This month’s family story takes a closer look at early feminism in the Jay family. John Jay once wrote to his daughter Sarah Louisa, “I am not anxious that you should be what is called a ‘learned Lady’ but it would mortify me to have any of my children classed with the ignorant and illiterate.” For John educating women was associated with social status and marriage eligibility, not the belief that a woman deserved the same level of schooling as men. However, this was not the belief held every member of the Jay family.
Anne Erwin was the common-law wife of Sir James Jay, brother of John. A staunch follower of the philosophies of Mary Wollstonecraft, Anne believed that women, regardless of their social station, deserved the same rights as men.
Mary Wollstonecraft was an 18th century British author who wrote one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman written in 1792, she argues that women are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men, and that treating them as mere ornaments or property for men undercuts the moral foundation of society. She states, “my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if [woman] be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all.”
While not much is known about Anne Erwin as a person, family documents refer to her a woman of “noble character” whom James had intended to marry, but who continued to refuse his proposal. Anne objected to the words, “honor and obey” that were traditionally found in a woman’s wedding vows. When Anne was urged to marry James, it is said she replied, “If I did so, it would give the lie to my whole life.”
Anne and James had two children, a son Peter and a daughter named Mary. In 1807 Mary Jay married John Okill. The couple had three children, two daughters and a son. The Okills resided with James Jay in various locations in lower Manhattan until his death in 1815. John Okill is listed in the city directory until 1823 when he disappears from all city records. That same year Mary is listed as the proprietor of a “boarding school,” located at 43 Barclay Street. Although no record of the divorce exists, based on this information one can surmise that Mary and John separated sometime around 1823.
While there is no historical record that definitively states why the Okills divorced, it appears James Jay was a driving force behind it. When James’ will was probated in 1815, it stipulated that his daughter’s inheritance, which included nearly 1,000 acres of land in New Jersey, be put in trust “free of any control of her present husband, John OKill.” It appears the funds that Mary was able to access because of her divorce from John allowed her to establish one of the most sought-after female academies in New York City. It is unknown if her clientele were aware of her marriage and subsequent divorce. If so, it did not seem to have any significant impact on her success.
The single-gender “academy,” copied from the British finishing school, was extremely popular among the wealthy of New York City in the early to mid-19th century. Such schools, which occupied rented houses run by a head teacher, typically offered opportunities for both day and boarding school students. The staff who lived at the establishment included teachers, cooks, and domestic servants.
In the first half of the 19th century, the aim of female education was to provide young ladies with the social manners befitting their place in society. The core instruction was designed to instill a basic knowledge of literature, classics, arithmetic, and geography so that each of the students could be well versed in numerous topics for conversation. Several schools also included instruction in the religious and moral principles that would lead to the development of virtuous, charitable, and benevolent character. Religion was taught at Mrs. Okill’s school and was indelible part of the curriculum. In an ad for her school in 1823, Mary Jay Okill wrote:
“… while every attention will be paid to the ordinary and ornamental branches of a finished female education, the department of religious instruction will receive particular care. Mrs. Okill … will devote her time to the superintendence of her school, and to the religious principles, morals, and manners of those young ladies who may be confided to her care.”
By the 1840s Mary’s school was one of the most popular in New York City. The academy was endorsed by well-known citizens of New York, such as Bishop John Henry Hobart, Samuel Treadwell, and Peter Augustus Jay. The association with high society and prestige attracted all six Treadwell daughters as students, with Eliza Hamilton (Schuyler) the granddaughter of Alexander Hamilton, and Isabella Stewart (Gardener), the famous art collector and philanthropist also studying there. Mary’s school was continually touted as being run by “a lady of distinction,” and was a huge financial success.
In 1828 Mary authored a textbook entitled, Practical Arithmetic, Prepared for the Use of Mrs. Okill’s Female Boarding School. An early arithmetic textbook, the lessons make no gender distinction, leading to the same arithmetic being taught to both male and female students. It should be noted that although it was known primarily as a female school, Mrs. Okill’s Academy also welcomed elementary aged boys as students. While the boys did not board, quite a few of them did attend the day school before going off to a boarding school of their own.
In 1843 Julia Hasbrouck commented on her first impressions of the school: “The room was neat, comfortable, and well arranged. The little boys all looking happy, and merry. We went from there, to the little girls room, where I was equally pleased. The little creatures are not pinned down to their seats like prisoners, pale, and wearied; but were skipping around, combining study and amusement, the only safe method of instructing children.”
Mary Jay Okill continued to operate the school until her death in 1859. In 1860 her daughter Jane sold the property and moved to West Point to live with her sister Mary Helena Okill Mahan.
Mary Jay Okill’s life and personal history makes this kind of success, especially for a woman, a rarity. Typically, Mary would have been affected by the social stigma of illegitimacy and divorce, despite having the prominent last name of Jay. However, in an article in the New York Daily Herald from January 11, 1845, Mrs. Mary Okill is one of only a handful of women included in a list of the “wealthiest citizens” of New York City, with a net worth of $150,000.