‘We must give them an education, large, liberal and comprehensive’. Catherine Vale Whitwell: teacher, artist, author, feminist and Owenite communitarian

Donnachie, Ian (2019). ‘We must give them an education, large, liberal and comprehensive’. Catherine Vale Whitwell: teacher, artist, author, feminist and Owenite communitarian. Women's History Review, 28(4) pp. 552–565.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1080/09612025.2018.1485270

Abstract

This article was provoked by the author’s conviction that its subject was a great deal more significant than a marginalised woman on the fringes of Owenism, the reformist movement promoted by Robert Owen during the early nineteenth century. It examines the life of Catherine Whitwell, formally identified in studies of Owen and in histories of education as teacher cum artist in the school at New Lanark, Owen’s factory community in Scotland, and also one of several women writers on astronomy. Otherwise little was known of her activities or the contexts in which they occurred. There are many gaps in the record and her footprint is often illusive, but much new information in widely dispersed archives, periodicals, digitised newspapers and secondary sources helps cast further light on her background, a career embracing work as proprietor of girls’ schools, author of works on astronomy and mathematics, promoter of sciences for women, advocate of women’s education, artist and communitarian. The context of Whitwell’s work is reviewed with reference to recent relevant literature and followed by a case study explaining her association with Owen, speculating on her role in visualising his plans for communities of co-operation designed to relieve distress and create greater equality, then describing her teaching career both at New Lanark and later at Orbiston, the first British Owenite community near Glasgow. The study concludes with a brief review of her post-Owen work running girls’ schools and an assessment of her role in the development of education and disseminating knowledge, particularly for young middle class women and working class children in the first half of the nineteenth century.

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