Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

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March 17, 2011

Andover Stories: Abbot Academy a leader in its own right for 150 years

In 1829 Abbot Academy was New England's first incorporated secondary school for girls; today few may realize it ever existed. After 1973, it joined with Phillips Academy to create one, co-educational school. But some of its striking campus remains. And more importantly, its stories remain. Through memories, yearbooks and detailed histories, one can see the adversity and triumphs endured by an all-girls school in a rapidly changing American society.

Without the influence and conservative nature of some Andover residents, a school for girls would not have been built here. To most of New England, higher education was intended for training ministers, with little use to girls. But some in Andover saw a need for female education in order to "to regulate the tempers, to improve the taste, to discipline and enlarge the minds and form the morals of youth," as Abbot's Constitution reads.

While Abbot Female Academy was founded by powerful men - reverends, deacons and bank officials - who enforced morals and ran the town, the true forces behind this venture were Andover's women who otherwise were unable to own property or vote. Perhaps these women hoped simply to improve a woman's station in society. One woman, Sarah Abbot, contributed her widow's fortune to the creation of a campus, resulting in the trustee's decision to name the school after her.

Women would prove to be the key to Abbot's success. With six male headmasters in its first 15 years, it had a shaky start. By the end of the 1850s, however, Abbot began a Golden Age under the McKeen sisters, Philena and Phebe. Under their care, Abbot Academy not only grew physically thanks to tireless fundraising, but also matured academically. Susan McIntosh Lloyd, alumna and historian, suspects that America's dismissal of women's education allowed for students at Abbot to be "free of that thralldom to the ancient college preparatory tradition which Phillips boys suffered under."

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