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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Woman’s Education in the Last Century

By Noah Webster (1758–1843)

[Born in Hartford, Conn., 1758. Died in New Haven, Conn., 1843. A Collection of Essays and Fugitive Writings. 1790.]

IN all nations a good education is that which renders the ladies correct in their manners, respectable in their families, and agreeable in society. That education is always wrong, which raises a woman above the duties of her station.

In America, female education should have for its object what is useful. Young ladies should be taught to speak and write their own language with purity and elegance; an article in which they are often deficient. The French language is not necessary for ladies. In some cases it is convenient, but in general it may be considered as an article of luxury. As an accomplishment, it may be studied by those whose attention is not employed about more important concerns.

Some knowledge of arithmetic is necessary for every lady. Geography should never be neglected. Belles-lettres learning seems to correspond with the dispositions of most females. A taste for poetry and fine writing should be cultivated; for we expect the most delicate sentiments from the pens of that sex, which is possessed of the finest feelings.

A course of reading can hardly be prescribed for all ladies. But it should be remarked, that this sex cannot be too well acquainted with the writers upon human life and manners. The Spectator should fill the first place in every lady’s library. Other volumes of periodical papers, though inferior to the Spectator, should be read; and some of the best histories.

With respect to novels, so much admired by the young, and so generally condemned by the old, what shall I say? Perhaps it may be said with truth, that some of them are useful, many of them pernicious, and most of them trifling. A hundred volumes of modern novels may be read, without acquiring a new idea. Some of them contain entertaining stories, and where the descriptions are drawn from nature, and from characters and events in themselves innocent, the perusal of them may be harmless.

Were novels written with a view to exhibit only one side of human nature, to paint the social virtues, the world would condemn them as defective: but I should think them more perfect. Young people, especially females, should not see the vicious part of mankind. At best, novels may be considered as the toys of youth; the rattle-boxes of sixteen. The mechanic gets his pence for his toys, and the novel writer for his books, and it would be happy for society if the latter were in all cases as innocent playthings as the former.

In the large towns in America, music, drawing and dancing, constitute a part of female education. They, however, hold a subordinate rank; for my fair friends will pardon me, when I declare, that no man ever marries a woman for her performance on a harpsichord, or her figure in a minuet. However ambitious a woman may be to command admiration abroad, her real merit is known only at home. Admiration is useless when it is not supported by domestic worth. But real honor and permanent esteem are always secured by those who preside over their own families with dignity. Nothing can be more fatal to domestic happiness, in America, than a taste for copying the luxurious manners and amusements of England and France. Dancing, drawing and music, are principal articles of education in those kingdoms; therefore every girl in America must pass two or three years at a boarding-school, though her father cannot give her a farthing when she marries. This ambition to educate females above their fortunes pervades every part of America. Hence the disproportion between the well-bred females and the males in our large towns. A mechanic or shopkeeper in town, or a farmer in the country, whose sons get their living by their father’s employments, will send their daughters to a boarding-school, where their ideas are elevated, and their views carried above a connection with men in those occupations. Such an education, without fortune or beauty, may possibly please a girl of fifteen, but must prove her greatest misfortune. This fatal mistake is illustrated in every large town in America. In the country, the number of males and females is nearly equal; but in towns, the number of genteelly-bred women is greater than of men; and in some towns the proportion is as three to one.

The heads of young people of both sexes are often turned by reading descriptions of splendid living, of coaches, of plays, and other amusements. Such descriptions excite a desire to enjoy the same pleasures. A fortune becomes the principal object of pursuit; fortunes are scarce in America, and not easily acquired; disappointment succeeds, and the youth, who begins life with expecting to enjoy a coach, closes the prospect with a small living, procured by labor and economy.

Thus a wrong education, and a taste for pleasures which our fortunes will not enable us to enjoy, often plunge the Americans into distress, or at least prevent early marriages. Too fond of show, of dress and expense, the sexes wish to please each other; they mistake the means, and both are disappointed.