The First Woman’s High School in America

Newburyport has a lot of firsts to be proud of.     Not the least is starting the first woman’s high school in America.    


Below is a picture of the High School.



Oh, did I make a mistake?     I’m sorry, here below is the picture of the first woman’s high school in America.


So what is the big deal about this being the first?


First of all, for centuries, the myth of the natural inferiority of women influenced society, it influenced law and it caused untold hardship.    Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Christian theologian, said that woman was "created to be man’s helpmeet, but her unique role is in conception . . . since for other purposes men would be better assisted by other men."    Such sentiments still affected society in colonial America.        Formal education for girls historically had been secondary to that for boys.     In colonial America girls learned to read and write at dame schools.  These elementary schools were established in Newburyport and in fact one building that was used for that purpose is still standing at the corner of Congress and Kent Street near Cushing Park.    If a woman was really determined, they could attend the master’s schools for boys when there was room, usually during the summer when most of the boys were working but such ‘uppity’ behavior was often frowned upon.


In colonial America, women who earned their own living usually became seamstresses or kept boardinghouses.   By the early 19th century, however, acceptable occupations for working women were limited to factory labor or domestic work. Women were excluded from the professions, except for writing and teaching.     Often the women would work intolerable hours in the factories and then send the money back to the family only to see the money go to the boys in the house to be used for higher education!


Before Newburyport became a city, they held town hall meetings.     The same format that West Newbury holds today in which everyone participates in pure democracy held true here.     And this is where we can be very proud.      The citizens, no education radicals but solid good people, decided to break the mold and on March 28th, 1842; they directed the school committee to begin preparations for a woman’s high school.     Meeting temporarily in a firehouse, the Female High School, first in the nation, started up on March 28th, 1843.    A Beautiful Greek-revival structure was erected at the corner of Court and Washington Streets (at that time called Union Street) and within two years, became the permanent home.     


Then in 1868, it was merged with the Putnam Free School and became part of the Newburyport High School composed of men and women.      


Alas, a few years after the building was emptied, it burned down in 1871.


The parking lot above is all that is left.


-P. Preservationist




History of Newburyport, Mass: 1764-1905, Volume 1, By John James Currier, p. 323.


“Women’s History in America” by the Women’s International Center,


About P. Preservationist

Dedicated to the Enrichment & Preservation of Newburyport
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