The level and manner of women’s education in colonial America was largely dependent on race, class, and location. In general, the purpose of women’s education in colonial America was to become skilled at household duties and chores in order to find a suitable husband. A woman who was highly educated in academics was thought to be unusual and not sought after. There were, however, exceptions to this standard.
Education in colonial America at first was based on European traditions. In Europe, wealthy girls might be taught by a governess or sent to a convent school to learn the basics of reading and writing. Middle class families could generally only afford to educate their sons and in lower class families neither the boys nor the girls were educated. As America grew, private tutors slowly gave way to town schools.
In New England, both girls and boys attended “dame schools”, which offered a program equivalent to that of a kindergarten by today’s standards. A local woman would take in several children and teach them their numbers and ABC’s as well as some other basic curriculum such as reading and writing while going about her daily chores. The program prepared boys with the basic skills needed to enter a town school. The female students were taught womanly skills such as sewing and knitting. After dame schools boys were given the option to continue their education but most girls were not. All but a few towns in New England specifically barred girls from town schools. Girls were permitted to attend town schools towards the end of the 18th century but the change was slow and often involved girls being taught at times separate from the boys.
In the South plantations were too far apart to start schools so private tutors were hired to teach the sons. If the girls were lucky they would be allowed to sit in on these lessons and in some cases a governess was hired to teach the girls. The girls were taught reading in order to study the Bible and writing and arithmetic to record household expenses. Girls would also be taught subjects like social etiquette, music, needlework, cooking, and nursing. All of their lessons were meant to be used in their daily lives as pious wives, mothers, and housekeepers (1). In much of the South during colonial times the education of slaves was strictly forbidden. In 1740, South Carolina passed a law which prohibited anyone from teaching a slave to read or write. There were cases, however, where slaveholders felt it would be useful for their slaves to read and write in order to help with jobs such as record keeping. Other slaveholders felt that it was important for their slaves to be able to read the bible. Some slaveholders taught their slaves themselves or hired tutors and in very rare instances plantation schools were started for the slaves. In the North the education of slaves was not forbidden and therefore, the likelihood that they would be able to read or write was higher than for southern slaves.
Quaker and Moravian communities believed in educating both genders. Quakers believed that the gifts of both sexes should be cultivated and proposed that both girls and boys schools be started. While they believed in the education of both sexes, they were taught separately and girls education focused mainly on domestic skills. Puritans believed girls should be taught to read for the purpose of reading the Bible, but they were often not taught to write.
Quakers promoted the education of African Americans and in some instances they were given access to formal schooling. However, the African American schools had a hard time staying open facing little support from whites and a lack of funding (2).
Perhaps the most prominent example of an educated African American woman during colonial times was Phillis Wheatley (image on the right). Wheatley’s education was extremely rare for the 1700’s. The family that bought Wheatley taught her to read English, Greek and Latin. She also studied astronomy and geography.