Thursday, January 26, 2012

Washington Female Seminary

Two "mistresses" from the Washington Female Seminary (late 1800s)

Washington Female Seminary

Location: Northwest corner of Lincoln and Maiden Streets, Washington, Pennsylvania, USA

Founded: April 21,1836

Closed: June 1948

Washington Female Seminary was a Presbyterian seminary for women. Though historic accounts say that it was organized by "a group of enterprising citizens in Washington," men's names are the only ones mentioned, especially the names of two local men who were relatively prominent abolitionists.

However, the Seminary did have a strong tradition of female leadership through its women principals. Mrs. Frances Biddle, the first principal, remained just a short time, till 1840, as she was apparently "not quite the person for the job." Miss Sarah R. Foster (later Mrs. Sarah B. Hanna), a former student of Emma Willard (another pioneer in women's education), served from 1840-1874. This time around, at least according to this source, they found just the right woman for the position:

The board chose well; the new principal was to serve for 34 years and under her expert guidance the seminary soon became one of the most famous schools for girls in the region. She was a born administrator, possessed of uncommon tact and energy. In no time at all she and her school began to exercise a great influence upon the entire community.

After Mrs. Hanna's retirement, she was succeeded by Miss Nancy Sherrard, a graduate and former vice principal at the Steubenville Female Seminary. (Once again, we're seeing how women's seminaries and colleges provided mutual support to each other.) Miss Sherrard remained till her retirement in 1897. She in turn was followed by Mrs. Martha McMillan, who served till 1901. During Mrs. McMillan's tenure, a second building was finally added to the school--various additions had previously been added over the years, but not a new building as such. The commission went to a Pittsburgh woman architect, Elice Mercur. This also follows a pattern we have seen before, of women's colleges and schools providing important opportunities for women architects and other professionals.  Today this building, now known as McIlvaine Hall, belongs to Washington & Jefferson College.

Classes began in 1836 with just forty students and an emphasis on "providing not just a finishing education for young women of good Christian standing but a rigorous, classical curriculum." The "course of study," we are told, included "grammar, ancient and modern geography, mental and natural philosophy, history, arithmetic, astronomy, and evidence of Christianity." Pretty tough-sounding stuff indeed.  By 1845 the curriculum had been expanded to include geology, algebra, geometry, political economy, chemistry, botany, rhetoric, logic, mental and moral science, and scripture history.

Life at the school during this era was certainly less than luxurious by contemporary standards, but there were apparently few complaints:

The hospitable three-story building, which fronted on Maiden Street, had 40 rooms. The students' rooms were furnished , and the girls were expected to keep them neat and tidy. The furnishings would be regarded as decidedly chilly and austere by today's standards. Carpets could be found only in the parlors and in the teachers' quarters; no pictures adorned the walls, and there was no central heating. Warmth was provided by little coal or wood fires in each room. There was as yet no gas, electricity, or running water. Light was provided by dip tallow candles. Beds were equipped with two mattresses, a straw one for summer and a feather one for winter. Pupils took turns serving as "monitress," and were responsible for visiting the dormitory room during study hours to make sure that students were in their rooms if they were supposed to be in, or out if they were supposed to be out. Demerits were given for infractions. Food was abundant and apparently good. While life was rugged, letters written by students of the period attested that they found it enjoyable.

Pioneering journalist and author Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910) graduated from Washington Female Seminary at the age of 17 in 1848. Though serving as class valedictorian, she found the school a bit wonting in its academic rigor at that time. As she later reflected, the Seminary taught "enough math to do accounts, enough astronomy to point out constellations, a little music and drawing, and French, history, literature at discretion".

Scholar Gregory Hadley describes Davis's frustration with an authoritarian father who thought that higher education was wasted on women. She desperately wanted to go to college, but that wish was thwarted. Her father hired private tutors to teach her younger brother, but none for her.

