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The Blue & Gray Press | August 18, 2019

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Lucia McMahon presents women's education in history


Lucia McMahon, a history professor at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, delivered a public lecture at the University of Mary Washington based on her new book about women’s education in history.

McMahon spoke to a crowd of students and faculty in Lee Hall last Thursday, April 4, expounding on a chapter from her new book entitled Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early American Republic.

The period from 1785 to 1825 was an important time for women’s education, McMahon explained. During this “Age of Academics” there was a push for higher education for women, although they were still considered to be intellectually different.

McMahon’s work focuses on the personal lives of ordinary women who were involved in the surge of female learning. She wanted to find out what these women did after they completed their schooling, so she turned to letters, diaries and school compositions.

Women were still not allowed to enroll in colleges, but a new type of school, the academy or seminary, soon became popular. These schools accepted only female students and they differed from earlier boarding schools in the curriculum. There was a decided shift away from the finishing school model toward a more academically rigorous program. The new schools focused much less on skills such as embroidery and singing, and more on math, languages, and science. These academies or seminaries were very common, and McMahon has found evidence for them all over the country, including in Lexington, Va.

Comparing the written works of everyday women to prescriptive literature of the day, McMahon uncovered a complicated social dynamic that caught women in the middle of two ideals. McMahon explained that women were supposed to be educated and intelligent, but also expected to put family obligations first in their lives.

In fact, although the women McMahon studied greatly enjoyed their educational experiences, almost all of them eventually got married and had children, moving their intellectual aspirations to a secondary concern in their lives.

Supporting her claims, McMahon used the case study of Linda and Benjamin Raymond, a couple from the early nineteenth century whose courtship letters describe their ideal, a “union of reason and love.”  Through their correspondence they discussed and suggested books to each other, and after their marriage they shared a book in which they recorded ideas and quotations. Although they based their relationship largely on their intellectual compatibility, Linda was the one expected to take care of the home and children, while Benjamin continued his work as a lawyer and intellectual.

McMahon has a PhD from Rutgers University, where her research won the Dean’s Research Award. Her lecture was sponsored by the Department of History and American Studies, the James Madison Museum and Memorial Library, the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.