Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ipswitch Female Seminary

Ipswitch Female Seminary
Ipswitch Female Seminary

Location: Ipswitch, Massachusetts, USA

Founded: 1825 as co-ed Ipswitch Academy; reconstituted in 1828 as a school for women

Closed: 1876

The most thorough discussion I have seen on the Ipswitch Female Seminary is the following 2005 article by Sarah Vickery. As I collect more and more stories about the development of women's colleges and schools, I'm forever being reminded of the power of being educated within a womyn's space, and how the experiences and friendships gained within that space inspire students to create additional womyn's spaces.

No history of women's collegiate education is complete without at least a glance at the Ipswich Female Seminary, which for nearly 50 years sat just above the Choate Bridge where the Christian Science Center is today. 

Founded as the co-ed Ipswich Academy in 1825, it was reconstituted in 1828 as a school for women, with renowned educator Zilpah Polly Grant at its helm. Grant brought along her colleague and lifelong friend, Mary Lyon, whose eventual fame as the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (one of the first fully recognized women's colleges in the United States) would prove more lasting than Grant's own. 

Today, when it is mentioned at all, the Ipswich Female Seminary is usually depicted as little more than a false start in the history of women's education. But historians have undervalued both the seminary and Grant's role in it. 

Grant and Lyon worked closely together, and it was Grant's philosophy above all else that shaped their joint vision. 

"I think of the two of them as yin and yang. Neither could have accomplished what she did without the other," says Beverly Perna, an Ipswich resident who completed a doctoral dissertation on Grant.

While Grant was intense, theoretically minded and immaculate, Perna says, Lyon was practical and energetic, if at times slovenly. What both women had in common was a firm commitment to educating women. 

At a time when most girls' higher education consisted of superficial instruction in French, music and drawing, the seminary's rigorous curriculum included botany, astronomy and chemistry. Several of the instruments the students used in experiments can be found on display in the Heard House Museum. 

But the strength of the seminary was in training young women themselves to be educators. Here, Grant's influence is especially clear. Education leaders nationwide recognized her as an expert teacher. Her advanced ideas about teaching the mind how to learn drew experienced educators as well as novices to the seminary, where students were encouraged to think deeply, beyond traditional rote methods of learning, and to pursue only two or three subjects at a time, emphasizing depth of knowledge rather than breadth. Seminary graduates took these philosophies far. Highly in demand, they taught in schools worldwide and in nearly all the states then in the Union. 

Of course, neither the school nor its founders were perfect. Grant's strong religious convictions in particular caused friction. And although one of the seminary's most famous alumnae, writer Mary Abigail Dodge, praised Grant as a proto-feminist hero who fought valiantly in the struggle between "those who are prying open college doors to women and those who are striving to turn the feet of girls away from them," most women today would be outraged by the strictures she imposed on student life. 

Students were expected to spend most of their free time either taking supervised nature walks with their teachers or in their own rooms at the seminary's boardinghouse. If a girl boarded in a private family's home, she was firmly instructed to limit the time she spent with them. Students were forbidden from stopping in the street or even showing themselves in the front windows of their lodgings.

But even as Grant stressed "the delicacy of the female constitution, and the greater delicacy of her reputation" required  "suitable architecture" for women to live in - an argument she made loudly when raising funds for building women's schools because male supporters could safely get behind it - her dream for the Ipswich Female Seminary's facilities was much more ambitious.  Both she and Lyon tried to convince the seminary's trustees to endow a larger school with laboratory facilities and a boardinghouse, the same facilities available to men in colleges. When they did not succeed, and when Grant's health failed, Lyon left (with Grant's blessing) to build a new school that would be all they had dreamed of. 

The Ipswich school closed in 1876, but the first $1,000 for Mount Holyoke Female Seminary came from the women of Ipswich, and its philosophies originated largely from Grant herself. Other schools whose philosophies are directly traceable to Grant and the Ipswich Female Seminary include Wheaton, Oberlin and Tuscaloosa, which in turn influenced other schools like Wellesley and Vassar, which in turn influenced others around the world. 

Photo: Ipswitch Female Seminary, about 1850

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