December 18, 1794 — Commencement, Young-Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia, Philadelphia PA
The satisfaction I should experience on an occasion so important and interesting to myself, is diminished by a reluctance to discharge a duty, so extremely arduous as that which has been allotted me to perform. Nothing but a venerable regard to the precepts of my worthy tutor, should induce me to leap the barrier which a natural timidity hath erected in my way. But a reliance on the candour of a literary and enlightened audience has inspired a confidence sufficient to render me capable of surmounting every obstacle. Still, however, I find myself agitated by sensations to which my youthful bosom has hitherto been a stranger. The manner in which the sight of a brilliant and respectable concourse of people, assembled to behold the testimonies of the propriety of those marks of approbation, which, by the guidance of our faithful preceptor, are shortly to be conferred, operates upon a tender and female mind, will be sufficient to atone for deficiencies in the completion of expectations which may have been heightened by the eloquent addresses of my predecessors in this field of Ciceronian honor. So ably has a sister vindicated the propriety of the study and practice of elocution, by the female sex, that necessity precludes my expatiating upon a subject so peculiarly applicable at this crisis. I am aware of the plea so usually advanced by those who controvert this established doctrine, that the volubility of expression so invariably attached to our part of the species, makes us particularly adapted to display the powers of this masterly art. I am not disposed to argue upon so immaterial a point, although I am conscious that it would require but little reason or exertion, not only to overturn the baseless fabric they have erected, but to prove that this lamented fluency proceeds from the shackles, with which we have been so long fettered by custom. I cannot help observing for their comfort, that the opinion of Shaftesbury, that the ridiculing of a system is a suitable method of proving its irrationality, is not sufficiently exploded. Declamation may sometimes be mistaken for argument; but ribaldry, by men of discernment, can never be taken as a substitute for reason. If, therefore they wish to convince our judgment, they must address our understanding. But, for a moment, let us admit the position of those arrogant assumers, who with, by degrading our character, to elevate their own. If loquacity be the characteristic of women, of what importance is it, that this propensity to talking be regulated in such a manner as to be subservient to the interest and happiness of society. The acquisition of knowledge must then be viewed of the greatest moment, by those who prize the happiness of social and domestic life. The intercourse of the sexes which nature and custom have established, teaches the propriety of their being mutually beneficial. Conversation is the proper index of the mind. The words we speak, evidence the ideas we possess. Nothing has a greater tendency to refine our ideas, than an acquaintance with the sciences, and the information obtained from authors of taste and judgment.
Here I shall be interrupted by an impertinent metaphysician, with a long detail of fine-spun theories, tending to prove that our capacities are inadequate to the task. It is worthy our attention to observe the insidiousness and turpitude which impregnate their arguments. — they are not, however, new, nor confined to us — they are advanced against an injured and debased part of our fellow-creatures, who are subjected to all the horrors of slavery. They deny us the means of information, and then blame us for the want of that very knowledge which they have put out of our power to acquire. I shall not pursue them in their speculative enquiries — their subtile sophistry must yield to indisputable facts.
It is observed by Lord Kaimes, that the treatment of women is always meliorated in proportion to the progress of civilization and refinement.
In this age of reason, then, we are not to be surprized, if women have taken advantage of that small degree of liberty which they still possess, and converted their talents to the public utility. Hence we find that the intricate labyrinth of antiquity, is fought with scrutinizing inspection, with taste and judgment, with candor and erudition, to form the impartial histories by De Keralio, and McCauley. In the sublime regions of philosophy, where the revolutions of the heavenly bodies are distinctly known, where each effect is traced to its proper cause, we have likewise dared to venture. If Eloise, the consort of the famous Abelard, is forgotten, the name of Herschell must freshen in your memory.
