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Women and Education in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

Women and Education in Eighteenth-Century Virginia

by Linda Rowe

In eighteenth-century Virginia, education for the young was a family responsibility, not a legal entitlement to standardized instruction for all children. 1 Parents and guardians up and down the economic scale were left to provide girls and boys with the level of schooling the family could afford and judged appropriate. That wide latitude in the education of children was customary and expected in Virginia is borne out in statutory requirements designed to protect estates of propertied orphans. For example, Virginia law stipulated that orphans with assets receive a literary education in line with what the income from their estates could sustain. In other words, propertied orphans received only that level of instruction that would not reduce the value of their estates.2 Orphans with no estate or whose inheritance was so small that it could not accommodate a “book education” were bound out to learn a trade. Free children from the bottom rungs of society were fortunate to be taught very basic skills in reading and writing; slaves rarely got that much. Moreover, it was not thought necessary or proper to educate girls, even the daughters of the gentry, to a level on par with their brothers.

Colonial society at large professed to admire women of wit, culture, and strength of character, and as we shall see, it was generally expected that women would play a role in the earliest stages of education for both girls and boys. Nonetheless, the evidence shows that young Virginia women received a more limited education than their brothers, even in gentry households. Preparation for marriage figured large in the type and quality of education young women in Virginia received. Marriage took on special significance in an age that offered women few comfortable alternatives to the relative security of a home and family of her own. The prospect for making a good marriage and the success of that marriage was thought to rest in large part on the adaptability and resourcefulness of wives. Elizabeth Foote Washington was forthright in her diary about the importance of cultivating these qualities in young women. Upon her impending marriage to Lund Washington in the early 1780s, she confided to her diary that

as there is a probability of my living in Houses not my own for some time-may the divine goodness assist me, so that I may study to live in peace & friendship with the family where I live.3

“The Good House-wife” (1958-357). This idealized view of an 18th-century wife
includes an inscription, “Woman, when virtuous, free from sloth & Vice,/Greater by far,
than Rubies is her price: //Heaven crowns her Labour with a plenteous Store,
/To feed her Household, and relieve the poor.”
Courtesy, Colonial Williamsburg Collections.

Well-to-do families saw to it that their daughters acquired an education that included practical, literary, and ornamental skills. These included cooking, sewing, and household management; reading, writing, and perhaps a little arithmetic and French; and a number of other niceties such as polished manners, musical training, dancing, drawing, and fancy needlework. Parents from the middle range of Virginia society concentrated their daughters’ training on domestic skills useful to running a household or a family business such as keeping tavern for which some proficiency in reading and writing would also be an asset. In imitation of the gentry, up-and-coming tradesmen and merchants sometimes paid for music and dance lessons for their daughters. Further down the scale, poor free parents trained their daughters and sons to whatever job was at hand as soon as they were old enough, a welcome addition to the family labor pool. There was likely little time to spend on teaching the rudiments of reading, even if one or both parents knew their letters. Slave women were trained in the skills that would be most useful to their masters; literacy was seldom among them.

“Maternal Advice” (1962-287). An older woman dispenses advice to her seemingly
less-than-interested young companions. Courtesy, Colonial Williamsburg Collections.

Outside of any formal schooling they might receive, free women learned housewifery skills and household management from their mothers and other women in their homes or neighborhoods. Nelly Calvert recalled that her mother taught her the mysteries of housewifery during her girlhood in Norfolk in the 1750s.4 Tutor Philip Vickers Fithian described the Carter girls practicing housewifery at Nomini Hall in the early 1770s. By pretending to spin, knit, scrub floors, and mimic pregnancy by stuffing rags under their clothing, they took the first steps toward acquiring those important domestic skills they would need to run their own homes later in life.5 Girls in reduced circumstances who were apprenticed in York County in the last half of the eighteenth century were usually to be trained in domestic skills by the women in the households that took them in.6

