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Beecher, Catharine Esther

By Frances Huehls

Graduate Student, Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University

Biographical Highlights

Catharine Esther Beecher was a driving force in the development of teacher education and formal education for women in America.1 Beecher established, or inspired the establishment of, a number of schools in the Midwest, motivated by her dedication to providing educational opportunities for young women. Yet, she was not a suffragist, and believed the acceptable and most powerful positions for women were as domestic role models and teachers of the next generation. Her writings promoted domestic science as a necessary part of the educational curriculum for women. Her popular book A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841) “was the first American work to deal with all facets of domestic life” (Brittanica Online, Beecher 2002).

Historic Roots

Catharine (1800-1878) was born in East Hampton, New York, the first child of Lyman and Roxanna Foote Beecher. Her father, a prominent evangelical Calvinist preacher, would eventually head a family of thirteen children. Catharine and several of her brothers and sisters—Edward, Charles, Henry Ward, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Isabella Beecher Hooker—would play significant roles in educational reform, the revision of Calvinist theology, abolition, and women’s suffrage.

The church and family were central to Catharine’s childhood, including moving to allow the family to serve congregations in Litchfield, Connecticut and Boston, Massachusetts. Like most children of her time, Catharine’s education took place both at home and in more formal settings. When the family moved to Litchfield in 1810, Catharine attended Sarah Pierce’s academy for young women.

In 1816, Catharine’s mother died of tuberculosis, leaving the sixteen-year-old to assume responsibility for the Beecher household. Her life centered on caring for her younger siblings and preparing to take responsibility for a household and family of her own. This changed abruptly in 1823, when Catharine’s fiancé, Alexander Fisher (a Yale professor) died in a shipwreck.

Needing to find a direction for her life and a means of making a living, Catharine and her sister, Mary, established a school for young women in Hartford, Connecticut. The school that began with seven students in 1823 was incorporated as the Hartford Female Seminary four years later. In this new facility, Catharine surpassed the boundaries of traditional education for young women; she implemented a full curriculum that included rhetoric, logic, natural philosophy, chemistry, history, Latin, and algebra.

Like other educational reformers of her day—Sarah Pierce, Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, Zilpah Grant, and Almira Phelps—Catharine believed women needed a superior education in order to raise their children to be good citizens, to teach Christian values, and to train other women to become teachers. Catharine wrote extensively on the subject of education for girls and women, stressing intellectual stimulation, moral education, and physical health. The curriculum in Catharine’s school included regular physical activity (with calisthenics).

Despite her success in implementing an exceptional curriculum at Hartford, Beecher was not able to persuade the school’s trustees to fund an endowment to insure its financial stability. Discouraged with what she viewed as a lack of commitment to female education, Catharine left Hartford in 1831. She traveled west to Cincinnati with Lyman Beecher and established a new school—The Western Female Institute—in 1832. Again, Catharine was unable to muster long-term financial support and the school failed within five years.

Catharine turned her full attention to recruiting and training future teachers. Through the 1840s, Catharine traveled to the East to recruit teachers to teach in western frontier towns. In 1844, she founded the Central Committee for Promoting National Education, which was renamed by her successor as the National Board of Popular Education. Its purpose was to promote teacher education. In 1852, Beecher founded the American Woman’s Educational Association, which helped to establish teachers colleges for women in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa.

Although Catharine was instrumental in founding many institutions, she never found a permanent place for herself within any of them. The final decades of her life were devoted to writing and lecturing. She died in Elmira, New York in 1878.


The early nineteenth century was marked by the rise of evangelical Protestantism that directly linked human behavior to personal salvation. More indirectly, society came to view men and women as having distinctly different roles and responsibilities. Men were viewed as being in the world of politics and business; women lived in the private world of the family. It was in this context that Beecher’s ideas arose and gained popularity. Beecher’s writings spoke to women’s roles within domestic life and helped define those roles by linking education to domesticity.

Yet, her most important contribution was in helping to equalize the quality of education for young women. She promoted the idea that women could and should be teachers of young children, and was instrumental in establishing professional education for careers in teaching.