Rebecca eventually went to Washington Women’s Seminary in Washington, Pennsylvania, a school which trained women to become missionaries, pastor’s wives and teachers. During this time she studied the Bible intensively. Washington, Pennsylvania was also on the American lecture circuit, which meant that scholars and political thinkers regularly came to the city to lecture on abolitionism, human rights, women’s rights and the plight of immigrants. Couched within the ethical teachings of Christianity, Rebecca Harding Davis was challenged to explore ideas, read widely, and think for herself about social as well as religious issues. Judging from her later writings, it is likely that during this time in her life, Davis began to reach the conclusion that in order to be faithful to the ethical teachings of Christ, one should work for to bring justice to those who were suffering injustice. 

After three years, she graduated at the top of her class and returned home, where she found her family hostile to her liberal ideas.  Rebecca was expected to stay at home and help her mother take care of her brothers and sisters, who now numbered five.  In her spare time, Rebecca tried to continue her education at home by studying her brother’s old college textbooks, but under the psychological pressure of her parent’s constant opposition and the chore of taking care of little children,  she became deeply depressed.  She felt that life had become a curse because she was unable to use anything that she had learned. From the pit of this despair, she found strength to make a break from the bondage imposed upon her by her family and social class.

Rebecca Harding Davis
Eventually, Davis published her first novella, Life in the Iron Mills (1861), which is now considered a masterpiece of literary realism. She went on to have a successful writing career in many ways. But as Hadley observes, she was almost too advanced for her time:
Rebecca Harding Davis’ writings often preceded the works of other well-known authors of her day.  Her portrayal of the psychological pain of soldiers during the American Civil War was written years before that of Stephen Crane.  Davis’ study of the social imprisonment of Victorian women anticipated Kate Chopin, and her riveting denouncement of the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and capitalism were written well before Upton Sinclair’s novels.  

By the time she died, Davis was virtually unknown. It was not until the feminist writer Tillie Olson rediscovered her writings in the early 1970s that interest in Davis's life and work was revived.

Throughout the last decades of  nineteenth century, the school continued to expand in academic breadth and enrollment: "By the mid-80s the seminary was graduating an average of 20 students annually; in 1884 there were 140 pupils in attendance, 60 of whom were boarders."

As it entered the first decades of the twentieth century, Washington Female Seminary had certainly developed a well-earned reputation for academic excellence. This glowing recommendation is from 1910:

Washington Female Seminary Class of 1888
From its opening Washington Seminary has grown slowly, but steadily, both in members and in character and range of opportunties afforded. It is one of the few schools in which the Bible is scientifically taught from a literary standpoint. Its certificate admits to the leading women's colleges of the country. In addition to the College preparatory course and regular course there are also studies in music, art and elocution. The proximity of the Seminary to Pittsburg with its famous resident orchestra, musical advantages and art exhibits, affords the opportunity of hearing the great symphanies and soloists, and seeing the work of the great artists. Washington Seminary numbers her alumnae by the thousands.

A 1913 advertisement for the school further boasts that "certificates from the college preparatory course admits to the freshman class of Vassar, Smith, Wellesley, Mt. Holyoke, Ohio Wesleyan and other leading institutions."

So what happened? It seemed that the Seminary developed financial problems around the first World War. An ambitious capital plan was embarked upon, which involved the purchase of a 36-acre site with buildings outside the central part of town. The project was finally abandoned in the 1920s with little explanation. As the country entered the Great Depression years, the financial difficulties only grew worse:

By the early 1930s financial pressures and increased competition from the growing number of public high schools created so many difficulties that in 1932 the trustees voted to close the school. Through the efforts of a devoted faculty and a determined principal, however, the seminary reopened almost immediately as a day school and junior college and it continued to operate on this basis for another sixteen years. Accreditation and financial problems continued to plague the administration and after the second World War the pressures became more intense. The school property had been sold to W&J in 1939; so, homeless and without funds, the trustees gave up the struggle for good in December 1947. The 112th commencement in June 1948 was the last. 

1 comment:

  1. This is the most extensive portrait of the Washington Female Seminary that I have been able to find! Congratulations on a job well done. Do you know if there is any more information on the specific types of courses the students took, or what visiting lecturers might have attended?


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.