High School Unit II

Lesson A: Advocates for Higher Education

Key Questions

  1. What did women do to increase their access to higher education in nineteenth-century Massachusetts?
  2. Why did these women focus their efforts on education?
  3. Which attitudes about women's education changed over the course of the 1800s and which remained unchanged? Why?

Primary Sources

Document HS II-1: A Few Rights for Women: Excerpts from the “Massachusetts Body of Liberties,” 1641.

Document HS II-1: A Few Rights for Women: Excerpts from the “Massachusetts Body of Liberties,” 1641.

The 1641 “Massachusetts Body of Liberties” was an extraordinary document, the first in New England to spell out the rights of citizens. Most of the protections were afforded only to men, but a few were also extended to women.

Note: Spelling and the use of capital letters have been modernized.

14. Any conveyance or alienation of land or other estate whatsoever, made by any woman that is married, any child under age, idiot or distracted person, shall be good if it be passed and ratified by the consent of a General Court.

Liberties of Women.

79. If any man at his death shall not leave his wife a competent portion of his estate, upon just complaint made to the General Court she shall be relieved.

80. Every married woman shall be free from bodily correction or stripes by her husband, unless it be in his own defence upon her assault. If there be any just cause of correction, complaint shall be made to authority assembled in some Court, from which only she shall receive it.

Liberties of Children

82. When parents die intestate having no heirs males of their bodies, their daughters shall inherit as copartners, unless the General Court upon just reason shall judge otherwise.


  1. With whom did Article 14 group women? What does this tell you about the status of women?
  1. Who was the final arbitrator of these regulations? Why?
  1. What protections were extended to women?
Document HS II-2: “Repeated Injuries on the Part of Man Toward Woman”: Excerpts from the “Declaration of Sentiments,” 1848.

Document HS II-2: “Repeated Injuries on the Part of Man Toward Woman”: Excerpts from the “Declaration of Sentiments,” 1848.

In July 1848, the Philadelphia Quaker Lucretia Mott and three other women had tea with fellow abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton near her home in upstate New York. After Stanton “poured out the torrent of [her] long accumulating discontent,” the five women decided to call a meeting “to discuss the social, civil and religious rights of women.” Using the Declaration of Independence as her model, Stanton, a 20-year old mother of three, drafted a Declaration of Sentiments. A week later, close to 300 women and men held a two-day meeting in the small town of Senca Falls, New York. At the closing session, 68 women and 32 men signed Stanton’s document. Excerpts follow:

…We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights: that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…. The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

Among them

He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.

He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men--both natives and foreigners.

Having deprived her of this first right of a citizen, the elective franchise, thereby leaving her without representation in the halls of legislation, he has oppressed her on all sides….

[I]f single, and the owner of property, he has taxed her to support a government which recognizes her only when her property can be made profitable to it.

He has monopolized nearly all the profitable employments, and from those she is permitted to follow, she receives but a scanty remuneration. He closes against her all the avenues to wealth and distinction which he considers most honorable to himself. As a teacher of theology, medicine, or law, she is not known.

He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her….

He has endeavored, in every way that he could, to destroy her confidence in her own powers, to lessen her self-respect, and to make her willing to lead a dependent and abject life….

[W]e insist that they have immediate admission to all the rights and privileges which belong to them as citizens of the United States.

Quoted in Concise History of Woman Suffrage, ed. by Mari Jo and Paul Buhle (University of Illinois Press, 1978).


  1. Based on these excerpts, what rights did American women have in 1848?
  2. Which rights were denied women? Why?
  3. Why did Stanton use the Declaration of Independence as her model? 
  4. What is the tone of the Declaration of Sentiments? How might the tone have affected the way the document was received? Why do you think Stanton chose this tone?
Document HS II-3: We Need Your Help! Excerpt from Circular Asking for Donations for Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, 1837.

Document HS II-3: We Need Your Help! Excerpt from Circular Asking for Donations for Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, 1837.

Mount Holyoke Female Seminary

It has been expected, that this institution would be ready for the reception of scholars the ensuing autumn, & nearly 30 pupils are already engaged most of whom are to be teachers, & some of them are to be missionaries, who must be deprived of the anticipated privileges of this Seminary, if the commencement should be delayed. But late failures on subscriptions not yet collected, & other disappointments , arising from the peculiar state of commercial affairs, will render it exceedingly difficult to accomplish the object at the specified time. There are those, however, who regard this enterprise as one of the most important, & one destined to aid every other branch of benevolence, to assist in giving to the community that moral principle & that moral feeling, which are so much needed in the great work of renovating the world. There are those, who would deeply regret the extensive disappointment, which would be occasioned by delaying the commencement of the school till another year, when the walls of the building are already erected. They would regard it as a loss to the whole cause of benevolence, too great to be sustained without vigorous exertions to prevent it….

The circular goes on to ask for donations of money or any of the necessities for the Seminary: bedding, towels, pillows, “any kind of blanket, a little worn, if more convenient, as in that case, some lady may give a pair of blankets or two ladies, each a blanket.”

The complete transcription of the circular can be found online.

Document HS II-4: Establishing a College for Women: Excerpts from the Will of Sophia Smith, 1870.

Document HS II-4: Establishing a College for Women: Excerpts from the Will of Sophia Smith, 1870.

From the "Last Will and Testament of Miss Sophia Smith, Late of Hatfield, Mass."

…I hereby make the following provisions for the establishment and maintenance of an Institution for the higher education of young women, with the design to furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our Colleges to young men.

