Conversations at the Washington Library
Conversations at the Washington Library is a weekly podcast about early American history and the people who teach it.
Dr. Mary Sarah Bilder, Professor of Law at Boston College Law School, discuss Eliza Harriet Barons O'Connor’s role in women’s education.
Below is a transcript of only part of her interview with Dr. Kevin Butterfield. You can hear the full interview in this episode of Conversations at the Washington Library.
I wrote a book on Madison and the Constitutional Convention. One of the things that began to interest me about that was that there were no women. I remembered from Charles Warren's great history of the Constitution Convention that there was this woman who gave a lecture. It’s briefly mentioned that Washington attended. So I went back and started investigating who that woman was, and all of a sudden her whole life came alive. She became not just a little random one note, but a way to really think hard about what the relationship between women and the Constitution.
Her name was Eliza Harriet Barons O'Connor. She first moves to New York with her husband, who's Irish in 1786 and then 1787 moves to Philadelphia. There she advertises these lectures probably as an effort to create a school for girls, which is what she'd been doing in New York.
Yes. She obviously thought he was coming or people assumed he was coming because she postpones her lecture due to the weather. Because he is there it is reported in newspapers across the United States, that Washington went to see “a lady” lecture.
She really fits beautifully into a moment when on both sides of the Atlantic people of the middle-class gentry become interested in female education. She's part of that movement. She wants young women to learn what young men are learning. She’s very interested in people learning elocution or the art of reading. At the time, there's a whole movement believing that if people could learn to read and to speak all of politics would be re-imagined. That is the liberal reformist enlightenment tradition for men. She's saying the same thing should apply to women.
Most of the Western philosophical tradition to this point presumed women's incapacity. It was built on a notion of women's inferiority. At this moment, people begin to think, well, maybe women can get some education. Most people assume that what women should get out of education is to be limited to things that would help them be better wives or daughters. You see this in the writings of famous people like Rousseau who's really thinking about how more people ought to be educated. Yet when he gets to women, he thinks, "Well, yeah, but they still have to be wives and daughters."
So in Philadelphia, Eliza Harriet gives her lectures during which she discusses women’s education through a school run by a woman. After those lectures, Benjamin Rush, who we think of as enlightened, gives a speech and then a writes a pamphlet stating how he agrees with women being educated. Although he believes they should be educated by men and for domestic purposes to be better wives and better daughters. That's a different idea than Eliza Harriet has and the tradition she really represents.
What is so interesting about Mary Wollstonecraft is we tend to think of her as a radical. I think a lot of people associate her with women’s voting rights. But Mary Wollstonecraft actually looks remarkably like Eliza Harriet. She tries to start her own school in 1787 and her first major publication, is “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters.” So she's writing about female education. She then writes under a pseudonym, a book called, The Female Reader, which is designed to create a set of texts to teach young women elocution and the art of reading.
Then in 1792, she writes Vindication of Rights of Women. There's only one sentence in the entire Vindication that says women ought to have political rights. It comes at the end of a paragraph where she first complains that women who have education don't really have any opportunities to make any money. This was also Eliza Harriet's common problem. What's so interesting about Mary Wollstonecraft is, in some ways, she's is a very famous version of Eliza Harriet.
Views about women's education are mostly that education should be for domestic purposes. Historians have tended to think of that as the dominant liberal model. It is something that's sometimes called Republican Motherhood. By putting someone like Eliza Harriet back in the story and connecting her to someone like Mary Wollstonecraft we can begin to see a way in which there may be lots of women who didn't agree with that. Perhaps we can begin to re-understand women's education and women's oratory as a position advocating for more political equality. So it's a way of displacing this very dominant story in which the liberal position is really about domesticated women.
Eliza Harriet and her husband came to Mount Vernon to visit Washington. She had started a school in Alexandria and tried to get Washington to sit officially on the board. He said he was too busy, but he would help where he could. He had begun to expand his ideas on women's education and was the patron of a school in Alexandria for children who couldn't really afford an elite education. There's a wonderful letter written, I think in 1786, where he says he's willing to allow girls to be educated but at a ratio of one girl to every four boys. So maybe not totally expansive but he did work to have his step-granddaughter and niece educated at a school that looks very much like the kind Eliza Harriet was running.
He was remarkably enlightened for his period, and in fact, in his diary, he records how we felt about Eliza Harriet. He said he thought the lecture was “tolerable,” which I think is praise.
I think she demonstrates how difficult it was for women in this period who were ambitious and sought to live life according to some sort of aspirational intellect. She continues to be forced from one town to another, probably because of her husband's debts. They end up in Columbia, South Carolina, where she's running a very small school. She dies in 1811. At that time her inventory suggests that she has been reduced to living in the room of one person's house. She had her books, she had her eyeglasses, and she left her money to her executor's young daughters. So even at the end, a little pro female voice there.