Early promoter of health, physical education, and higher learning for middle-class women and girls in America
B eecher came from a large family of thirteen children and was home-schooled while helping care for her large family. At the age of ten, Beecher began education at a private school. She noticed the limited resources and curriculum available to young women and began teaching herself subjects not offered in school. Beecher convinced herself that her mission in life was to "find happiness in living to do good," (Anon. "American Family") and decided that there was a need for higher-education schools for women. In 1823, Beecher founded the Hartford Female Seminary, where her sister Harriet Beecher studied. The school began with only seven students, and in three years grew to nearly 100 students. Beecher went west with her father, Lyman Beecher, the controversial Calvinist preacher, and organized the Western Female Institute in Cincinnati, which prospered until 1837.
In 1841, Beecher published A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, which emphasized the value of women's role in society. Her ideal reader is certainly middle class, as she stresses the importance of learning to deal with "domestics." She is an advocate of reform within the model of the Christian family. She centers its claims for social reform on the newest findings of "Physiology and Hygiene" (Beecher 1841: ix). One chapter is devoted to the role of the woman as "the person who decides what shall be the food and drink of a family" (Beecher 1841: 70). Here, she begins with a detailed account of the digestive system influenced by the recent work of William Beaumont on digestion, referring to his experiments with Alexis St. Martin (Beecher 1841: 82). But her model for eating is that of self-control. "When a tempting article is presented every person should exercise sufficient self-denial to wait until the proper time for eating arrives" (Beecher 1841: 73). Regular meals, no snacks is the rule. The portion size is dependent on the amount of work undertaken by the individual. What can occur is that "a student . . . or a lady who spends the day in her parlor or chamber" loses any senses of the meaning of hunger and overeats (Beecher 1841: 75). They will "load the stomach with a supply, which a stout farmer could scarcely digest" (Beecher 1841: 75). But some foods are also naturally "stimulating" and make one "live faster than Nature designed, and soon his constitution is worn out" (Beecher 1841: 76). Eat "meat but once a day and in small quantities, compared with the vegetables taken" (Beecher 1841: 77). Avoid tea and coffee, the "most extensive cause of much of the nervous debility and suffering endured by American women" (Beecher 1841: 87). In addition to her comments on diet, she provided a model for calisthenics to provide further training for the female body (Beecher 1841: 34). After returning east, she helped organize "The Ladies Society for Promoting Education in the West," and in 1850 the "American Women's Education Association." She also played an important role in founding women's colleges in Burlington, Iowa, Quincy, Illinois, Milwaukee, and Wisconsin. Beecher taught, lectured, and wrote on the subjects of physical education, domestic economy, women's health and nutrition, and her system of calisthenics to make women's bodies stronger and healthier.
"Poor health" stands as much at the center of her system of education as any other failure. As she writes in the preface to the third edition of 1846:
The number of young women whose health is crushed, ere the first few years of married life are past, would seem incredible to one who has not investigated this subject, and it would be vain to attempt to depict the sorrow, discouragement, and distress experienced in most families where the wife and mother is a perpetual invalid.
(Beecher 1846: 5)
One of the causes of this "debilitated constitution" is: "Eating too much, eating too often, eating too fast, eating food and condiments that are too stimulating, eating food that is too warm or too cold, eating food that is highly-concentrated, without a proper admixture of less nourishing matter, and eating food that is difficult of digestion" (Beecher 1846: 106). Dieting would be the reform of such bad eating habits. Indeed, she stresses in the third edition of 1846 that the "health of the mind" demands the limitation of the "excessive exercise of the intellect or feelings" (Beecher 1846: 197). If too rich foods are to be avoided, then too is "novel reading" which "wastes time and energies, [and] undermines the vigor of the nervous system" (Beecher 1846: 199).
In 1869, she wrote The American Woman's Home, together with her much younger sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. This was a systematic guide for the middle-class homemaker "to the formation and maintenance of economical, healthful, beautiful and Christian homes" (Beecher and Stowe 1869: 10). Their discussion of food, certainly written by Catharine Beecher, as it draws heavily on her earlier work, was putatively rooted in the biochemistry of the time, but it also has a strong moral tone. She advocates for a "healthy diet" and stresses that it is fashion which leads to obesity and illness. It is the "customs of society, which present incessant change, and a great variety of food" which "lead almost every person very frequently to eat merely to gratify the palate" (Beecher and Stowe 1869: 127). Such excesses shorten the life and weaken the constitution. The diet she proposes is to limit the amounts and types of foods, "eat only one or two articles of simple food, such as bread or milk, and at the same time eat less than the appetite demands" (Beecher and Stowe 1869: 131). Such a diet leads to a retraining of the body's expectation for excessive amounts and varieties of food. Bread is a better food than meat and contains "more nourishment" (Beecher and Stowe 1869: 133). The simpler the food the better: "The fewer mixtures there are in cooking, the more healthful is the food to be" (Beecher and Stowe 1869: 133). She notes the bad manners of Americans at the table and urges that food "be well chewed and taken slowly" (Beecher and Stowe 1869: 134). Moderation is, thus, a social goal; the alteration of the American diet to include snacks between meals and meals eaten in great haste is seen by her as unhealthful. Her ideas and doctrines of education were implemented in some of the schools she helped to found. Beecher also spoke out against women wearing corsets, believing they were hazardous to the internal organs of women, making exercise impossible and actually deforming women's bodies.
See also Beaumont
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