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Report of the Committee on Education

October 15-16, 1851 — National Women’s Rights Convention, Worcester MA


The Convention of last year, from which this Committee holds its appointment, resolved,

That Women should demand and secure Education in Primary and High Schools, Universities, Medical, Legal and Theological Institutions, as comprehensive and exact as their abilities prompt them to seek, and their capabilities fit them to receive.

The scheme of female education here proposed evidently looks to the ultimate employment of all the branches of knowledge which it embraces, in the various professions and avocations of actual life for which they are pursued and acquired by the sex that now monopolizes them; and, having like ends and objects in contemplation in the training of both sexes, of course, recommends a similar system of preparation for both.

The Convention, looking also at Education subjectively and with reference only to its most effective policy, affirmed, in other resolutions, that the prospect of such variety of useful and honorable employments in after life as may arouse Woman’s ambition and call forth her whole nature, is as essential and as indispensable to successful female study, as are the hopes and aims which incite the male student to strenuous effort and great achievement. It went even further, and declared, “that every effort to educate Woman, until you accord to her her rights, and arouse her conscience by the weight of her responsibilities, is futile, and a waste of labor.”

According to these views, no distinctions whatever are recognized in the ends and uses of the education of the sexes, and, of consequence, none are allowed in the substance and method of it. Moreover, mixed schools in all varieties of study, preparatory, collegiate and professional, seem to be intended by the general tenor of the resolutions, though it is nowhere formally expressed: in a word, equality of the sexes, in rights, faculties and offices, is assumed, and equal means, opportunities and liberties are demanded for them.

In the fair and proper meaning of these general propositions, your Committee concurs, but desires to guard the meaning of the terms and purport of the doctrines here employed from the current misconstructions of both friends and foes to the movement of female emancipation.

By Equality, we do not mean either identity or likeness, in general or in particulars, of the two sexes; but, equivalence of dignity, necessity and use; admitting all differences and modifications which shall not affect a just claim to equal liberty in development and action.

In the respective sexes, the faculties having the same general use, character, and name, may differ greatly in force or in acuteness, in some quality of substance or of action, without being thereby divorced from each other in their drift toward the same objects, and without affecting the whole method and movement of either of them, so as to throw it out of harmony with the other. Indeed, Nature seems never to repeat herself, and no individual is equal in fact and form with any other in the universe; and it is quite consonant with this principle of creation that sex should impress still a different kind of variety upon all faculties, feelings and vital forces, than those of measure and degree, simply. And if it be so, it should, rather than any other sort of difference, be exempted from the degradation of relative inferiority. The wise and the less wise, the strong and the weak of the same sex, may more justly be ranked and valued against each other; for they are sufficiently alike in texture, quality, and mode of action, to admit of comparison and relative estimate; but the essential difference of sex refuses any logical basis for measurement, as by weight and scale. There is no philosophy in balancing light against heat, love against knowledge, force against agility, or mathematics against imagination, and deriving thence a sort of feudal subordination among the subjects of the sciences of chemistry, mental philosophy, and social and civil government.

The differences which we admit are, on the contrary, reciprocal, and really adjust the sexes to each other, and establish mutuality where otherwise there would be but an aggregation of like to like, without relief to monotony or increase in efficiency. It is only in materialism that addition of similars adds to their value: a fool is no help to a wise man in thinking, nor a coward to a brave one in daring and enduring. In psychical life there is this broad provision, that all difference in kind is available, and not less or more only is the measure of increase, but all variety is riches. Differences in moral and intellectual things, if regarded as antagonism to the extent of the unlikeness, would render any consistent system of organization impossible. Thus: Woman, from her conceded superiority in the family affections, would be entitled to exclusive control in the domestic function; her higher and more susceptible religious constitution would give her the monopoly of the priestly office; and her eminent moral endowments fit her for the rule of social life and manners, including all those municipal laws which regulate the relations of men to each other in civil society. So that the professions of Law, Theology and Medicine, in nearly all its branches, would belong to her by right of special fitness, and men, by the same rule, would be wholly excluded. This principle of distribution would leave-what would it leave to the sole administration of men? Nothing but the ordering of those affairs, and the cultivation of those sciences, for which their ruder strength of muscle, greater bluntness of nerve, and firmer quality of logical reasoning, if they have all these or either of them, qualify them. In general terms, the cultivation of those physical sciences which direct in the use of mechanical forces, and those coarser competitions and ruder conflicts of men which foreign commerce and destructive wars require, would fall to the province of the sterner sex.

