Letter from C.E. West to D.G. Cartwright (1844)
In the nineteenth century, some Americans viewed education as a way to empower women in a predominantly patriarchal society, but this institution also functioned as a way to limit women’s opportunities.1 Women like Hannah Mather Crocker, a feminist who believed that women should have opportunities equal to men, saw education as a tool to challenge men’s authority and to offer the prospect of greater knowledge for girls.2 Similarly, in this handwritten copy of a 1844 correspondence between Charles E. West and D. G. Cartwright, the two men address the founding of a Brooklyn school and its potential to be a vehicle for the advancement of women’s rights.3 It is hard to say for sure what may have motivated Cartwright and West to brainstorm the establishment of the school first known as the Brooklyn Female Academy, as Cartwright’s letter to West suggests the two men simply thought that women deserved the right to a higher education. An article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle from 1845 shows that the school’s curriculum was comprised mostly of art, music, and needlework classes. While the school may have seemed progressive, the classes it offered were quite limiting and perhaps had a restraining effect on the female student body.4 The skills taught seemed to encourage domesticity, teaching young women not to interfere with men’s dominance in the workforce, or even in society as a whole.5 These courses aligned with the philosophy of educator Catharine Beecher, who dismissed the budding idea that women were equal to men and instead believed that “the purpose of women’s education was to prepare them to be better mothers and teachers.”6 Cartwright and West may have believed that they were benefitting women by creating the Brooklyn Female Academy, but by offering limiting and gender-specific courses, the school reinforced the already-established ideal that women were to remain inferior to men.