It is my opinion that by the higher and more thorough Christian education of women, what are called their "wrongs" will be redressed, their wages adjusted, their weight of influence in reforming the evils of society will be greatly increased, as teachers, as writers, as mothers, as members of society, their power for good will be incalculably enlarged.

ART. I: This Institution shall be called THE SMITH COLLEGE.

ART. 2: …, I hereby appropriate the sum of Three Hundred Thousand, (300,000) Dollars, if so much shall then remain of my estate, for the establishment and maintenance of said College.

ART. 3: Sensible of what the Christian Religion has done for my sex, and believing that all education should be for the glory of God, and the good of man, I direct that the Holy Scriptures be daily and systematically read and studied in said College, and without giving preference to any sect or denomination, all the education and all the discipline shall be pervaded by the Spirit of Evangelical Christian Religion. I direct, also, that higher culture in the English Language and Literature be given in said College; also, in Ancient and Modern Languages, in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences, in the Useful and the Fine Arts, in Intellectual, Moral and Aesthetic Philosophy, in Natural Theology, in the Evidences of Christianity, in Gymnastics and Physical Culture, in the Sciences and Arts, which pertain to Education, Society, and Government, and in such other studies as coming times may develop or demand for the education of women and the progress of the race. I would have the education suited to the mental and physical wants of woman. It is not my design to render my sex any the less feminine, but to develop as fully as may be the powers of womanhood, and furnish women with the means of usefulness, happiness and honor, now withheld from them. 

Available on-line.


  1. What was Sophia Smith’s overall goal in establishing Smith College?
  2. What did Sophia Smith think would be the result of giving young women a “Christian education”?
  3. How did she define a “Christian education” for young women?
Document HS II-5: Knowledge is Powerful: Excerpts from 1879 Speech by Ellen Swallow Richards

Document HS II-5: Knowledge is Powerful: Excerpts from 1879 Speech by Ellen Swallow Richards

In this and other speeches Ellen Swallow Richards gave, she argued for the importance of including home economics in the school curriculum.

It is often stated that our educational system unfits the girls for their work in life, which is largely that of housekeepers. It cannot be the knowledge which unfits them. One can never know too much of things which one is to handle....

Can a cook know too much about the composition and nutritive value of the meats and vegetables which she uses? Can a housekeeper know too much of the effect of fresh air on the human system, of the danger of sewer gas, of foul water?…

We must awaken a spirit of investigation in our girls, as it is often awakened in our boys, but always, I think, in spite of the school training. We must show to the girls who are studying science in our schools that it has a very close relation to our every-day life. We must train them by it to judge for themselves, and not to do everything just as their grandmothers did, just because their grandmothers did it....

But if you are asking, what has all this to do with domestic economy? Everything, I answer, because if you train the young housekeeper to think, to reason, from the known facts to the unknown results, she will not only make a better housekeeper, but she will be a more contented one; she will find a field wide enough for all her abilities and a field almost unoccupied. The zest of intelligent experiment will add a great charm to the otherwise monotonous duties of housekeeping.

From "Chemistry in Relation to Household Economy," quoted in The Life of Ellen H. Richards, by Caroline L. Hunt (Whitcomb & Barrows, 1912).


  1. How would Ellen Swallow Richards have responded to the argument that higher education was bad for girls?
  2. What did she think was wrong with the way girls were educated?
  3. What benefits did she think girls would get from studying home economics?
Document HS II-6: Why Go to College? Excerpts from Speech by Alice Freeman Palmer, 1897.

Document HS II-6: Why Go to College? Excerpts from Speech by Alice Freeman Palmer, 1897.

Alice Freeman became the first female college president in the U.S. when she was appointed to head Wellesley College at the age of 27. After her marriage to George Freeman, she served as the first dean of women at the University of Chicago. Throughout her career, she was both an example of and an advocate for the advantages of higher education for women.

To a largely increasing number of young girls college doors are opening every year. Every year adds to the number of men who feel as a friend of mine, a successful lawyer in a great city, felt when in talking of the future of his four little children he said, "For the two boys it is not so serious, but I lie down at night afraid to die and leave my daughters only a bank account." Year by year, too, the experiences of life are teaching mothers that happiness does not necessarily come to their daughters when accounts are large and banks are sound, but that on the contrary they take grave risks when they trust everything to accumulated wealth and the chance of a happy marriage. Our American girls themselves are becoming aware that they need the stimulus, the discipline, the knowledge, the interests of the college in addition to the school, if they are to prepare themselves for the most serviceable lives.

But there are still parents who say, "There is no need that my daughter should teach; then why should she go to college?" I will not reply that college training is a life insurance for a girl, a pledge that she possesses the disciplined ability to earn a living for herself and others in case of need, for I prefer to insist on the importance of giving every girl, no matter what her present circumstances, a special training in some one thing by which she can render society service, not amateur but of an expert sort, and service too for which it will be willing to pay a price... 

While it is not true that all girls should go to college any more than that all boys should go, it is nevertheless true that they should go in greater numbers than at present. They fail to go because they, their parents, and their teachers do not see clearly the personal benefits distinct from the commercial value of a college training.

From "Why Go to College?" an address by Alice Freeman Palmer published in pamphlet form by Thomas Crowell and Co., 1897.


  1. What reasons did Alice Freeman Palmer give for why giving girls a college education?
  1. Which if any of these reasons are still true today?
  1. Why did Alice Freeman Palmer believe girls should receive “special training in some one thing”?

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