The ground and rule of this division of the sciences between the sexes, is the correspondence everywhere observed between internal powers and external instruments, that is, between the mental faculties and bodily structure; and therefore we strike the line of division among the mental qualifications for various uses, just where the eminent strength of the masculine structure requires it. For example, his greater physical energy demands superiority in those sciences which are concerned in mechanics; but the same principle denies his superiority in botany, chemistry and astronomy, unless to the extent that mathematics or the science of quantity, as it may be called, intervenes. But these points, be it noticed, are now made only in reference to the proposition which we are examining and for the present purpose in hand.

From considerations like these it must be obvious that the rule of reasoning by which the present order of things is directed, in the respects alluded to, if pushed to its proper consequences, must end in overthrowing the very wrong which is built upon it, and, after that, in overthrowing itself, too, by its sheer absurdity. We put the whole subject, therefore, upon very different grounds. We deny that there is any natural conflict between the parties which the prevalent wrong has arrayed against each other, or any necessary gradation, rank, or subordination, founded in distinction of sex and its inherent differences of constitution; and, especially, we deny that either sex must needs be restrained, or crippled, or enslaved, to advance the welfare of either, or to maintain the good order of society, or to advance the destiny of the race.

On the contrary, it seems to us clear above all controversy, that in the moral world the mere existence of a power or faculty is the divine warranty for its exercise, and necessarily implies its own right of full development and free use; and, consequently, that all questions of fitness and propriety must be determined by the simple fact of capability. A skillful mechanic never puts a wheel, or pulley, or spring too many in his machine; nor wastes material or power in making them too great or strong for their intended use. Human nature is at least as well and wisely adjusted to its offices and relations; and the inference is irresistible that whatever a woman can do at all she may do, and should learn to do as well as she can. It cannot be admitted that any power given her by her Creator was bestowed in mistake and must work mischief by its activities, and that such mistake requires correction by the superior wisdom of Man!

Further: When the argument for restraint is rested upon Woman’s alleged incapacities, we might triumphantly answer, that where an actual and obvious incapability is seen and known among men, their eligibility is not therefore taken away, but that incapacity is found in itself a sufficient bar to great abuses, and a sufficient protection of the interests to be affected; at least, no other is adopted. Certain men, ay, multitudes of them, are unfit for lawyers, physicians, governors, and military officers; yet, the chance and hope are left freely open to all these as well as to the most capable without mischief, and the world gets along as well as it deserves, and as well as it wishes, notwithstanding. Incompetency in all these cases (and they are myriads) is not excluded from office, rank, and honorably remunerated service by legal impediments, or the force of custom and opinion, which are quite as rigorous and absolute in their rule. Justice and consistency alike demand that the avenues of hope and life shall be opened as fairly and freely to the excluded sex as to the notoriously incompetent of the other, and there can be no doubt that it may be done in every department of human affairs as safely, to say the least. The common sense of the world will be as able to protect itself in the one case as in the other; and besides, the Providence of Heaven is responsible for the safe working of all the forces which He has provided for the conduct of human life. If women really cannot practice medicine, law, and theology, well and safely, the sick, the suitors, and the suffering sinners will discover the fact, and there is nothing specially put in danger by the trial except the illiberal opinion which refuses it. But this objection is in itself so weak and unwarranted, that it may be justly set down as merely arrogant and selfish. Medical schools, for instance, are really not closed against women because they cannot acquire the knowledge of the profession and practice it successfully, but because they can do both, and threaten very seriously to wrest the business from the hands which have so long usurped it. And, surely, there is no likelihood that the “weaker sex” would betray the science into greater confusion and disgrace than the dozen or twenty conflicting systems have done, which now divide and distract the world about their rival merits. No, no, gentlemen; theory and practice are not so well established in medicine as to prove the sole capability of the sex which has appropriated its authority and delivered its oracles for the last few centuries of modern history. The world has lost its respect for the pompous mystery of the craft, and the chaos you have created where we looked for light and certainty, disproves your proud pretension of exclusive fitness in the sex which bears the responsibility. Beards and wigs have gone so nearly into bankruptcy in this business, that they cannot refuse the fresh partners and increased capital that are wanting to repair their falling fortunes! [1]

And is theology in any better condition? Are its hundred sects, each with its vital difference of opinion, ready to come into court and answer for the wisdom and worthiness of their stewardship, and defend their claim of superior fitness against the reserved abilities of the race?