Beecher did not believe that women inherited virtues of benevolence and self-sacrifice. These were behaviors that girls needed to be taught from an early age. She was able to push her agenda for equal education for girls and women by emphasizing that women needed a strong educational background in order to train all children for their proper roles in society. Educated women benefited all of society by the influence they exerted on their husbands and children. She effectively extended the role of women as teachers of their own children to that of women as the proper role models to teach the children of others. Her views on female education were most notably stated in her own writings, including “Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education, Presented to the Trustees of the Hartford Female Seminary, and Published at Their Request” (1829) and “Educational Reminiscences and Suggestions” (1874).

She actively opposed suffrage for women in favor of women concentrating on their responsibilities to family, the most critical of which was the role of teacher and moral guide. Her 1837 treatise, “An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, With Reference to the Duty of American Females,” urged women to be peace-keepers. Her position against suffrage alienated her from other women suffragists and reformers, who maintained their right to speak publicly.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Beecher’s life is intimately connected to the benevolence movement of the early nineteenth century that gave rise to a plethora of charitable institutions (Bremner 1988; McCarthy 1990; Scott 1990; Ginzberg 1990). Her work in educational reform was an integral part of reform movements of the nineteenth century (Solomon 1985; Nash 2001; Tolley 2001; Sugg 1978). The associations and institutions she established, such as the American Woman’s Educational Association (1852) laid the groundwork for teacher education reform and women’s education. Ironically, her efforts “led to a further decline in the social esteem accorded the teaching profession” because of the large number of females entering the profession after reforms took hold (PBS Online 2002).

Key Related Ideas

Fundamental to Catharine Beecher’s philosophy was the idea that happiness for one’s self could be achieved through contributing to the happiness of others. Education was a source of happiness that could be transmitted to others through teaching. Teaching became a gift that continued to bring rewards to both the teacher and the student.

Education was connected not only to personal happiness and fulfillment, but also to the future of American democracy. A strong formal education would enable a woman to carry out what Beecher considered to be her most important duty: “It is the physical, intellectual, and moral education of children. It is the care of the health, and the formation of the character, of the future citizen of this great nation” (Beecher 1835).

Other key ideas: Equal opportunity in education; women’s colleges, teacher education.

Important People Related to the Topic

Catharine Beecher’s contemporaries in the reform of women’s education include the following (found at Britannica Online 2002):

Zilpah Polly Grant (1794-1874): A beginning teacher at Adams Female Academy in New Hampshire where she developed a rigorous curriculum with testing required to move from one grade to another and a diploma earned upon completion. Grant established the Ipswich Female Seminary in Massachusetts and served as a board member on Catharine Beecher’s American Woman’s Educational Association.

Mary Mason Lyon (1797-1849): A teacher from her teenage years, Lyon began a school in Buckland, Massachusetts. She taught with Zilpah Grant at Adams Female Academy and at Ipswich Female Seminary. She was instrumental in raising funds to establish the highly successful Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (opened 1836), a school dedicated to providing a liberal education for women. Lyon was the Seminary’s principal for twelve years.

Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884): The younger sister of Emma Hart Willard, Phelps was an innovative teacher and principal, as well as an accomplished writer. She wrote a highly-used textbook, Familiar Lectures on Botany (1829), and went on to publish a number of books on natural philosophy, chemistry, geology, botany, and teaching. As a principal at Patapsco Female Institute in Maryland, she implemented a rigorous academic curriculum that included mathematics, science and natural history.

Sarah Pierce (1767-1852): Opened a school in her home which quickly gained public attention. In 1798, citizens in her town donated a building in which Pierce could house her school. The curriculum eventually taught geography, history, composition, philosophy, logic and science, as well as needlework, painting and dance. Pierce’s efforts helped make Litchfield, Connecticut a center of American education.

Harriet Beecher Stowe: Catharine’s younger sister, Stowe was first a student and then a teacher in her sister’s schools. She became particularly interested in the abolition of slavery while living in Ohio, across the river from a Kentucky slave-holding community. She is best remembered for her abolitionist writing, published in book form in 1852 as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (or Life Among the Lowly). The book became one of the best-selling and most loved or despised books of its time and solidified positions of both pro- and anti-slavery proponents.

