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Catharine Beecher (1800–1878)

Portrait of Catharine Beecher, possibly by W.F. Langenheim. Daguerreotype. 1848. From the Beecher-Stowe family papers, 1798-1956. Schlesinger Library. Radcliffe Institute.
Portrait of Catharine Beecher, possibly by W.F. Langenheim. Daguerreotype, 1848. From the Beecher-Stowe family papers, 1798–1956.
Schlesinger Library. Radcliffe Institute.

Born in New York, Catharine Esther Beecher was an influential leader in the campaign for equal educational opportunities for women and a prolific writer on the position of women in society. Catharine was the oldest daughter in the famous Beecher family. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent Presbyterian minister who advocated social and moral reform through numerous public sermons. Her younger sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote the famous abolitionist play Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) that intensified Northern anti-slavery sentiment. Her younger brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was an influential Presbyterian minister who campaigned against slavery and in favor of temperance reform and women's suffrage.

After beginning her teaching career in 1821, Catharine Beecher founded the Hartford Female Seminary, a school geared specifically to provide higher education to women, in 1823. In 1832, she founded the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati, and went on to help found a number of other institutions in the Midwest that gave women access to higher education. In 1852, she established the American Woman's Educational Association to expand the number of teachers in schools on the western frontier.

In 1841, Beecher published her most influential work, A Treatise on Domestic Economy, in which she argued that women should remain in the domestic sphere, but stressed that the domestic sphere was crucial to the well-being of American society. Although she promoted the expansion of educational opportunities for women, she was opposed to women's suffrage and political activism by women in the great reform movements of the 19th century, such as the anti-slavery cause.

Beecher herself never married, which creates a paradox between her personal life and views about women's proper role in society. Despite her belief that women should remain in the domestic sphere, Beecher lived a very active life outside of the home that was filled with vigorous political advocacy of more educational opportunities for women. She died in 1878.

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