Incompetency, indeed! Why, this is proved by positive failure, upon fair trial, against the usurping sex, and it does not lie gracefully in their mouths to make the objection against the excluded party. In the soberest earnest, there is nothing in the condition of the sciences which we have named to warrant the presumptions on which women are barred out of them, nor anything to terrify even feminine mediocrity of talent with apprehension of contrasted unworthiness.

Law may be exceedingly difficult of achievement, and we are inclined to think it is so when we observe that the individual that here and there in a nation, and once or twice in a century, distinguishes himself in the profession, is thereupon regarded as almost superhuman; but this, to our blunt way of thinking, only renders it every way more probable that fresh hearts and clear heads, which never could or would comprehend its subtleties, are the very agents which the abused world wants to clear away the incumbering rubbish, and replace it with a clearer and truer system. It is owing to the felt necessity of such change that the States of the Union which have the idea of American progress are all rapidly making their judges elective by the people, hoping thereby to get gradually rid of the dead weight of the dark ages[2] in our system of jurisprudence. This is in fact another confession of incompetency, and a movement toward that freedom from absurd authority which will be complete only when woman’s tact lightens man’s drudgery in the administration of affairs.

This may seem over bold and direct, and wanting in reverence, if not in sober earnestness; but it may as well be said here as elsewhere, that the best intelligence and integrity of the age feel the faults we censure, and are almost hopeless of a thorough remedy, while the administration continues in the hands of those who are by their education made perpetual successors to the evil inheritance and devoted to its continuance. The democratic method, which is reversing as fast as it can all the precedents of antiquity in this matter of office and civil and social trusts, is nothing else than a protest against the claim of exclusive qualification by the old incumbents and their legitimate disciples. This rising idea we push forward to the full truth which there is in it. To the popular cry, Admit the people to the temples of their own religion, to the bench of their own Courts, to the halls of their own Legislatures, to the doctorate of the learned professions, and the throne of their own sovereignty, we add, Admit the whole people, if ye would be true to your own idea and worthy of your own liberty.

It is simply a matter of fact, and, therefore, of observation and not of argument, that a woman will reach the justice of a case by such intellect as God has given her, helped by her fine intuitions and nice moral instincts, where the cramp logic of a mere lawyer shall utterly fail to find either a reason or a precedent. In great confidence we venture the assertion, now, that the science of law is destined to find its necessary regeneration at last in that special aptness for moral truth which is the characteristic of the female mind. Boldly but warily we put these points in the conviction, which rests, woman-like, upon its own intrinsic clearness and trusts itself to its self-evident proofs, that the several mischiefs of the learned professions we so freely criticize arise out of the exclusion of that refining and correcting element which woman’s mind alone can supply in all the interests and uses which these professions are intended to subserve.

There is another pretense upon which the existing restraints are fastened, like handcuffs, upon womanhood, to wit: the indelicacy, indecorum, or impropriety of such greater range and freedom as we claim for her. To this, it is quite sufficient to reply, that the greater delicacy, purity, and sensitiveness of the sex, are the very things of all others that can best take care of themselves in such exposure, which, be it observed, is to be in all cases free and voluntary, and so a matter of taste and choice. And is it too much, or too severe to say, that women must be better fitted to settle all questions which concern their own delicacy than the admitted obtuseness and coarseness of men in these respects supposes them to be? If they really are just what this notion ascribes to them, they are the best guardians of their peculiarity, by the natural rule that makes Michael Angelo the standard in Statuary, Newton in Astronomy, Handel in Music, and, in general, the divine right of fitness by which the highest endowed in any gift or grace gives the law which governs in its proper province. The officious interference of men in such matters proves the want of the qualifying modesty, and is simply impertinent where it is not also arrogant and meanly tyrannical; and our answer to all such assumption is – Open the possibilities of active life to woman freely, and by her own instincts and fitnesses she will find her place, as certainly as the planets and their satellites find their orbits and movement by their own proper attractions and repulsions. Only do not legislate presumptuously and despotically in matters wherein sovereign Nature has already ordained the law, and can guard it well by adequate rewards and penalties without the help of customs and conventions.

