Susanna Rowson and the Reform of Women's Education, 1780-1820: Teaching strategy





In U.S. history, education has been promoted as a remedy for many types of social issues and problems. In the early republic, reformers and educators such as Susanna Rowson advocated higher education as a way to enable women to manage their sexual vulnerability—that is, to make rational choices about who to marry and about how to be virtuous women (and wives). The documents in this section explore this issue by highlighting the problems women faced and detailing the education offered at Rowson’s Young Ladies' Academy in Boston.


  • To explore how reformers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Judith Sargent Murray critiqued women’s lot in the early republic
  • To understand why concerns about women’s sexual vulnerability increased in the early republic and to determine why education was viewed as a (partial) solution
  • To consider the experience of young women at Susanna Rowson's academy—the content of their education and the choices it created for them

Lesson Ideas

1. Read documents 1, 8, and 9. Documents 1 and 8 were written by Philadelphia stateman and physician Benjamin Rush, a proponent of expanded education for both men and women in the new nation. How did Rush place his call for expanded education into the context of revolutionary America; that is, why did he think better education was especially necessary in the new nation? In what specific ways did Rush and Benjamin Say, a trustee at the Young Ladies' Academy in Philadelphia, see women's education as an important component of this project (document 9)?

2. Read documents 3, 4, and 10. In these documents, reformers Judith Sargent Murray and Mary Wollstonecraft both argue that women are creatures of social conditioning. What does this mean? How do they make this argument, and what do they say about women’s irrationality? How do you think their readers responded? Be prepared to discuss this in class and to point to specific passages in these documents that support Murray's and Wollstonecraft's changes.

3. Carefully examine documents 5, 6, and 7. What examples of women’s sexual vulnerability appear in these documents? What difference do you think it makes (if any) that the first document is fiction and the other two are nonfiction? Be prepared to discuss this in class.

4. Read documents 12A, 12B, 12C, 14, 15, and 17A and 17B, all excerpts from textbooks used at Susanna Rowson’s Young Ladies Academy. What examples do you find of practical education? Ornamental education? Academic education? How do they overlap, in both the texts and in Rowson’s vision of the education she was providing? Be prepared to discuss this in class.

5. Carefully read Documents 18A, 18B, 18C, all public speeches given by girls attending academies in the early republic. What vision of women’s education appears in these speeches, and in what ways has academy education benefited the girls? Additionally, read document 19. What does this add to the picture? Finally, be prepared to discuss both the limits of education and possibilities education created for women as revealed by these excerpts.

Short (Creative) Assignments

Documents 18A, 18B, 18C are all addresses given at commencements of the Young Ladies Academy. Based on what you learned from these documents, imagine that you have just completed your education at Susanna Rowson’s academy and write your own commencement speech.

• In document 16, you see an advertisement for Susanna Rowson’s academy. Design another advertisement that might have been used for her school. Feel free to include images, but make sure to also include text that describes the academy experience.

Longer Assignment

• One question that has driven scholars of revolutionary America is whether the American Revolution was good for women. Read the following works about women’s education and experiences in the early republic: Linda Kerber’s Women of the Republic; Mary Beth Norton’s Liberty’s Daughters; and Margaret Nash's Women’s Education in the United States, 1780-1840. Write a short paper in which you make and support an argument how the Revolution contributed to changes in women's lives. Consider the possibilities that the Revolution opened for women and the limitations that remained. Make sure to consider your evaluation of the academy experience in making your argument. 


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