In the martial field of glory, we have a long list of memorable heroines: the count D’Eon and the maid of Orleans shall defend our honor with Amazonian courage. In opposition to your immortal Paine, we will exalt our Wolstencraft, and the female Iberian Cicero. The one has asserted and vindicated our rights, and the other had effected a revolution, by her eloquence, in making all the literary and philosophical societies in Spain accessible to women. In this she is confessedly the superior of your champion. He addressed a nation heated by resentment at the object he assailed, she spoke to people impregnated with superstition and prejudice.
For correctness, elegance, and propriety of language, peruse the writings of Moore, Chapone, and Rowe. And, whilst we continue to admire the purity of expression, the grandeur of thought, and the fertility of imagination in poetry, we shall never cease to revere the productions of Aiken and Yearsley. With the law, it is true, we seldom meddle; but the reason is obvious; we never wish to embroil our neighbours in disputes, and we keep as clear of any thing connected with so disagreeable a business as circumstances will admit. But in medicine, I will appeal to yourselves, whether, if we be not as abundant in pedantic phrases, we are not frequently as successful as our brethren.
From what has been remarked, I would not wish you rashly to conclude that I mean to advocate the indiscriminate pursuits of the same studies by the different sexes; Custom and nature teach the propriety of their being suitable to the different situations and employments of life to which they are allotted.
To undergo the fatigue and the toils of war, to tread the thorny path of politics, and to move in the more active scenes of life, belongs to men.
“Nothing,” says Milton, “is lovelier in a woman, than to study household good.”
The domestic cares, connected with the rearing of the tender offspring, is the arduous task of our sex. The education which we receive, should be calculated to render us capable of the employment. It is necessary to have a proper knowledge of what we are destined to teach to others. The human mind should then be nearly object of our attention. The variety of passions which agitate the breast, with their nature, operations, regulations, and government, deserve the serious care of every female. The more common learning which is generally taught, is necessary to us both. Nothing can be more degrading to our character, than to be ignorant of those qualifications which we are daily called upon to exert.
But there are certain departments of science which seem to be more particularly adapted to the taste, inclination, and genius of our sex, and which, if circumstances permit, should form a part of education. These are sch as would not only be pleasing to ourselves, but make us agreeable to our connections.
To be acquainted with the situation and manners of our own, and of other countries, and to be able to trace the progress of their refinement from earlier ages, is what must be expected from those, who, in this advanced state of society, participate in rational conversation. The mortification and regret which every one who is grossly ignorant of geography or history, is doomed to experience, are sufficient to excite us to pay them particular attention.
The frequent occasion of transmitting our thoughts to acquaintances, point out the propriety of our doing it in a manner, which will not be dishonorable to ourselves.
The distinguished part which custom has allowed us to bear in the circle of company, and the extraordinary share in the enlivening of society, which is expected from us, will warrant the conclusion, that a portion of time devoted to the study of music, would not be unpleasing to ourselves, or unacceptable to the gentlemen. If, as authors have asserted, a natural vivacity of temper, and springhtliness of imagination, may be attributed to the women, it renders them peculiarly adapted for the elegant study of poetry. And a spring from the top of Parnassus would certainly be allowed a pleasing and fragrant decoration for a lady. But of what utility are these accomplishments, if they be not regulated by the invaluable characteristic of good sense. Pedantry and ostentation are odious in men, but they are despicable in women. Modesty, distinguished from affected delicacy, will give a lustre to our endowments.
We are the weaker part of our species — it is in vain to subdue nature; masculineness of action; and ferocity of manners, are inconsistent with our character. To soften the passions, should be our object. An opposite conduct will insure us neither respectability, nor esteem. The tender feelings of Mary, interest us in her sufferings, whilst a bold austerity casts a veil over the virtues of Elizabeth.
Source: An essay on the education and genius of the female sex. To which is added, an account, of the commencement of the Young-Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia, held the 18th of December, 1794; under the direction of Mr. John Poor, A.M. Principal., ed. James A. Neal (Philadelphia: Jacob Johnson &Co) 1795, pp. 15-20.