Catharine Beecher on the Duty of American Women


Background Notes

Catharine Beecher, the oldest child of the famous minister Lyman Beecher and sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, in Reference to the Duty of American Females, in response to a speaking tour of two abolitionist sisters, Angelina and Sarah Grimké, who were Southerners from a slaveholding family. The Grimkés had shocked people with their advocacy of immediate abolition and by lecturing in public before audiences of mixed genders. They recommended that both men and women become actively and publicly involved with reform.

Catharine Beecher, like most of her American contemporaries, believed that the Bible’s “divine economy” ordained that “woman holds a subordinate relation in society to the other sex.” Beecher argued that women’s duties and influence were as important as men’s but had to be exercised in totally different ways. Women should “win everything by peace and love.” Men’s sphere was public life, politics, business, ambition and achievement. Women’s sphere was private life, family, persuasion, and living for others. Anything that “throws a woman into the attitude of a combatant,” Beecher maintained, “throws her out of her appropriate sphere.” Consequently, active participation in politics, and particularly in the antislavery movement, was totally wrong for women.

Transcription of Primary Source

My Dear Friend …

It has of late become quite fashionable in all benevolent efforts, to shower upon our sex an abundance of compliments, not only for what they have done, but also for what they can do; and so injudicious and so frequent, are these oblations, that while I feel an increasing respect for my countrywomen, that their good sense has not been decoyed by these appeals to their vanity and ambition, I cannot but apprehend that there is some need of inquiry as to the just bounds of female influence, and the times, places, and manner in which it can be appropriately exerted.

It is the grand feature of the Divine economy, that there should be different stations of superiority and subordination, and it is impossible to annihilate this beneficent and immutable law...In this arrangement of the duties of life, Heaven has appointed to one sex the superior, and to the other the subordinate station, and this without any reference to the character or conduct of either. It is therefore as much for the dignity as it is for the interest of females, in all respects to conform to the duties of this relation. And it is as much a duty as it is for the child to fulfil similar relations to parents, or subjects to rulers. But while woman holds a subordinate relation in society to the other sex, it is not because it was designed that her duties or her influence should be any the less important, or all−pervading. But it was designed that the mode of gaining influence and of exercising power should be altogether different and peculiar...

Woman is to win every thing by peace and love; by making herself so much respected, esteemed and loved, that to yield to her opinions and to gratify her wishes will be the free−will offering of the heart. But this is to be all accomplished in the domestic and social circle...Then, the fathers, the husbands, and the sons will find an influence thrown around them to which they will yield not only willingly but proudly...But the moment woman begins to feel the promptings of ambition, or the thirst for power, her aegis* of defence is gone...

Whatever, in any measure, throws a woman into the attitude of a combatant, either for herself or others...throws her out of her appropriate sphere. If these general principles are correct, they are entirely opposed to the plan of arraying females in any Abolition movement: because it enlists them in an effort to coerce the South by the public sentiment of the North; because it brings them forward as partisans in a conflict that has been begun and carried forward by measures that are any thing rather than peaceful in their tendencies; because it draws them forth from their appropriate retirement, to expose themselves to the ungoverned violence of mobs, and to sneers and ridicule in public places; because it leads them into the arena of political collision, not as peaceful mediators to hush the opposing elements, but as combatants to cheer up and carry forward the measures of strife.

If it is asked, “May not woman appropriately come forward as a suppliant for a portion of her sex who are bound in cruel bondage?” It is replied, that, the rectitude and propriety of any such measure, depend entirely on its probable results. If petitions from females will operate to exasperate; if they will be deemed obtrusive, indecorous, and unwise, by those to whom they are addressed; if they will increase, rather than diminish the evil which it is wished to remove; if they will be the opening wedge, that will tend eventually to bring females as petitioners and partisans into every political measure that may tend to injure and oppress their sex...then it is neither appropriate nor wise, nor right, for a woman to petition for the relief of oppressed females...

In this country, petitions to congress, in reference to the official duties of legislators, seem, IN ALL CASES, to fall entirely without the sphere of female duty. Men are the proper persons to make appeals to the rulers whom they appoint, and if their female friends, by arguments and persuasions, can induce them to petition, all the good that can be done by such measures will be secured. But if females cannot influence their nearest friends, to urge forward a public measure in this way, they surely are out of their place, in attempting to do it themselves.

There are some other considerations, which should make the American females peculiarly sensitive in reference to any measure, which should even seem to draw them from their appropriate relations in society.

It is allowed by all reflecting minds, that the safety and happiness of this nation depends upon having the children educated, and not only intellectually, but morally and religiously. There are now nearly two million children and adults in this country who cannot read, and who have no schools of any kind. To give only a small supply of teachers to these destitute children, who are generally where the population is sparse, will demand thirty thousand teachers; and six thousand more will be needed every year, barely to meet the increase of juvenile population...Where is this army of teachers to be found? Is it at all probable that the other sex will afford even a moderate portion of this supply? The field for enterprise and excitement in the political arena, in the arts, the sciences, the liberal professions, in agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, is opening with such temptations, as never yet bore upon the mind of any nation. Will men turn aside from these high and exciting objects to become the patient labourers in the school−room, and for only the small pittance that rewards such toil? No, they will not do it. Men will be educators in the college, in the high school, in some of the most honourable and lucrative common schools, but the children, the little children of this nation must, to a wide extent, be taught by females, or remain untaught. The drudgery of education, as it is now too generally regarded, in this country, will be given to the female hand. And as the value of education rises in the public mind, and the importance of a teacher’s office is more highly estimated, women will more and more be furnished with those intellectual advantages which they need to fit them for such duties.

The result will be, that America will be distinguished above all other nations, for well−educated females, and for the influence they will exert on the general interests of society. But if females, as they approach the other sex, in intellectual elevation, begin to claim, or to exercise in any manner, the peculiar prerogatives of that sex, education will prove a doubtful and dangerous blessing. But this will never be the result. For the more intelligent a woman becomes, the more she can appreciate the wisdom of that ordinance that appointed her subordinate station, and the more her taste will conform to the graceful and dignified retirement and submission it involves.


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Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
An Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism, in Reference to the Duty of American Females
Catharine E. Beecher
Henry Perkins
Place of Publication: 
Old Sturbridge Village