For children whose parents could pay for it, formal schooling began at about six or seven years of age for girls and boys. There was a wide variety of educational arrangements that parents and guardians could make for the girls and boys in their charge. For example, Betsy Nicholas and Edmund Randolph, both born in Williamsburg in 1753, learned the elements of reading at the same local school.7 This was likely a school of the type James Blair described in 1724 as “Little schools where they teach to read & write and arithmetic are set up, wherever there happens to be a convenient number of Scholars.” Instructors in these schools were often Anglican parish ministers who needed to supplement their ministerial salaries, or divinity students from the College of William and Mary awaiting ordination in England or newly ordained ministers arrived from England who had not yet found employment in a Virginia parish. Blair counted four of these schools in Bruton Parish in 1724.8 Betsey Nicholas’s experience may have been similar to that of Lucy Nelson (née Grymes) of Yorktown. Recalled her daughter:

Of her Childhood I know very little, except that she went to school to the Revd. Mr. William Yates, the minister of I believe Gloster or Middlesex… She had quite a liberal education, for the times. She was a most uncommon Arithmetician, very fond of reading, and learned to play on the Harpsichord. 9

These “little schools” came and went, dependent as they were on independent instructors and the local pool of students as well as the family finances and seasonal chores of prospective pupils. How long girls and boys remained in them is an open question, but perhaps one to three years for girls and working class boys, longer for boys headed for a college education, is a reasonable estimate. Catechism classes held by Anglican ministers in the colony, often during the Lenten season, were also integral to the education of girls and boys in their early teens.

Nelly Calvert Maxwell’s education followed a different path from Betsey Nicholas’s. Nelly remembered that at age six in 1756 she was put with an elderly woman in her Norfolk neighborhood to be taught her letters, spelling, and reading, including reading from the Bible. Ann Wager taught similar lessons to about a dozen white students (probably girls and boys) in Williamsburg in the late 1750s. Nelly Maxwell later learned needlework from another neighbor lady in Norfolk before her father arranged for her to study the higher branches of English and one foreign language with a schoolmaster imported from Scotland. (Nelly admitted that as a teenager she was too fond of talking and doing nothing to get her lessons, as a result of which, she deemed her education imperfect.)10

Perhaps the best known educational arrangement in colonial Virginia was that of a southern family tutor, made familiar by the published journal and letters of Philip Fithian. Five of the seven children under Fithian’s supervision at Nomini Hall in Westmoreland County in 1773 and 1774 were girls.11 Landon Carter’s daughter Maria wrote to a cousin in 1756 about her days with a tutor. She was awakened early and began her lessons as soon as she was dressed and before breakfast. After breakfast, she went back to school again. She was allowed perhaps an hour to herself before dinner in the afternoon. School continued then until twilight, leaving Maria only a small amount of time to herself before going to bed. She claimed this routine went on 365 days a year!12 The Lee sisters as described below studied with their brothers’ tutors at Stratford Hall.

Different educational goals for girls and boys were evident when fathers, gentry and middling level alike, made provision in their wills for the education of their minor children. Often quite specific about their sons’ educations, fathers could be vague or altogether silent about schooling for their daughters. For instance, Matthew Hubbard of Yorktown and clerk of York County court specified in his 1745 will that his three sons be kept to school and educated in the best manner their estates could afford until they arrived at age sixteen, but he made no provisions for educating his three daughters.13 Some fathers set aside funds for educating both sons and daughters, though not equally. In his will written in 1762 Charles Carter of Cleves (d. 1764) stipulated that his sons learn “languages, Mathematicks, Phylosophy, dancing and fencing” and that they be put with a practicing attorney until “they arrive at the age of twenty-one years and nine months.” Carter’s daughters, on the other hand, were to be “maintained with great frugality and taught to dance.”14

Guardian accounts for propertied, but not wealthy, orphans living in eighteenth-century York County show that books and other educational materials ordered for boys were more varied and advanced than those for girls. Girls got primers and spelling books, Bibles and prayer books. Boys also got simple beginner texts, but accounts listed more advanced books such a Greek grammar book and dictionaries. Surveyors instruments were among specialized materials purchased for boys while charges for purchase and repair of musical instruments appear for girls. York County guardian accounts show charges for one to three years schooling for orphaned girls depending upon the size of their inherited estates and instructions left by their parents.

