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Pioneer Educator Unshuttered Young Women's Minds
"All I want is for Cate to leave me alone."
In September 1848, a portly man strode to the middle of a bridge over the Connecticut River, ripped a fistful of letters to bits and tossed them into the swirling waters.
Calvin Stowe was tired of taking orders from his domineering sister-in-law.
"Cate has neither conscience nor sense - if you consent to take half a pound, she will throw a ton on your shoulders & run off & leave you saying - it isn't heavy at all, you can carry it with perfect ease," he wrote to his wife, Harriet Beecher Stowe. "I will have nothing to do with her in the way of business, any more than I would with the Devil, not a bit -- & you ought not to have. She would kill off a regiment like you and me in 3 days."
As the oldest of 11 children, Catharine Beecher had always been queen of the "Beecher buzz" - that whir of activity emanating from the family parsonage in Litchfield.
Like the Kennedys of Massachusetts in the 20th century, the Beechers of Connecticut were America's most prominent family of the 19th century. The Beecher family's fortunes were not financial but intellectual; Lyman Beecher came to be known as the "father of more brains than any other man in America."
People loved or hated the Beechers - or "those damn Beechers" to those who saw the family as troublesome meddlers and even radicals, always getting involved in things that didn't concern them as they relentlessly, sometimes shrilly, challenged the nation's silence on slavery, intemperance and women's rights.
For many years, Hartford was the Beecher "annex" - home to Lyman Beecher's grown daughters and various family members, who boarded together in the same Hartford residence in their early years and later, when finances improved, lived near each other at the Nook Farm compound on Forest Street.
Unable to follow their father into the clergy, as all their brothers did, the Beecher daughters found their own pulpits for social reform.
Catharine pioneered the notion of a serious academic education for women. Harriet subverted the nation's blasé acceptance of slavery with her novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." And their flamboyant half-sister, Isabella, helped lead the fight for women's suffrage.
Bossy, funny and smart, Catharine made it all happen, shaping her sisters not only through force of personality but by unshuttering their minds. At a time when girls were considered incapable of mastering "difficult" subjects beyond embroidery and stenciling, Catharine taught Latin, mathematics and philosophy. But first she had to educate herself, then write the textbooks and create the classrooms to pass on her knowledge. One of her earliest pupils was her sister Harriet.
In fact, until the publication of the serial "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe's chief fame was being the sister of Catharine Beecher, who had become the popular author of publications on homemaking and child-rearing, making her the Dr. Spock-Dr. Laura-Martha Stewart of her era.
"She was an agent of change," said historian Kathryn Kish Sklar, author of a biography on Catharine. "She started in the domestic world, where most women lived their lives, and encouraged them to take more control of their lives."
By the end of the 19th century, however, the roles had reversed and Catharine's accomplishments faded as historians focused on her famous young sisters Harriet and Isabella. Catharine became the "forgotten" Beecher - a term that surely would have amused her brothers and sisters.
"A man cannot ravel out the stitches in which early days have knit him."
- From "The Minister's Wooing" by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1859
Every Sunday, the Beecher children would file out of the family home in Litchfield, cross the green to the Congregational church and watch their minister father work his magic from the pulpit. They couldn't understand much of his evangelical rants, but they noticed the way he moved an entire congregation.
Warm, impulsive and at times amazingly insensitive to the feelings of others, Lyman Beecher profoundly influenced all of his children, especially his oldest daughter, who looked like a miniature version of her father, with her lithe build, angular features and chestnut-color hair.
Religion was not just for Sundays at the Beecher parsonage; Lyman made no distinction between church and home when it came to "snaring" souls. Each of his children, perhaps none more courageously than Catharine, had to cope with their father's well-intentioned but psychically exhausting remonstrances to be "saved" or suffer eternal damnation.
There was no treading softly in the Beecher parsonage, where passionate discussion, sermons and soul-searching conversions were a constant, and where every opinion, thought and anxiety had to be voiced, probed, debated.
This "intellectual electricity" - leavened with a dry sense of humor - would always be a hallmark of the Beecher family, as can be seen in the thousands of letters exchanged between family members preserved at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center's library at Nook Farm. Yellowed with age, creased from being folded and unfolded, they speak of toothaches and heartaches, of life as it was lived - not as it is imagined - in this vibrant family of the 19th century.
"Catharine has been here and we have all been thoroughly metaphysicated," Harriet said in a letter written in 1829. "Let me give you an idea of our manner of life. At breakfast we generally have the last evening's argument hashed through and warmed over, indeed they serve us with an occasional nibble through the whole day."
The Beechers couldn't slow down. Stories of Lyman's eccentricities abounded in Litchfield, where he shocked visitors who found him behind the parsonage twirling overhead on a set of ropes and pulleys that he called "jimnastics."
This may have been Lyman's way of warding off depression - a condition shared by his children, who used the 19th-century term "the indigos" to describe getting the blues.
