Catharine Beecher probably never even set foot on the campus of what is now Mansfield University, but her name lives on here. In 1966, the Mansfield State College board of trustees renamed the former Wilson House to honor Miss Beecher. The home, which has been demolished for new residence halls, once housed the campus public relations and sports information offices and a training center for the home economics department.
While home economics is no longer included in the curriculum, it was once one of the more popular majors here. Much of the home economics curriculum was taught in the building now called Elliot Hall, which was known as the Arts Building until 1972 and the Home Ec Center until 1997. (When it was called the Art Building, music and home economics shared the space.) Just like education, though, there was a need to give majors field experience. There is no better place to provide real world home economics experience than in a real “home.” Both the Beecher House and the current Alumni House, which was once called the Richards House, were both used as home management laboratories.
Beecher House (there is evidence that there was talk of calling the building a “cottage”) was named for an early pioneer of the field of home economics, Catharine (sometimes spelled Catherine) Beecher. She is the older sister of the more famous Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Life Among the Lowly.
Famous as Harriet may have been, Catharine was an important woman in her own right. She was the eldest of 13 children born to the Calvinist minister Lyman Beecher. Lyman had nine children by his first wife, Roxanne, and four more to his second wife, Harriet. Catharine was born in 1800 in East Hampton, N.Y. When she was nine, the family moved to Litchfield, Conn. Her early education was at home and at the age of 10, she enrolled in a private school. Unfortunately, the curriculum for females was extremely limited. Catharine independently studied Latin, philosophy, and mathematics. By 1821, she had become a school teacher.
The year 1823 would prove to be both traumatic and opportune for Catharine. That year, she lost her fiancée, Alexander Metcalf Fisher, who died at sea. According to the City University of New York’s Newman Library website, which outlines the history of the Beecher family, Catharine became convinced that her life’s mission was to “find happiness in living to do good.” A small fortune that Fisher willed to her did not hurt that cause. Catharine and a sister, Mary, started the Hartford Female Seminary with the estate money. In the first year, the seminary enrolled seven pupils. Within three years, the seminary had nearly 100 students. One of the more revolutionary ideas at the school was teaching women’s calisthenics. While it is common today for women to become athletes, the idea of a physical education course for females took decades to catch on. According to a PBS online report, Catharine felt that it is the school’s responsibility to stress the moral, physical, and intellectual development of women.
Hartford Female Seminary persisted for nearly 60 years and became known for its religious revivals. Some histories credit Catharine with leading the revivals, though she struggled to receive her own religious visions. This would be the first of many paradoxes in this remarkable woman’s life.
Catharine later turned her attention to the Western Frontier, which was constantly moving closer to the Pacific Ocean. In 1832, she founded the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati with the goal of providing an education to teachers who would later teach in the West. A financial crisis five years later led to the closing of that institution. In 1852, Catharine founded the American’s Woman’s Education Association, also with the goal of providing more teachers in the frontier regions. By that point, the territory of the United States stretched from ocean to ocean as a result of gains in the Mexican War.
It was around this time that Catharine started supporting herself by lecturing and writing about education for women as well as her vision of the role of women in society. According to various sources and her own writings, Catharine considered a woman’s place to be in the home. She argued that women could have the most influence on society by keeping up the home and educating the children. However, a mother could only properly educate her children if she, herself, received a proper education.
Catharine also argued against women’s suffrage, noting that it would only serve to further undervalue the already humble labors of home and school. Women, she wrote, can best influence society by working in the home and the schools. Business and finance were also out of bounds for women, according to Catharine. Ironically, Catharine’s brother, Henry Ward Beecher, was one of the early male advocates for women’s suffrage. In fact, through the efforts of Henry and many others, the territory of Wyoming approved women’s suffrage as early as 1869 and Utah followed suit in 1870.
Here is the great paradox. Catharine never married nor had children. In addition, she led a very public life by lecturing and publishing numerous pamphlets on education, health, and keeping up a household. She would defend this position by pointing out that single women could share their feminine virtues by teaching and further noted that women are natural teachers. According to the PBS report, she held the view that teaching was a more important profession than being a doctor or lawyer.
Some of her more important works include:
Suggestions Respecting Improvements in Education This early work, published in 1829, was the piece that pointed out that women are natural teachers and their work is more important than that of doctors and lawyers.
A Treatise on Domestic Economy Published in 1843, this work went through 15 editions. With the assistance of younger sister, Harriet, Catharine revived the work as The American Woman’s Home. In this work, Catharine argued for the importance of the domestic sphere to society as a whole.
The Evils Suffered by American Women and Children. This 1846 work was a reprint of one of Catharine’s lectures. It highlighted the problem of illiteracy among early 19th century women as well as the horrific conditions in the textile factories of Lowell, Mass. The early sweatshops were notorious for employing women and young children for pitifully low wages and providing dangerous and unhealthy working conditions.
Woman Suffrage and Woman’s Profession This later work, published in 1871 argued against giving women the right to vote and for the home as the woman’s sphere.
Miss Beecher’s Housekeeper and Health keeper Published in 1873, this work provided 500 healthy and economical recipes and Catharine’s advice on achieving health and happiness.
In her later years, Catharine lived with her half-brother, the Rev. Thomas Kinnicut Beecher, pastor of the Park Church in Elmira, N.Y. Thomas made numerous forays into Tioga County, including Mansfield. There is no evidence that Catharine ever came here, though. In one notable correspondence, Simon B. Elliott solicited the Rev. Thomas Kinnicut Beecher’s advice on boarding students at the second seminary building before it opened in 1859.
It was not destined to be a quiet retirement for the elderly Catharine, however. According to stories published in the old Wellsboro Agitator, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (Catherine’s full brother), pastor of the Plymouth church in Brooklyn, NY, apparently had some sort of relationship in the 1860s with a Mrs. Tilton, one of the members of the church. Mr. Tilton apparently wrote for a publication called the Independent and used it to attack Rev. Henry Ward Beecher. The Agitator opined that the whole situation could have been resolved with an apology and acceptance of that apology. All the while, though, the newspaper frequently talked about the “Beecher-Tilden Scandal.” Some sort of legal action was initiated in Brooklyn, N.Y. Apparently Rev. Henry Ward Beecher’s name was cleared by 1875 and he received a healthy raise while Tilton and his wife were left impoverished. However, during the intervening years, Catharine was left to defend her brother’s honor.
Catharine Beecher passed away in Elmira on May 12, 1878. While her views may not be consistent with the modern feminist ideal and were often paradoxical, there is no arguing that she made many contributions to the fields of education and domestic economy. It is fitting, then, that the trustees decided in 1966 to name the home economics training building in her honor.