“The Story of Pamela, Plate I” (1968-280, 1). Elite women in 18th-century Virginia
would have had access to education and books, but only to the level that
their parents thought suitable for their daughters’ future roles as wives and mothers.
Courtesy, Colonial Williamsburg Collections.

A similar bias in favor of more advanced curricula for boys usually prevailed when tutors were hired to instruct the children in gentry families, even though girls and boys in these households received instruction from the same tutor, often in the same schoolroom. Girls learned the English language (both reading and writing) and possibly ciphering (simple arithmetic). As they grew older, they were put to reading popular literature such as The Spectator. Sons also studied English as well as arithmetic, but they took up Latin and Greek as they matured. Children of both sexes in gentry households got music and dancing lessons.

Some fathers paid particular attention to their daughters’ education in order that they would be well prepared for the world they would enter as adults. Girls in the well-to-do merchant Prentis family in early nineteenth-century Williamsburg were taught to read and write from an early age. Their father, Joseph Prentis, Sr., a widower living in the Prentis House, looked upon the “enlargement” of his daughters’ minds as very important. Prentis educated both his sons and daughters well, but his uppermost concern, when he thought his death was imminent, was that he would leave his daughters before they were adequately prepared for the world. Alice Lee and her sister Hannah Lee received an unusually extensive education at their childhood home at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County. Alongside their brothers in the brick schoolhouse at Stratford Hall, they studied with outstanding private tutors hired by their father, Thomas Lee. Hannah read works on law, politics, history, literature and religion.15 Samuel Hill of York County, a man of more modest means than Prentis or Lee, left an equal amount of cash in his 1769 will earmarked for the education of his daughters and sons, though there was only enough for about three years of basic reading, writing, and arithmetic for them all.16

The Lee sisters’ extensive education notwithstanding, there were usually limits to what girls could expect. For example, Eliza Custis, granddaughter of Martha Washington, grew up in Virginia in the 1780s. She learned spelling and reading from her mother and cousin, and her stepfather eventually secured a private tutor for her. The tutor was told that Eliza “was an extraordinary child & would if a Boy, make a brilliant figure.” When she wanted to learn Greek and Latin, however, neither the tutor nor her stepfather would permit it, explaining that “women ought not to know those things.”17

Women in colonial Virginia spent considerable time with their children of both sexes between birth and the age of five or six. The literate among these mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and female cousins often took first responsibility for teaching the alphabet and the rudiments of reading to the girls and boys in their households, and some went further than that. John Hartwell Cocke described women’s daily work that included children to teach as well as cloth to weave, poultry to raise, and kitchens, dairies, and dining rooms to manage. Anne Blair, a young woman living in her father’s house in Williamsburg in 1769, commented in a letter that her ten-year-old niece Betsy Braxton, who lived with the Blair family, was proceeding with her education. Anne listened to her read twice a day, and when Anne was not available, reading lessons were handed over to her sister-in-law. 18 Thomas Jefferson wanted a solid education for his daughters so that when they became mothers, they would be able to educate their own daughters. They might even need to direct the course of their sons’ education, if their husbands should die or become disabled—or were just inattentive.19

Mothers and other family women likely used printed materials already in their homes or purchased at little cost to start a girl or boy learning to spell and then to read simple phrases. Bibles, prayer books, and primers often appear in colonial store accounts, in orders to London agents, and in local Williamsburg store and shop advertisements. First readers were inexpensive and readily available. These and other children’s books such as A Little Pretty Pocketbook reinforced religious values and acceptable behavior as they taught the basics of spelling and reading. John Page (born in 1744 and later governor of Virginia) once referred to “all the little amusing and instructing books” that his grandmother put into his hands when she was teaching him to read.20

