Antebellum school for young women. In the early decades of the 19th century, American society placed increasing importance on the home and, concurrently, on the paramount role of women in preserving moral and cultural values. As the national economy shifted from agricultural to industrial, bringing about changes in the workplace and community life, the home became an idealized place in which escape could be found from the increasingly complex world. Educators and churchmen recognized this shift and established many secular and religious educational institutions specifically to train women for their newfound role. The Indianapolis Female Institute was typical of many of the gender-based educational institutions of the time.

The institute opened its doors in June 1837, under the sponsorship of the Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis. After briefly occupying the second story of a building on Washington Street near Meridian, the Indianapolis Female Institute was housed in its own building on Pennsylvania Street. To run the new school, the board of directors hired two sisters, Mary J. and Harriet Axtell, who were previously teachers at a female academy in Courtlandville, New York. The students, who boarded with families in Indianapolis, were taught a variety of subjects including math, science, and history. A large part of the curriculum, however, concentrated on “cultural” subjects such as music, drawing, and languages. The institute closed its doors in 1849 because of Mary Axtell’s poor health.

In 1852, the Presbyterians founded the Indianapolis Female Seminary as a continuation of the institute’s goals of educating women. In addition to the curriculum established by the institute, an increased emphasis was placed on charity and community service. The new three-story brick school at the southwest corner of Meridian and New York streets was under the direction of Dr. C. G. McLean, a Presbyterian clergyman from Pennsylvania and an Irish immigrant.

McLean, his wife, and his two daughters comprised the original staff of the seminary, which had an initial enrollment of 150 young women from Indianapolis and the surrounding area. As enrollment grew, McLean hired teachers trained in East Coast colleges to bolster his small staff. Unlike the earlier institute, many of the students boarded at the seminary although enrollment was also open to women living with their own families in Indianapolis.

After McLean’s death in 1860, the church renamed the institution McLean Seminary and appointed as director Professor C. N. Todd, McLean’s son-in-law. The seminary operated under its new name for five more years. In 1865, the Presbyterian Church closed the institution and sold the building to the Methodist-operated Indiana Female College, which continued at the site until 1868.

The Indianapolis Female Institute and Seminary exemplified some of the main characteristics of educational institutions for women in 19th -century America. An unforeseen result of schools that trained women for their domestic role was that they also exposed them to broader social roles and responsibilities including church and community service. Despite the primary emphasis on domesticity in these gender-segregated schools, women who attended them were provided with some means to break out of their isolated domestic world.

Revised July 2021

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