Emma Hart Willard (1787-1870): Willard opened several schools, including the highly influential Troy Female Seminary after an invitation from New York State Governor DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was inspired by Willard’s work, An Address to the Public; Particularly to the Members of the Legislature of New-York, Proposing a Plan for Improving Female Education (1819), also praised by Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Willard was revolutionary in her thinking about the disparity between boys’ and girls’ education and in the ability of girls to learn the same knowledge. Troy Female Seminary was the first school in America to teach girls math, science and social studies.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

The associations and institutions Beecher established, such as the American Woman’s Educational Association in 1852, laid the groundwork for teacher education reform, development of women’s education, and recruitment of teachers for the western frontier. Though none of these associations exist today, a number of nonprofit groups promote teacher education and women’s success in higher education.

Related Web Sites

Baruch College’s Newman Library Digital Collections, An American Family: The Beecher Tradition, Catharine Beecher: This Web site contains a biographical sketch, samples of Catharine Beecher’s writing, photographs, and other images. It also contains similar information on members of the Beecher family (newman.baruch.cuny.edu/digital/2001/beecher/catherine.htm).

Britannica Online’s Women in American History, Catharine Esther Beecher (at search.eb.com/women/articles/Beecher_Catharine_Esther.html) contains a biographical sketch on Catharine, links to information on other family members, and an excerpt from Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education, Hartford, 1829.

The PBS Online’s Only a Teacher: Schoolhouse Pioneers, Catharine Beecher (1800-1878) Web site contains a biographical sketch on Beecher, commentary by scholars, and a bibliography (www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/beecher.html).

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Beecher, Catharine Esther. An Essay on the Education of Female Teachers, Written at the Request of the American Lyceum and Communicated at Their Annual Meeting, New York, May 8th, 1835. New York: Van Nostrand & Dwight, 1835.

________. Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education, Presented to the Trustees of the Hartford Female Seminary, and Published at Their Request. Hartford, Packard & Butler, 1829.

________. Educational Reminiscences and Suggestions. New York: J.B. Ford, 1874.

________. An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, With Reference to the Duty of American Females. Philadelphia: Boston, Perkins & Marvin, 1837.

Bremner, Robert H. American Philanthropy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. ISBN: 0226073254.

Britannica Online. Women in American History. [cited 12 December 2002]. Available from search.eb.com/women/.

Britannica Online. Women in American History: Catharine Esther Beecher. [cited 22 October 2002]. Available from search.eb.com/women/articles/Beecher_Catharine_Esther.html.

Ginzberg, Lori. Women and the Work of Benevolence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990. ISBN: 0300052545 (1992 paperback).

McCarthy, Kathleen D. “Parallel Power Structures: Women and the Voluntary Sphere.” In ed. K. D. McCarthy, Lady Bountiful Revisited: Women, Philanthropy, and Power. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990, 1-31.

Nash, Margaret. “‘Cultivating the Powers of Human Beings’: Gendered Perspectives on Curricula and Pedagogy in Academies of the New Republic,” History of Education Quarterly 41 (2001): 239-250.

PBS Online. Only a Teacher: Schoolhouse Pioneers, Catharine Beecher (1800-1878). [cited 22 October 2002]. Available from www.pbs.org/onlyateacher/beecher.html.

Scott, Anne Firor. “Women’s Voluntary Associations: From Charity to Reform.” In ed. K. D. McCarthy, Lady Bountiful Revisited: Women, Philanthropy, and Power. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990, 35-38. ISBN: 0813516110

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. Catharine Beecher: a Study in American Domesticity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973. ISBN: 0393008126 (1976 paperback).

Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Educated Women: a History of Women and Higher Education in America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. ISBN: 0300036396 (1986 paperback).

Sugg, Redding S. Motherteacher: the Feminization of American Education. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978.

Tolley, Kim. “The Rise of the Academies: Continuity or Change?” History of Education Quarterly 41 (2001): 225-239.

End Notes

1 Though Beecher’s given name appears in most biographies as “Catharine,” the alternate spelling “Catherine” is also found.