Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884) - A Woman's Place & Botany

Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884) 

Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884) was an American educator & author during the 19C. Phelps published several popular textbooks in the fields of botany, Familiar Lectures on Botany (1829) & Botany for Beginners (1831). Although her 1st book on botany was received with condescension by male scientists, this book influenced women to study the natural sciences. Over a the next 43 years, Familiar Lectures went through 28 printings. It illustrated plants with woodcuts & engravings copied from Mirbel’s Elements de Botanique.

Almira Hart was born in 1793, in Berlin, Connecticut. She was the youngest of 17 children in her family, educated in an intellectual, independently thinking, & religious environment. One of her most inspirational mentors of her life was her older sister Emma Hart Willard. While living with her sister, she was also mentored by her sister's husband Dr. John Willard & 3 of his fellow students who also came to live in the Willard household, including Emma’s nephew John Willard, a student at Middlebury College who boarded at their home & tutored Almira in the courses he was studying at his all male college, such as science, mathematics, & philosophy. Her sister Emma Hart Willard, also an educator, saw in women the equal capabilities as in men, and demanded an education that prepared the woman to be what she dreamed of and not what she had to become. “Genuine learning has never been said to give polish to man; why then should it not bestow charm on women?” Emma Willard wrote in 1818. “We too are primary existences…not the satellites of men...“The education of females has been exclusively directed to fit them for displaying to advantage the charms of youth and beauty...though well to decorate the blossom, it is far better to prepare for the harvest.” Emma taugh her sister of the disparity between the education available for men & for women, & Almira spent the rest of her life fighting for more educational opportunities for females. 

At the age of 16, Almira Hart began her teaching career in district schools, while continuing her own education. In 1814, she opened her 1st boarding school for young women at her home in Berlin; & 2 years later, she became principal of a school in Sandy Hill, New York. In 1817, Hart married Simeon Lincoln, editor of the Connecticut Mirror & moved to Hartford & left her career for 6 years to be a housewife & mother to her 3 children. After her husband’s untimely death from yellow-fever in 1823, she returned to education teaching & administration as Almira Hart Lincoln. She became a teacher & vice-principal at the well-known Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York. While at the Seminary in Troy she developed an interest in botany, attending lectures given at the Troy Lyceum by Amos Eaton of the Rensselaer School, who later tutored Almira in the sciences. While under the direction of Eaton, she recognized her passion for botany plus the lack of introductory botanty text books for secondary & beginning college level students. This led Phelps to write & publish her most famous textbook in 1829, Familiar Lectures on Botany.

She remarried in 1831 to John Phelps, a lawyer, judge, & politician of Guilford, Vermont. Taking the name Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps, she once again gave up her career to raise a 2nd family continuing to write textbooks. With each new publication & lectures, Phelps’s fame grew, & she was asked to head several female seminaries. In 1838, she moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania, to be head of the seminary there. She stayed at West Chester for only 1 year, & then headed to Rahway, New Jersey, for 2 years. The Episcopal Bishop of Maryland recruited Phelps to become the principal & her husband the business manager of the failing Patapsco Female Institute at Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland in 1841. At the time of her arrival, the school was in shambles. The Phelps used their own funds to renovate the school & grounds. Phelps led the school for 15 years before retiring in 1856. 
Almira Hart Lincoln Phelps (1793-1884) 
In 1856, Phelps retired from the Patapsco Female Institute & settled in nearby Baltimore. In 1859, Phelps was the 3rd woman elected as a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After the Civil War, Phelps supported educational equality for women, & created the Society for the Liberal Education of Southern Girls to help young women finish their education & serve as teachers in the New South. Ironically, she was opposed to women’s suffrage, writing articles against women being allowed to vote & joining the Women’s Anti-Suffrage Association. She died in Baltimore on her 91st birthday, July 15, 1884. Women would not gain the right to vote nationally in The United States of America until 36 years later, in 1920.

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