The American Revolution dramatically changed the social fabric of America. The new nation would not be ruled by monarchs but by elected citizens. Success of a republican form of government would require an educated and virtuous citizenry, those willing to participate and sacrifice for the common good. Attitudes about women began to change. An idea called “Republican motherhood” proposed that women should have a major role in educating the next generation. To do this effectively women needed to be educated more broadly in subjects previously reserved for men.
From 1820 to 1850 there was a national movement to establish privately run female seminaries. In 1863 Julius LeMoyne and Alexander Reed established the Presbyterian Washington Female Seminary in Washington County. About 150 young women enrolled in the first class. The Washington Female Seminary had regular classes in music, art, and elocution and included a preparatory course to gain admission to the finest women’s colleges. Higher education focused on preparing teachers, but only unmarried women could teach.
The female seminaries produced a new generation of educated and outspoken middle-class women who wanted rights for themselves. Many became involved in advocating for equal rights such as property rights, legal status, abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage. The Washington Female Seminary operated for 112 years, when it was sold to Washington & Jefferson College in 1948. This hand-held school bell called young women to class in the building that is today McIlvaine Hall.
Linda Zelch is a volunteer for the Washington County Historical Society and a member of the antiquities committee.