Tuesday, November 2, 2010
Girls At Franklin College
In "Rebecca Gratz: NOT the First Female College Student," I reported that although Richea Gratz, Rebecca's older sister, attended Franklin College in 1788, she went to a section of the college which was a high school, not an institution of higher learning. Although we cannot confer the honor of the first American Jewish female college student on either Richea or Rebecca, the story has revealed a moment in early American history when girls were allowed to follow, along side boys, an academic curriculum.
After the Revolution, Americans (that is, white men) found themselves no longer subjects of a king but citizens of a republic which required more political participation of them. Education for good citizenship became a cause for many of the founding fathers. In Pennsylvania, Benjamin Rush was particularly interested; he founded Dickinson College, in Carlisle, PA, for the youth of the western part of the state and Franklin College, in Lancaster, to help inculcate republican values in the large German-speaking population in the area and to encourage their participation in the great American experiment.
Rush also gave thought to the best kind of education for American women, and in 1787 told an audience at the first female academic high school in Philadelphia:
"The equal share that every citizen has in liberty, and the possible share he may have in the government of our country, make it necessary that our ladies should be qualified to a certain degree by a peculiar and suitable education, to concur in instructing their sons in the principles of liberty and government....In particular it is incumbent upon us to make ornamental accomplishments yield to principles and knowledge in the education of our women....let the ladies of a country be educated properly and they will...form its manner and character."
Rush's ideas of "republican mothers" and female "makers of manners" gave women a role to play in building the new nation and seem to have fostered the notion of a more serious education for women, at least among some of the upper-class families in and around Philadelphia. Less than a year after Rush spoke, girls' names pop up on the roll of the new Franklin College, and we can speculate that his words played a part in this development, both because he had influence with the College and because, as a Founding Father, he had influence with the well-to-do families of the area who at other times were socially very conservative when it came to their daughters.
The new college was no doubt eager to fill as many places as it could in its first years, but many similar institutions had faced the same situation and didn't solve it by admitting girls. I think Franklin's doors were open to young women at this moment because of the double influence of Rush and Americans' consciousness that their republican experiment might require new attitudes about and expectations for women.
Richea Gratz, Margaret Coleman, Elizabeth Grubb and others lost to history attended school along with young men. It would be interesting to know which courses were open to them. Even Benjamin Rush, who championed their education in history, arithmetic, geography and composition, did not suggest they should take courses in Classics and higher mathematics which their male classmates were studying.
The Franklin College records for this period are incomplete, but the school soon returned to single-sex education. We have to assume that male applications were given preference over female ones, and girls were soon squeezed out. But in generation after generation, there were always some American women attempting to broaden and deepen the education of their sex. In the 1830's Sara Moses, Rebecca's niece, who was studying at the socially prestigious but by no means progressive French Academy in Philadelphia, learned conversational French and music, just as 18th-century girls did. But Sara also studied "French composition and criticism and Chemistry." Accomplishments were slowly giving way to knowledge.