Virginians of both sexes acknowledged their mothers’ roles in their early education. Elizabeth Foote Washington confided to her diary that a mother’s advice generally carried great weight with her daughters. John Page gave his grandmother considerable credit for her role in his education. In his words: “I was early taught to read and write, by the care and attention of my grandmother.” She “excited in my mind an inquisitiveness which, whenever it was proper, she gratified.” Page became so fond of reading at his grandmother’s inspiration that he went on from the simple books she provided to the many other books in his father’s and grandfather’s library.21 If Page’s grandmother instilled in him a love of reading and the curiosity that led him into his father’s library, George Wythe’s mother went even further. Widowed young, Mrs. Wythe undertook her children’s early education herself at their home in Elizabeth City County in the early 18th century. Contemporaries of Wythe later remembered that Mrs. Wythe had taught him the Greek alphabet and possibly Latin.22

Numerous women, such as Nelly Maxwell’s neighbors and Ann Wager in Williamsburg, earned a living by teaching. They stressed the polite accomplishments and light reading and writing over academic subjects for girls. In 1752 John Walker and his wife (of London) advertised instruction for boys and girls at their house on Capitol Landing Road in Williamsburg. Walker offered boys reading, writing, arithmetic, and classical studies as well as ancient and modern geography and history, but girls learned only needlework from Mrs. Walker. 23 In Williamsburg in the 1780s, girls acquired “all Miss Hallams airs and graces” at Sarah Hallam’s dancing school. 24 Alice Lee Shippen, raised at Stratford Hall in Westmoreland County at mid-century, was an accomplished letter writer, yet she emphasized other skills over reading and writing for her daughter, Nancy. Needlework, said Alice, was one of the most important branches of female education. She also told Nancy that learning to hold utensils properly, to make a curtsey, to enter and leave a room correctly, and to sit and walk properly were of the utmost importance.25

Parents’ concern that their daughters acquire these socially important skills is not hard to find, and they often applied modern-sounding emotional pressure on their daughters. In frequent letters from Philadelphia to her daughter Nancy at boarding school in the late 1770s, former Virginian Alice Lee Shippen scolded her daughter for breaches of etiquette and often tried outright bribery to insure that her daughter excelled in her efforts to acquire the accomplishments. To quote Shippen: “I have sent for some very pretty things which I can either bestow upon you or dispose of in another way if you should not answer my expectations.”26 To guarantee that his daughter Martha would apply herself diligently to her studies, Jefferson was not above exerting serious emotional pressure: “If you love me then, strive to… acquire those accomplishments which I have put in your power, and which will go far towards ensuring you the warmest love of your affectionate father.” 27 Nor were eighteenth-century tutors and parents above offering more tangible inducements that also have a modern ring. William Byrd II (d. 1744) whipped Susan and William Brayne, his niece and nephew living at Westover, for failing to learn to read and do their lessons. In 1774 Fithian paid Harriot Carter half a bit for saying a good lesson.28

Women were better prepared to run their households more efficiently if they could read, write, and do simple arithmetic. Writing letters provided one of the few ways for friends and family to keep in touch. Often one women in the family served to keep the others informed more regularly than anyone else. Letters of Anne Blair, Sarah Trebell, and Susan Bowdoin of Williamsburg kept correspondents abreast of such news as births, deaths, and marriages. Sarah Trebell’s husband was “not fond of writing” and considered his wife’s correspondence in the 1760s with their family and friends to be the same as if he himself had written.29

Literate women kept diaries for pleasure and other purposes. Frances Baylor Hill of King and Queen County noted that she had a bad memory and wrote in her journal because it gave her pleasure at the end of the year to read back over her record of who she had seen and what activities she had been employed at during the year.30 She also noted whether the sermons she heard during her regular attendance at church were “good,” “tolerably good,” or “rather indifferent.”31 Sarah Nourse’s diary, kept between 1781 and 1783, was a similar record of visits and activities which she probably used to keep her oft-absent husband abreast of events at home. Sarah also kept regular notes about the illness that sapped her energy for much of the time.32