But let it suffice for this whole argument, that we do not claim for woman parallelism, equality, or superiority of constitution, capacity or office, as against men, but we merely claim the freedom of her proper life, whatever that may prove to be upon fair trial; we claim the privilege and the opportunity for unfolding all her powers, in the conditions and with the helps most favorable for the possibilities of growth, and the full play of all those hopes, incentives, and prospects, whose monopoly has developed man unto her master, and enslaved and degraded her in the proportion that they have been withheld from her.

Esteeming this position as clear and secure as it is reasonable and just, we pass now to notice, in very general statement, and in as brief terms, the policy of education as it exists at present in reference to the two sexes respectively.

There are in the United States about one hundred and twenty Literary Colleges, forty-two Theological Seminaries, forty-seven Law Schools, and forty Medical Colleges. Of these two hundred and fifty public institutions of learning in its higher grades and most valuable directions, not a half dozen admit women to their privileges! They are endowed by both public and private munificence, for Government has taken education into the care of the State, and made its support compulsory as any other duty of citizenship upon the community. Scarcely a man of distinction in the nation but has received the State’s bonus for accepting his education; he has been educated at the expense of the Public Treasury, and afterward rewarded with honors and offices, both public and private, for the improvement he has made of it. The graduate of Harvard receives each the sum of one thousand dollars over and above the amount he pays for the expenses of his tuition. This is the gratuity to graduates in the literary department only; but to the student of law there is appropriated, beside, the sum of $86; to each medical student $27; and the divinity student takes about $1000.

This is a sample, a liberal one, perhaps, but it presents the case and exhibits the rule. And let it be understood that no exception is taken to this beneficent appropriation of the funds provided. Would it were ten times more, and proportionately more efficient for all the purposes which liberal education should answer in the world.

But how stands the other side of the account? Oberlin, in Ohio, and the Central College of New York, are the only literary institutions of the higher grade which admit women to their advantages. Medical colleges are so numerous and so easily established, that we find three or four in Ohio, one or two in New York, and one in Vermont, which raise no question of sex with their pupils. But this gain is so recent that it has as yet afforded but small fruits, and not much even in the way of assurance for the future. Among the older medical institutions, Geneva College opened her doors to one female student [Elizabeth Blackwell], but closed them behind her so soon as she had honorably won their diploma and opened the dangerous example to her sex. A separate school, with professors and a meager appropriation for medical education, has been opened, within the last two years, at Philadelphia, and has now in attendance a class of about twenty-five women. Let it be, however, understood that we do not ask for these institutions. We claim for our sons the purifying influence of women through all their educational career, as we claim equal developments for our daughters. And here let me refer to the testimony of both students and professors where women have been educated. From Cleveland we have the assurance that Nancy Elizabeth Clark will graduate at the close of the next term; and that the influence of that one pure, noble woman, capable of retaining all her womanly graces and health of soul, has done more to restrain and elevate the students of last year, than all the moral lectures and rules of the college combined.*

Below this higher style of schools, and above the common elementary and grammar schools, there are the following establishments for women and girls, and none other, in the Union: A Normal school [i.e., a school for training teachers] for young ladies in Massachusetts; two Normal schools for both sexes in the same State; one for both sexes at Albany; and one for young ladies at Philadelphia. If there be another in the nation, it has escaped our search. These are more or less supported by public contributions, some of them wholly at the expense of the State or city in which they are located. And we must add to the account a School of Design for women, something more than two years old, in Philadelphia, established at first and sustained alone by Mrs. Sarah Peter of that city, and now for some months under the able care of the Franklin Institute. In this institution, drawing, designing, wood-engraving and lithographing are already taught with great success. The pupils number about sixty, and are of a class of women just such as are best fitted to make the experiment with — intelligent, respectable, and earnest in their purpose, and successful beyond all expectation in their first attempt. The example of this excellent institution has been followed, recently, in Boston, and bids fair to attain equally high results. The provision for the support of these two schools is as yet casual and temporary, but we cannot doubt that they will secure themselves in the public regard, and become as permanent and strong as they are beneficent. What a contrast in the two sides of this picture! On the one side, millions of money, one entire profession of talented men, and national and individual enthusiasm, all devoted to the development of the masculine mind in all directions which can give it strength and brightness, and win for it honor and wealth. On the other side, the late reluctant grace of a pittance, here and there vouchsafed within the last year or two to the importunity of appeals that were often scorned even at the moment they were granted!

