Elizabeth Harriot Barons, who would use Eliza Harriot as her first name throughout her life, was born in March 1749 to English parents, Benjamin Barons and Margaret Hardy Barons, in Lisbon, Portugal. Members of her mother’s family, the Hardys, were prominent and well-connected naval officers, including Margaret Baron’s father, Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Hardy (the elder). Her uncles Sir Charles Hardy (the younger) and Josiah Hardy served as governors of New York and New Jersey, respectively, in the 1750s and 1760s. Her father, Benjamin Barons, came from a family of mercantile traders and held positions acquired through the patronage of the Hardy family, including secretary to Governor Sir Charles Hardy, port collector in Boston, Massachusetts, and assistant to Governor Josiah Hardy.
Eliza Harriot 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 probably attended a French boarding school in Chelsea, England, run by a Mrs. Aylesworth, where she learned French and was exposed to women earning an income through teaching. In 1765 and 1766, she accompanied her family to Charleston, South Carolina, when her father was appointed deputy postmaster general.
Eliza Harriot Barons married John O’Connor on June 6, 1776, at St. Clement Danes Anglican church in London. O’Connor was the second son of Michael O’Connor, who was described as a gentleman of Straduff, Sligo, Ireland. John O’Connor appears to have attended Trinity College in Dublin and was admitted to the Inner Temple in London, one of four Inns of Court that trains and regulates barristers in England and Wales, to study law. O’Connor, who was likely Catholic, took the oath of conformity testifying to his allegiance to the crown in November 1778 and was admitted as a lawyer to King’s Inns in Dublin.
The O’Connors spent the late 1770s and early 1780s in Dublin and London, where they were exposed to transformative ideas that were reshaping political and social expectations. These included debates about constitutional reform that promised expanded suffrage, as well as new ideas that challenged the supposed intellectual inferiority of women. The result was a flowering of poems that proclaimed female genius—referring primarily to women’s inherent intellectual capacity—women-only debating societies that discussed female governance, and women authors. “Bluestockings,” women who participated in salons and literary and artistic pursuits, were highly visible in the culture, as was Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay, the English constitutional historian. What tied these efforts together was an increasing insistence that women deserved the same educational opportunities as men. Inherent in this was the idea that education could serve as the foundation of women’s political participation.
Lecturing and Educational Career
In April 1783, Eliza Harriot O’Connor’s father died and she began receiving what were likely modest annuity payments from a trust. In 1786, the O’Connors moved to New York City, which at the time was the temporary capital of the United States, as John O’Connor pursued a career in publishing. In the spring of 1786, Eliza Harriot O’Connor opened a school for young women near what is now Fulton Street. The French and English Boarding School offered an ambitious curriculum that emphasized French, elocution, math, history, and geography as well as needlework.
O’Connor advertised her curriculum in multiple newspapers, including in French, and promised the types of public examinations and prizes associated with all-male academies. The school was a success and included the daughters of prominent New York families. In November 1786, she held public examinations for her students at Columbia College with the assistance of the faculty.
In early 1787, the O’Connors moved to Philadelphia, where thewas about to convene, and John O’Connor became editor of the Columbian Magazine, although, as with many of his publishing ventures, his tenure was short. It was here that Eliza Harriot O’Connor proposed to do what no woman in the United States had done before: lecture in a university hall before a public, mixed-gender audience.
The, “A Lady Proposes to Read A Course of Lectures, on Language, Eloquence, Poetry, Taste and Criticism,” appeared on April 2, 1787, in the Independent Gazetteer. The setting for the lectures was the commodious College Hall, a traditionally male lecture space, at what was then the University of the State of Pennsylvania, which would become the University of Pennsylvania in 1791.
O’Connor proposed to lecture on language, rhetoric, and criticism, providing readings from current and classical writers and poets. This placed her squarely in the tradition of popular male lecturers who were valued for their ability to speak persuasively analyzing literature. In doing so, she would demonstrate that women had the intellectual capacity and rhetorical skills to lecture on par with a man. A letter to the editor of the Pennsylvania Packet likely written by Eliza Harriot O’Connor or John O’Connor portrayed her effort as part of a larger movement of women proving themselves equal to men. It predicted that women would desert the female spaces of the dressing room and drawing room for the traditionally male spaces of “the forum and the college”—places of political engagement and education.
On May 18, 1787, George Washington attended O’Connor’s lecture, accompanying Mary White Morris, wife of Constitutional Convention delegate Robert Morris. Newspapers widely reported that Washington had attended the lecture by the lady at the university. This, combined with the 140 notices of her lecture series that ran in Philadelphia newspapers, which were reprinted in newspapers in New York, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island, gave O’Connor’s lecture series, and the idea of women’s intellectual capacity, widespread publicity. For his part, Washington recorded the event in his diary and noted: “Her performe. was tolerable—at the College-Hall.”
In June 1787, O’Connor publicly proposed an ambitious female academy: the French Academy of the City of Philadelphia. The curriculum was expansive, featuring French and an emphasis on Enlightenment classics and learning to speak and write well, the same skills that prepared men for public careers. The institution would be governed by a board of thirteen women and thirteen men, with a female governor, making it an organization in which democratic deliberation was required and women would be allowed to vote and hold leadership positions.