To be literate meant also being able to read for pleasure and information. A number of books and other printed matter were available. In 1811 Bishop James Madison of Virginia recommended history, geography, poetry, moral essays, biography, travel accounts, sermons and other religious materials to his about-to-be-married daughter to “enlarge your understanding, to render you a more agreeable companion, and to exalt your virtue.” 33 Ann Nicholas noted in passing in 1784 that she kept abreast of current events by reading newspapers.

Colonial women were sometimes admired for their intelligence. For example, Fithian was much impressed with Frances Carter’s breadth of interests and the well-informed nature of her conversation. For instance, on a Sunday when the weather kept everyone from church, Fithian and Frances Carter engaged in a lengthy conversation on religious matters, including the different denominations of Protestants.34 In 1773 the vestry of Bruton Parish asked Anne Nicholas and her sister Mary Ambler to testify to what they knew about the Rev. Samuel Henley’s orthodoxy; their testimony about his religious opinions contributed to vestry’s rejection of Henley’s bid for the Bruton pulpit.35

As noted earlier, there is another side to this coin. For every man who admired an accomplished woman for her breadth of knowledge, there were others who felt very differently. The rejected Rev. Samuel Henley wrote that women had no business commenting on questions of theology that had bewildered men in all ages of the Church.36 Thomas Mann Randolph found too much education in a woman disagreeable and could not see that education was of any intrinsic value to women.37

Evidence about education for colonial women has come down to us mainly through reports by the women themselves in their letters and diaries, and recollections of their contemporaries as well as their husbands, children, and other kin. Of course, that picture becomes less distinct as we descend through the ranks of the hierarchical Virginia society where the legal code and court records provide only the barest details. Not the kind of information that lends itself to scientific analysis or quantification, we are left to piece together a picture of the learning experience for colonial girls.

For every gentlewoman such as Ann Nicholas, whose letters to her sister in England were admired by English gentlemen for their high style and beautiful penmanship,38 there was a young woman of lesser status such as Maria Rind, who wrote nearly illegibly and labored to express herself in crudely constructed sentences.39 For every girl who learned very basic reading or knew how to sign her name, there were myriad others who lived quite comfortably in that largely oral society without being able to read or write. In Williamsburg, for every free black or slave girl at the Bray School who learned to speak properly and to read the Bible and navigate the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, there were many more who could not read. From their mothers and African-Virginian adults, they learned the ins and outs of the work and master-approved behaviors that would dominate their lives.

In some sense colonial girls of nearly all ranks spent a great deal of time learning the finer points of housewifery or the basics of household work. Most could have agreed, at least in some measure, with Mary Jones who wrote to her cousin Frances Bland on the eve of her marriage in 1769 that the cares of a family and domestic business “deprived thought of its native freedom” and made thinking about anything new impossible.40


1Thomas Kirby Bullock, “Schools and Schooling in Eighteenth-Century Virginia” (Ed.D. diss., Duke University, 1961), p. 20.

2Bullock, pp. 191-5; William Waller Hening, The Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619, 13 vols. (Richmond, 1809-1823; reprint ed., Charlottesville, 1969) 1: 416-7.

3Linda Eileen Parris. “‘A Dutiful Obedient Wife': The Journal of Elizabeth Foote Washington of Virginia.” M.A. thesis, College of William and Mary, 1984, p.60.

4Charles B. Cross, ed., Memoirs of Helen Calvert Maxwell Read, Chesapeake, Va., 1970.

5Fithian, p. 20, 189, 193.

6Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter 2 (July 1981): 1-2. Other than apprenticeships, schooling outside the home for children from poor families was unusual. Free schools for poor children, usually funded through a bequest in a local residents’ will, reached only a few students (mostly boys) in the immediate area of the school, and then only when parents could spare the child to attend. The Bray School in Williamsburg took free and enslaved girls and boys.

