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Catharine Beecher

[bee-cher]

Catharine Esther Beecher (September 6, 1800May 12, 1878) was renowned for her forthright opinions on women’s education as well as her vehement support of kindergarten into children’s education.

Beecher, born in East Hampton, New York, was the daughter, of outspoken religious leader Lyman Beecher. Her numerous other well-known family members include her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, the 19th century writer most famous for her groundbreaking novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, and two brothers who were both renowned Congregationalist ministers, Henry Ward Beecher and Charles Beecher.

She was educated at home until she was ten years old, when she was sent to a private school where she was taught the limited curriculum available to young women. The experience left her longing for additional opportunities for education, and she taught herself subjects not commonly offered to women.

To provide such educational opportunities for others, in 1823 Beecher opened the Hartford Female Seminary, where she taught until 1831. The private girls school in Hartford, Connecticut, had many well-known alumni, including Catharine’s sister Harriet. Later, Catharine was engaged to marry Professor Alexander Fisher of Yale University, but he died before the wedding was to take place. In 1841 Beecher published “A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School” a book which discussed the underestimated importance of women’s roles in society. The book was edited and re-released the following year in its final form.

In 1831, Catharine Beecher suggested teachers read aloud to students the passages from writers with elegant styles “to accustom the ear to the measurement of the sentences and the peculiar turns of expression” (Wright & Halloran, 2001, p. 215). She went on to have the students imitate the piece read using words, style, and turns of expression in order to develop “a ready command of the language and easy modes of expression” (Wright & Halloran, 2001, p. 215). In 1846, Beecher pronounced that women not men should educate children and established schools for training teachers in western cities. She advocated that young ladies find godly work as Christian teachers away from the larger Eastern cities. The Board Of National Popular Education which was her idea trained teachers in four-week sessions in Connecticut and then sent them out West. She believed that women had a higher calling to shape children and society.

Influential Changes Over Time

In 1862, John Brinsley recommended students analyze and imitate classical Greek and Latin models while Beecher recommended English writers (Wright & Halloran, 2001). They both believed that frequent practice and the study of important authors helped students acquire writing skills. Perhaps these ideas provided the groundwork for Katie Wood Ray’s encouragement to include lots of time for lots of talk about topics of interest and to read anchor texts so that students can learn to write like a writer (Ray, 2006).

Beecher founded The American Woman’s Educational Association in 1852, an organization focused on furthering educational opportunities for women. She also founded the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati (along with her father Lyman) and The Ladies Society for Promoting Education in the West. She was also instrumental in the establishment of women’s colleges in Burlington, Iowa, Quincy, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Beecher strongly supported allowing children to simply be children and not prematurely forcing adulthood onto them. She believed that children lacked the experience needed to make important life decisions and that in order for them to become healthy self-sufficient adults, they needed to be allowed to express themselves freely in an environment suited to children. It was these beliefs that led to her support of the system of kindergartens.

References

Wright, E. A. & Halloran, S. M. (2001). From rhetoric to composition: The teaching of writing in American to 1900. In J. J. Murphy (Eds.). A short history of writing instruction: From ancient Greece to modern America. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Ray, K. W. (2006). Study driven: A framework for planning units of study in the writing workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

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