By the time Catharine was 15, she had seven younger brothers and sisters: William, Edward, Mary, George, Harriet, Henry and Charles. A year later, her mother, Roxana Foote Beecher, whose brilliance as a young woman had been overshadowed by the needs of her constantly growing family, was dead of consumption. She was worn out at 41.
With her father prostrate with grief, Catharine at 16 stepped in as matriarch, reigning in her brothers and sisters by putting each in "charge" of the next in line, forging family loyalties that would hold fast throughout their lives.
The year after Roxana's death, Lyman Beecher brought home an elegant new wife, 27-year-old Harriet Porter Beecher, who never quite fit in. The chaos of the parsonage made Harriet Porter edgy, as did the constant flow of boarders taken in by the cash-strapped family.
Harriet Porter added four more children, including Isabella, whose arrival in February 1822 was announced by Catharine in a letter to 11-year-old Harriet, who had been sent to stay with relatives in Guilford:
"We all want you home very much, but hope you are now where you will learn to stand and sit straight, and hear what people say to you, and sit still in your chair."
Catharine's letters always rang with an oldest sister's curious mix of bossiness and love.
For instance, in a later letter to 17-year-old Harriet, when she was visiting relatives in Boston, Catharine complained of a toothache and directed Harriet to bundle up some items and put them on the next stage to Hartford. Then her tone changed: "Write me a letter & tell me how you do for I do feel anxious about you - Do exercise a great deal & not think about your troubles if you can help it."
As always, she closed with: "Your Affectionate Sister, Catharine."
In 1822, Catharine's life was altered forever. She was engaged to Alexander Fisher, an eminent young mathematics and philosophy professor at Yale. The wedding was to take place after Fisher returned from a trip to Europe to tour universities. He sailed on April 1, 1822. Five weeks later, he drowned in a shipwreck off the Irish coast.
"My Dear Child," her father wrote to her upon hearing the news in New Haven. "The waves of the Atlantic, commissioned by Heaven, have buried them all."
Lyman offered his daughter cold comfort - her fiancé had not experienced "conversion" before his death, an omission that would bar Fisher's soul from the gates of heaven. His warnings to Catharine about her own state of grace turned to torment; he urged her to be "saved" before it was too late. But try as she might, like her fiancé, Catharine could not "feel" God's salvation. She rejected her father's belief that the good man she loved had been damned - becoming the first of Lyman's children to challenge her father's beliefs.
"Oh Edward where is he now?" she wrote to her brother in 1822. "I know not where to look for comfort."
Edward wrote back with spiritual advice and sent along a pair of pants he needed altered by his big sister - "I wish the striped pantaloons I sent to be lengthened as the other pair was."
Life went on, spiritual crisis or not.
All of Lyman Beecher's children eventually rejected their father's "monster God," as one historian described his Calvinist beliefs. But Catharine would struggle all her life with guilt over her spiritual state.
She would never recover from Fisher's death. She would never marry or have children.
Instead, she would open a school - and change the culture of a nation.
"A lady should study not
to shine but to act."
In May 1823, a bold advertisement appeared on the front page of The Connecticut Courant:
"Female School, Misses C. & M. Beecher, will open in this place a School intended exclusively for those who wish to pursue the higher branches of female education ... Geography, Grammar, Rhetoric, &c. ... None will be admitted under the age of 12, unless unusually advanced in their education." (M. Beecher referred to Catharine's sister Mary, who was a teacher at the school.)
Catharine Beecher's school opened later that month in a rented room above the White Horse harness shop in Hartford. Seven young women made their way down the cobbled Main Street to the corner of Asylum to attend classes that first day, hitching their long heavy skirts to climb stairs at the back of the shop to the Hartford Female Seminary.
These were the daughters of Hartford merchants and factory owners, graduates of "finishing" schools that taught embroidery and stenciling to women and little else, leaving them unable to calculate sums in their heads or write much more than their names.
As a minister's daughter, Catharine was better educated than most young women of her time, but before she could offer girls at her school a curriculum similar to that offered to boys, she said, "I was obliged to train most of my teachers as well as myself."
She studied her fiancé's textbooks on mathematics and the sciences and turned to her brother, Edward, a Yale graduate who headed a grammar school for boys in Hartford, for nightly lessons in Latin, which she passed along to her "scholars," who by 1824 included 13-year-old Harriet. Harriet stayed eight years, as a student and teacher, as the school's enrollment increased to 200 students. By then, the girls' school had expanded into a new building on Pratt Street, designed to look like a Greek temple. It became known for its academic curriculum, and its requirement that scholars do calisthenics. .
But it wasn't without controversy. In 1829, Catharine's proposal to build a dormitory for her scholars, who boarded with local families, provoked an unsigned editorial that ran in The Courant:
"I had rather my daughters would go to school to sit down and do nothing than to study philosophy, etc., these branches fill the young Misses with vanity to the degree that they are above attending to the more useful part of an education. ... She will be a dandizette at 18, an old maid at 30."
