the evening. Sewing machines and factory-made fabric began to take the place of spinning, weaving and hand sewing. Cook stoves and matches took the place of cooking over open fires that had to be carefully banked each night to save the coals. Those are just a few of the time-saving advances that were made in housekeeping in the 1800s. Women simply had more time to read, write and study.

And finally, education has generally been considered important in Christian nations because Christians believe it is the duty of everyone to read the Bible. Thus, census and legal records show that our nation experienced an almost 100% literacy rate from its infancy. Though early legal records generally only record men’s literacy rates, the fact that women were the first and sometimes primary teachers of children – even male children – shows that women’s literacy rates weren’t far behind men’s. As early as 1647, in what has been commonly called the "Old Deluder Satan Law," the motivation for education was linked with reading and understanding the Scriptures.

Politics’ Role in Victorian Education
Of course, you can't talk about a Confederate Woman's education without mentioning the Civil War. We know there were many worldview conflicts between the North and the South leading up to the war and we tend to hear mostly about states’ rights and slavery, but these were by no means the only (or even the most fundamental) issues of disagreement between the two cultures.

One of the great political debates leading up to the War Between the States was whether the federal government had any business being involved in public projects and improvements, one of which was education. Both the Whig and Republican Parties, of which Abraham Lincoln was a member, believed the federal government should centralize and control many things, education included. They tended toward a socialist view of education that says the school system must be federally-owned and federally-controlled.

A chief proponent of this centralization of education was Horace Mann, sometimes called the Father of the Public School Movement. He insisted that taxpayer-supported, compulsory, universal public education was necessary. "'With government education and a hundred years, all streets will be safe,' Mann said. 'You will be able to walk anywhere. Men will love one another. It will be like the garden of God again.'" (I refrain from making any comments about his lack of prophetic powers 150 years later!)

An interesting side note is that many Northerners also favored state-mandated education because they believed it would be purely Protestant-run and thus would push out the Catholics. The Irish Catholic immigrants were unwelcome in the North, and public education was viewed as a way to homogenize school children’s religious view and eradicate Catholicism.

Southerners, on the other hand, believed in local control of education. They certainly were not against providing free education to the poor, but believed it must be properly managed by the people, not a federal bureaucracy. A famous South Carolinian, Wade Hampton, observed, "'Free schools for the poorest as well as the richest, black as well as white' must be 'within the reach of all classes.'" But for Hampton, these "free schools" were to be funded by people in the state of South Carolina, not the federal government.

Southern states all had their charity schools and many funded state support for various educational institutions. But these educational endeavors were usually co-funded with the school students themselves and were locally controlled, thus emphasizing personal responsibility rather than governmental control. If the South had won the war, it’s possible our school system would look very different from what it is today.

So with all the conflict between Northern and Southern worldviews, it’s not surprising that the South’s vision for women’s education was different from the North’s. In the North, feminists were striving for college education for women because they wanted women to enter the workforce with men. They were strident in their desire to put men and women on the same plane in the workforce. Because of this stridency and perceived threat to the work arena, many men and some women in the North were against college education for women.

Southern women, on the other hand, desired college education as a means of improving themselves and making them better wives, mothers and home makers. There was little feministic striving or protesting. Men and women of the South, therefore, considered female college education to be desirable and there was little resistance to it.

The South As An Education Innovator
The old South is often portrayed by modern sources as being uneducated and backward, stuck in ancient religious traditions of illiteracy and repression of women. Nothing could be further from the truth however, especially before the destructive period of the 1860s (many southern schools were shut down by the war and subsequent "reconstruction").

One source remarks, "The South evidenced the greatest interest in female colleges of any region of the nation." This same source observes, "The antebellum South was an innovator in collegiate education for women, which was explicitly designed to be the equivalent of men’s colleges. The legacy of the South’s pioneering role is that it became the pathway to the present."

Some Examples
Possibly the first academic institution opened for girls in America was the Ursaline Academy, opened by Ursaline nuns in 1727 in New Orleans. It is the oldest continuously operating women’s institution in the US, only shutting down briefly in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina.

Salem College, originally founded as "The Little Girls School," is a liberal arts women's college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina founded in 1772. Originally established as a primary school, it later became an academy (high school) and finally a college. It is the oldest female educational establishment that is still a women's college. It is the oldest female institution in the Southern United States.

The first true women’s college, offering an education comparable to men's colleges, was Georgia Female College in Macon, GA. It chartered on December 23, 1836 and opened its doors to students on January 7, 1839. It is now Wesleyan College.

In 1847, Cherokee Nation Chief John Ross began building two educational institutions in Park Hill and Tahlequah, Oklahoma. One was for female students, the other for male students. Both schools were opened in 1851 as public education institutions which taught the equivalent of high school curriculum. One quote said that the Cherokee Female Seminary was the first and finest institution of higher learning for women west of the Mississippi River. The seminary shut down during the war and had difficulty starting again during reconstruction. Eventually the federal government took over when Oklahoma gained statehood. The seminary is now Northeastern State University of Oklahoma.

Founded in 1854, Columbia College is one of the oldest women's colleges in the United States. (To the right is a picture of some of the class of 1881.) Columbia Female College officially opened in 1859 with an initial student body of 121 and a faculty of 16. When General Sherman and his troops marched through Columbia in 1865, the school had to close. It was saved from being torched only because Professor of Music W. H. Orchard, having heard that all unoccupied buildings would be burned by a certain hour, left his home to stand in the doorway of the College where he could be seen by the troops. The school was reopened in 1873.

I have long lists of more southern women's colleges and schools, but these are a good sampling of what I found. Wow! Not exactly the story we often hear about those "backward, repressive southerners," is it?

In my next blog post, I'll go into detail about what a southern woman would have learned and exactly what types of schooling were available to her.

For now... go hug your mom! She's your first teacher, just like those southern women were!

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