From Ohio History Central
Portrait of Betsey Mix Cowles (1810-1876) from the 1909 edition of Henry Howe's "Historical Collection of Ohio." She was known for her contributions to education, abolitionism, and women's rights in Ohio.
Betsey Mix Cowles is known for her contributions to education and the women's rights movement in Ohio. She was also quite active in the struggle to abolish slavery.
In the late 1820s and early 1830s, Cowles and her sister began opening infant schools in northeastern Ohio. Infant schools were a predecessor to kindergartens. After obtaining a degree from Oberlin College in 1840s, Cowles began a career as a teacher. She taught at a number of grammar schools and served as a principal and superintendent in the Painesville, Ohio school system. Women did not often serve as superintendents of schools in the mid-nineteenth century.
Even before she began teaching, Cowles was interested in the abolition of slavery. She became involved in a number of abolitionist organizations and often served in leadership positions. Beginning in 1835, Cowles served as the secretary of the Ashtabula Female Anti-Slavery Society. This was one of the largest anti-slavery organizations in the state and had more than four hundred members. She began giving speeches about abolitionism and gained a reputation as a public speaker. Former slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass respected her abilities. In addition to her interests in the state of Ohio, Cowles became well known at the national level as well. Many people believed that women should not speak in public, and Cowles's speeches left her open to criticism. In spite of this concern, she continued to actively participate in the anti-slavery movement.
In addition to working for the end of slavery in the United States, Cowles criticized what she viewed as the hypocrisy of many Ohioans. While they were willing to oppose slavery, many people did not want to give civil rights to free blacks in Ohio. Cowles spoke out against the "Black Laws", which kept African Americans from voting in the state. At one point, she even quit a job when the school where she was working refused to admit black students.
Cowles became interested in women's rights as well. In 1850, Ohioans held a women's rights convention in Salem, Ohio. The attendees elected Cowles as president of the convention. Ohio was planning to convene a new constitutional convention, and the delegates wanted women to have more rights in the new Constitution of 1851.
In the late 1850s, Cowles's attention turned to higher education for women teachers. After briefly teaching at the McNeely Normal School in Hopedale, Ohio, she began teaching at the Illinois State Normal School in 1857.
She retired from teaching in 1862 to Austinberg, Ohio. Betsey Mix Cowles died in 1876.