Author: Mary Sarah Bilder

Mary Sarah Bilder is Founders Professor of Law at Boston College Law School. Her book Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (2015) was awarded the Bancroft Prize in American History.

Elizabeth Harriot Barons O’Connor (1749–1811)

Elizabeth “Eliza” Harriot Barons O’Connor was the first woman public lecturer in the United States, as well as a promoter of ambitious female education. She was born in March 1749 to English parents, Benjamin Barons and Margaret Hardy Barons, in Lisbon, Portugal. She likely accompanied her father to New York when he served as secretary to Governor Sir Charles Hardy from 1756 to 1758. Beginning in 1759, she likely attended a French boarding school in Chelsea, England. She married John O’Connor, an Irish lawyer, on June 6, 1776, and spent the late 1770s and early 1780s in Dublin and London, where the O’Connors were exposed to transformative ideas about political and social expectations regarding women and other disenfranchised groups. In 1786, the O’Connors moved to New York City and Eliza Harriot O’Connor opened the first of several successful female academies that offered an ambitious academic program for young women. In early 1787, the O’Connors moved to Philadelphia, where Eliza Harriot O’Connor gave a series of public lectures at what would become the University of Pennsylvania. George Washington attended a lecture that she gave in May 1787, which helped to publicize her ideas about advanced female education and the ability of women to participate in intellectual life. Her presence in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 may have influenced the gender-neutral language of the U.S. Constitution. O’Connor was obliged to follow her peripatetic husband down the Eastern Seaboard as he started and failed at several publishing ventures. She opened successful female academies in Alexandria, Georgetown, and Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina, where she resided until her death in 1811.