Not yet a law school, nor a theological, for Oberlin does not ordain her pupils, though she instructs them, nor any number of medical schools of note, have made our sex welcome to their privileges and benefits. And the Literary Colleges are but two [out] of one hundred and twenty which admit them to equal favor with their happier brethren.

We present the startling facts to our brethren’s faces — we spread them before the world, and ask its justice.

We say that Women are not proved incapable, but that they are kept in ignorance; first, by the denial of systematic education, ample and adequate; and next, by the withdrawal and withholding of all those useful and honorable posts, places and functions, from them as a sex, which are the proper incentives to the successful pursuit of learning.

We do not go so far as to say that eminent attainment is in every case impossible while its due rewards are denied, for there are glorious examples of women whom the innate and irrepressible impulse of great capacity has sufficed, and who have surprised, while they have rebuked, the world, by the energy of their spontaneous self-development; but we do complain that nothing less than that genius which can create its own occasions and erect its own monuments in the very face of besieging foes, may suffice to show a woman great and noble in word and deed. We complain that a woman must unsex herself, in the world’s judgment, if she would give outlet to the highest life within her; that she is shunned and mobbed if she dares to do anything that might be noticed in the newspaper; that she is required to starve either soul or body, or both, rather than endeavor for life and independence in any walk of business or work, however suitable it may be, if it has been hitherto forbidden to her. And we complain that the gallantry which flatters her as a menial, a toy, and an idiot, should mock, insult and crush her, so soon as she endeavors to be only a Woman.

It will not be required of us here to argue the benefits and blessings of appropriate culture of the rational and moral faculties of our common nature. That subject is at rest with respect to the favored sex, and there can be no difficulty or hesitation about applying the general principle to all the cases which in any way come under it; but we have a suggestion to make which [in] every way concerns our argument for the emancipation of Woman.

Hitherto restrained, as a general rule, to the duties and drudgeries of the domestic relations, and cultivated chiefly, when cultivated at all, for the delights of her affectional nature, the heart is disproportionately developed and she is made a creature of pure feeling and passionate impulse. All aspiration, all heroism, all nobleness, all distinction, tolerated and encouraged in her, is in the direction of the passions and emotions only. Intellectual culture of any kind which might abate, or steady, or balance feeling, is held unwomanly; and the sex is enslaved by the disproportionate activity of its own distinguishing traits. We demand a due cultivation of her intellectual faculties of every kind, and in every department of business that invites; in order, mainly, that she may be delivered from the bondage imposed through the over-strength of her heart, exaggerated by the weakness of her head.

Madness is a fixed idea. Monomania is the concentration of the whole mental force in the actions of a single faculty. Due distribution of sensibility and of action is the health, as well of the mind as of the body. Symmetry, harmony, and balance are the conditions of beauty, energy, and integrity. Whatever accidental incapacity women may be charged with; whatever indifference they may exhibit to their own highest well-being, is owing to the monstrous wrongs of that system which has warped them into the weakness of feeling, unguarded and undirected by an equally developed understanding.

In the material world the various objects are put to the use in which they best serve the lord of the creation. This is right; for they have their whole existence for his uses. But human beings have a destiny of their own to fulfill, and it is a wanton desecration of their nature to cultivate and employ only its strongest points, because these best subserve a master’s interests; and, with the same view, to crush out all the rest of the faculties of the immortal soul.

It is true that the gentler sex are loveliest of the two in the offices of affection and the relations of the family and the home; but, the argument of the oppressor is, that she should therefore be limited and restrained to the domestic sphere in all the aims and activities of her life. Would he like the even application of the principle which would exclude him from the realm and the rule that he claims in the heart, because of his comparative inferiority? This would be equity; but it is not a balance of rights on which the usurpation builds itself. In plain terms, the virtues in which the feminine character is preeminent, are esteemed for their use, their value as a commodity, and a convenience and delight to her owner.