Eliza Harriot O’Connor’s ambitious female academy never came to fruition. Her academy threatened the new, male-governed Young Ladies’ Academy, which focused on providing women with just enough education to make them obedient and dutiful wives. Benjamin Rush, a noted intellectual and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, delivered a lecture in response to O’Connor’s proposed academy. He argued for a “peculiar mode of education” for women in which they were to be educated for the limited purposes of managing a household, instructing their sons “in the principles of liberty and government,” and being “an agreeable companion for a sensible man.” He warned that additional education for women would result in a “train of domestic and political calamities.” Rush’s lecture was published as Thoughts upon Female Education Accommodated to the Present State of Society, Manners, and Government, in the United States of America. It was extensively reprinted well into the nineteenth century and became a standard commentary on popular notions of women’s education.
Eliza Harriot O’Connor’s arguments, and example, about the potential of women’s intellectual, and by extension, political, capabilities were widely circulated in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention. It’s worth noting in this context that gender-specific language initially was proposed for the new constitution. But in the end, the final document was gender-neutral, with “person” or “persons” replacing “he or she.” The text, therefore, allowed for the possibility of female participation in government. Credit for the final language is usually given to Gouverneur Morris, who was close friends with Mary Morris, the person who brought George Washington to hear O’Connor’s groundbreaking lecture.
After lecturing in Baltimore and Annapolis, Eliza Harriot O’Connor moved with John O’Connor to Alexandria in early 1788. John O’Connor planned to work on his History of America, for which he was soliciting subscriptions, and hoped to visit Washington at Mount Vernon. Eliza Harriot O’Connor opened Mrs. O’Connor’s Female Academy. Although John O’Connor solicited his involvement in the school, Washington sent Eliza Harriot O’Connor “ardent wishes for its future prosperity” but declined to sit on the board. Although the school was successful, John O’Connor left for Edenton, North Carolina, as questions were raised about the publishing venture he was raising money for. In October,if she could come to Mount Vernon to get his advice on starting a female academy in North Carolina, as she was “obliged to join my Husband.” Washington invited her to Mount Vernon and sent his carriage to bring her from Alexandria when she confessed she hadn’t been able to obtain transportation. She visited Mount Vernon from October 19 to October 22, 1788.
Eliza Harriot O’Connor spent the early part of 1789 traveling to North Carolina, but finding that her peripatetic husband had moved on, she returned north in the spring and opened another female academy in Georgetown, where she again attracted the daughters of well-off, politically connected families. Notices of her three-day examinations for the French and English Academy appeared in Philadelphia and New York newspapers. She described her students’ performance as marking “the progress of the female mind.”
It is possible that during this period, O’Connor was the E. O’Connor who published two novels: Almeria Belmore, which was first published in London in 1789, and Emily Benson (1791), which was published in Dublin in 1791.
In 1790, Eliza Harriot O’Connor and John O’Connor, who had apparently attempted and failed to organize a land speculation scheme in the soon-to-be federal capital, moved to Charleston, South Carolina. She again gave lectures and opened Mrs. O’Connor’s French and English Academy. She had a faculty and offered geography, mathematics, and astronomy. The Charleston academy was the most successful of her schools, in part likely due to the economic advantages available in a city built on enslaved labor. In early 1792, however, John O’Connor’s financial problems increased during a national financial panic, and he left the country, likely to avoid his creditors. Eliza Harriot O’Connor closed her school in May 1792.
Eliza Harriot O’Connor briefly founded schools in Savannah and Augusta, Georgia, where her advanced ideas about female were less welcome. A paper in Augusta noted complaints about the “eccentricity of the Augusta female seminary,” with a woman attempting to teach grammar and astronomy. In 1793, with John O’Connor having returned to the United States, Eliza Harriot O’Connor opened a female seminary in Columbia, South Carolina, where John O’Connor advertised legal services.
After 1793, John O’Connor disappears from the historical record. He may have returned to Ireland or perished in one of the yellow fever epidemics that swept through Columbia from 1794 to 1799. Eliza Harriot O’Connor appears to have taught in Columbia at least through the turn of the century.
Eliza Harriot O’Connor died in the late spring of 1811, having made out her will on April 22. She was likely living in a single room as a boarder in someone’s house. Her will with a two-page inventory was executed in June 1811, and included a large trunk of clothing, a watch, books, spectacles, a bed quilt and curtain, a looking glass, a chamber pot, and $16, for an estate total of $293.50.
Eliza Harriot O’Connor’s legacy lay in the power of example. In her, she wrote that the “exertions of a female should … be considered … as presenting an example to be imitated, and improved upon, by future candidates for literary fame.” Her many New York school advertisements provided a model of aspirational elite white female education. Her lectures in Philadelphia in 1787 are the earliest known examples of a woman in the United States giving a public academic lecture. News of the lady lecturing in the university and of Washington’s attendance appeared in many newspapers across the United States. Her repeated lectures, female academies, and female public examinations influenced unknown others in the communities in which she briefly resided and ran newspaper advertisements. And the Constitution’s gender-neutral language bolstered arguments for female voting and political participation.
Eliza Harriot O’Connor was a woman ahead of her time. Between 1790 and 1830, educational opportunities for women expanded dramatically, with almost 200 female academies and seminaries established, according to the historian Mary Kelley. These academies, however, were seen as preparing women for the domestic sphere, as written constitutions increasingly codified white male political participation, explicitly excluding women and people of color from the public sphere.