By then, Catharine had bigger plans anyway. In 1832, she resigned and emigrated West to the frontier town of Cincinnati, where she opened the Western Female Institute.
Harriet soon followed and was swept into her big sister's latest project - to "civilize" the West by recruiting New England teachers. Her school ultimately failed when Catharine's Eastern hubris offended the community.
Short on cash, Catharine decided to try her hand at writing magazine articles for women. She wrote to the well-known Hartford writer Lydia Sigourney in 1838 for advice on magazines "to make myself known, as popular as I can with all classes of readers."
"I need not tell you," she added - a bit disingenuously, given her oft-stated desire to "be head" - "that this may be aimed at without craving for fame or notoriety, but as one means of increasing my sphere of usefulness."
"Are not the most responsible
of all duties committed to
the charge of woman?"
By the mid-1800s, the Industrial Revolution had produced great tension, even chaos, in American family life, especially for middle-class white women. Machines turned family life upside down as factories took production out of the home. Women became consumers, increasingly dependent on income generated by their husbands to buy food, clothes and furniture.
Enter Catharine Beecher, author of "A Treatise on Domestic Economy," which in 1841 addressed the issue head-on: "Home and duties of the family state are not duly appreciated."
Describing domesticity in industrial terms, she called on society to "elevate" the status of women. The publication became a bestseller. In 1869, she shrewdly capitalized on her younger sister's fame by having Harriet add a couple of chapters on home decorating.
More than a compendium of homemaking tips, Catherine's treatise was a textbook to "train" women for work at home in the same way that men were trained for work outside the home. Much later, her ideas would play out into the women's movement.
"Most women are rather driven along by the daily occurrences of life," Catharine wrote, urging women instead to develop a "habit of system and order. ... There is nothing which so distinctly marks the difference between weak and strong minds, as the fact, whether they control circumstances or circumstances control them."
Catharine's advice didn't sit well with some readers, as her cousin, Elizabeth Elliot Foote, made clear in a sarcastic letter in 1841: "If it were not for these maiden ladies instructing married ones how to keep house and take care of children I don't know what would become of us."
Catharine, however, had a ready audience for a book that also tackled serious health concerns. At a time when few people understood the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning, she warned of the slow effects of poisoning from inadequately ventilated "modern" wood stoves. She included diagrams in the book for the proper ventilation of stoves and took on the "prevailing prejudice against night air."
She wrote about the importance of calisthenics for good health and on the dangers of tightly laced corsets.
Catharine's book reinvigorated her career after her failure in Cincinnati. She founded the American Women's Education Association and crisscrossed the country on speaking tours, traveling by stagecoach and on horseback, and later by steamboat and railway.
In 1848, when Calvin Stowe was ripping up her letter, the State Gazette in Burlington, Iowa, wrote about the arrival of Catharine Beecher, "whose name has long since become a household divinity."
"My head is tired, Tom."
There are no images of Catharine Beecher as a younger women. A daguerreotype of her in 1848, at the height of her career, shows a heavier, less charming version of her sister Harriet who still wore her hair in girlish ringlets at 48. Catharine's spectacled eyes seem to stare out from the 19th century.
Behind the scratched glass of the daguerreotype, Catharine holds a quill pen in her right hand, in her left a piece of paper.
A few years later, she traveled back East to Maine, where she spent a year helping care for Harriet and Calvin's seven children so Harriet could finish her book.
"I am trying to get Uncle Tom out of the way," Catharine wrote in 1851. "At 8 oclock we are throu' with breakfast & prayers & then we sent off Mr. Stowe & Harriet both to his room at the college. There was no other way to keep her out of family cares & quietly at work & since this plan is adopted she goes along finely."
The "quality" of Aunt Cate's care was something else. Her niece, Catherine Beecher Perkins, wrote while visiting the Stowes:
"Aunt Cate's head is in a very precarious state so she can't bear any noise," a problem exacerbated by a new baby, the "constant fire of quarrel" between the older children and "four girls, none of us remarkable for our quietness."
Catharine kept her distance upstairs in the house, appearing "once in a while like a comet" for meals, at which she sat "with a very martyrized air" until she had piled her plate with food "and then declares she can't stand so much noise and departs."
As a spinster of limited means, she spent her final years traveling among her siblings' homes - "like a trunk without a label," Harriet said.
By this time, Catharine's domineering personality had alienated more than endeared her to family members, some of whom refused to take her in.
When Catharine's brother Tom hesitantly approached his wife, Julia, about taking in Catharine, she responded in a letter: "I think there are worse afflictions in the world than the care of an old Christian woman who has at least tried to do good all her life. ... I am not going to worry about that."
Catharine died a year later at Tom and Julia's home in Elmira, N.Y., after telling her brother, "My head is tired, Tom."
On her bedside table was a half-finished letter to her sister.