7Edmund Randolph, Letter to His Children, 1810, Alderman Library, University of Virginia; typescript in John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, CWF, single transcripts file.

8William Stevens Perry, ed., Historical Collections Relating to the American Colonial Church 1:300.

9Susanna Nelson Page, April 10, 1835. Dr. Augustine Smith Papers, 1779-1843, Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

10William Maxwell, “My Mother Myself, words as written from his mother’s lips,” Lower Norfolk County Antiquary 2: 25-6.

11Philip Vickers Fithian. Journal and Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, edited by Hunter Dickinson Farish, (Williamsburg, 1975) p. 20.

12Maria Carter of Sabine Hall (daughter of Landon Carter) to her cousin, Maria Carter of Cleve, March 25, 1756, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 15 (1907-8): 432.

13York County Wills and Inventories 20, pp. 7-8.

14Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 31 (1923): 62-3.

15Louise Belote Dawe and Sandra Gioia Treadway, “Hannah Lee Corbin, the Forgotten Lee,” Virginia Cavalcade 29 (1979): 70-77.

16York County Wills and Inventories 21, pp. 483-5.

17Eliza Custis, “Self-Portrait: Eliza Custis 1808,” edited by William D. Hoyt, Jr., Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 53 (1945): 93-4.

18Blair, Bannister, Braxton, Horner, and Whiting Papers, 1765-1890, Special Collections, Swem Library, College of William and Mary; typescript in Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, CWF.

19Thomas Jefferson to Nathaniel Burwell, 1818, Jeffersonian Cyclopedia, p. 274.

20Memoir of John Page, Virginia Historical Register, 8 (1850): 144-146.


22“Littleton Waller Tazewell’s Sketch of His Own Family,” Lynda Rees Heaton, ed., (M. A. thesis, College of William and Mary, 1967), p.122.

23Virginia Gazette, 17 November 1752, p. 2, c. 2.

24Lower Norfolk County Antiquary 3: 48.

25Tori Eberlein, “To Be Amiable and Accomplished: Fitting Young Women for Upper-Class Virginia Society, 1760-1810,” M.A. thesis, College of William and Mary, 1982, pp. 38-39.

26Ethel Armes, ed. Nancy Shippen Her Journal Book (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1935), p.42.

27Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson, Annapolis, November 28, 1783 in Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson 6:359-360.

28Maude H. Woodfin, ed., Another Secret Diary of William Byrd of Westover for the Years 1739-1741 (Richmond, 1942), pp. 204, 295; Fithian, p. 82.

29Letters, Sarah Trebell to John Galt, Martins Hundred, January 16, 1767, Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, CWF.

30Frances Baylor Hill, “The Frances Baylor Hill Diary of ‘Hillsborough,’ King and Queen County, Virginia, 1797.” Early American Literature Newsletter 2 (1967).


32Sarah Nourse, “The Diary of Mrs. Sarah Fouace Nourse, 1781-1783.” Alderman Library, University of Virginia; typescript in Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, TR 34.

33Bishop James Madison, “The Duties of a Wife: Bishop James Madison to His Daughter, 1800,” edited by Thomas E. Buckley, Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 9 (1983): 98-104.

34Fithian, p. 61.

35Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, (Chapel Hill, 1982), pp. 230-235.

36Samuel Henley, A Candid Refutation of the Heresy Imputed by Ro. C. Nicholas Esquire to The Reverend S. Henley (London, 1774), pp. 13-15.

37Thomas Mann Randolph to Ann Cary Randolph, May 7, 1788, Nicolas Philip Trist Papers (#2104), Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill, N.C.

38Sally Cary Fairfax to [Anne Cary Nicholas], September 4, 1775, Public Record Office, London, CO 5/40.

39Eberlein, p. 10.

40Mary Jones to Frances Bland, May 10, 1769, Tucker-Coleman Collection, Swem Library Special Collections, College of William and Mary.