The tempter of mankind is represented as destroying his victims by using their passions to induce their ruin. This is diabolical only because of the malignity of its purpose. The abuse, the degradation and ruin of “the sex” is accomplished through the same agencies, but with kindlier intentions. It is therefore only selfish and savage, relieved by the mixture of tenderness which the lower instincts supply.

The peculiarities of her sex, its very excellences which are her charm, are, also, her bane. We demand education, therefore, in every direction that can give efficiency to the intellect, light to the feelings, and harmony and dignity to the whole character, for the sake of that moral and rational liberty which depends upon the integral development of the whole being together.

It would be in the drift of our present reflections, and greatly contribute to the completeness of our argument, to dwell in detail upon the difference in range, thoroughness and value of the branches of education taught to the male and female pupils under the prevailing system. In the well-established, colleges for male students, instruction as thorough as the student can receive is given in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Spanish and French; Mathematics, comprehending Geometry and Algebra, plane and spherical Trigonometry, and analytical Geometry; Ancient and Modern History; Rhetoric, Psychology, Logic, Ethics, Political Economy, the Evidences of Religion, Chemistry, Botany, Physics, Mineralogy, Geology, Astronomy, and practice in Composition and Elocution. And after a course which, added to the preparatory term of study, covers seven or eight years, at the age of twenty or twenty-one the graduate commences another term of three or four in the study of his special profession.

The training of the girl — we say girl, for before the maturity of womanhood arrives, she is taken home to domestic duties — in all points of range, value and thoroughness, is so inconsiderable, compared to this scheme of masculine education, that it may well account for all the difference in useful attainment with which she is reproached.

It would be a high service rendered to the cause of female education, to designate the branches which she should study as an average qualification for ultimate use and application, and to indicate the duration of the term, as well as all the other essential conditions of adequate mental cultivation. But it happens, that among the other well-grounded charges against the policy which excludes women from their fair share in this great interest, there lies, also, this additional blame, that the science and art of systematic education are by no means so well settled and adjusted, either in principles or details, that we can assume the utility of any known method, and claim it with or without accommodations to the peculiarities of the female mind and functions.

It is confessed that the school-books in use are not well adapted to the instruction of youth; and teachers differ upon the method of instruction as much as they do in any other matter of opinion which divides men in judgment and practice.

We cannot be expected here to discuss systems of scholastic training, to analyze particular objects of study, and to indicate a scale and sequence of educational departments, as well as argue their fitness to the minds and offices of women.

The utmost that can be wisely and safely done in the present state of knowledge and experience, is to lay down the great outlines which principles warrant and require, and leave particulars to the discovery of practice and experiment conducted in the light which right and justice afford. The true system of education for either man or woman is yet only in expectancy; the proper subjects of study during pupilage have not yet been brought regularly within reach; besides, the most available of all attainments, and the best adapted to the individual, are made in the actual business of life. This Committee will not, therefore, undertake to be specific or precise in the matter, method, apparatus, and specialties of that culture which ought to be provided for women, but must content ourselves with such general considerations as we have found time and space to urge, and submit this, the most important of all our inquiries, to the largest reflection and most earnest action of all its enlightened advocates.

Your Committee is clear in the justice and propriety of demanding for women — Liberty and opportunity for development of all their faculties by such methods of systematic education as may be best adapted to the end;

The entire range of studies required for their thorough training in every department of human knowledge;

Equal access with the male sex to all the provisions of public and private munificence for the advance of human learning;

And all unrestrained by any imagined difference of capacity or artificial difference of destiny, which must repress aspiration and paralyze effort, and leaving all accommodations due to expediency as well as to intrinsic necessity to be determined by actual experiment, as it may result when the truth of nature is sought with honest purposes by the light of free principles.


Mrs. Davis concluded her report by offering the following resolution, which was unanimously adopted:

Resolved, therefore, That we, as wives and mothers, will do our utmost to promote the highest education of our children at our colleges and institutions of learning, without distinction of sex, challenging the same privilege for our daughters as already accorded to our sons, making the public funds available to both in the process of mental development.