Kentucky in the Eyes of Women: Julie Ann Tevis

The below is the script for Season 5, Episode 5 of our podcast, Dime Stories. Listen to the episode on Anchor, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Today, we continue looking at the spaces where women contributed to forming Kentucky’s well-known institutions. But unlike Mary Catherine Spalding, our subject today – and her institution – challenged the status quo. Her name was Julie Ann Tevis.

Born in 1799 in Virginia, Julie attended schools and a female academy, along with being privately tutored in a variety of subjects. Her family moved from Virginia to Kentucky, where they purchased land, and then to Washington, D.C. so that Julie and her siblings could receive the best education. In D.C., Julie led a well-educated and rather glamorous life, receiving an education far beyond typical for a girl while also attending the myriad balls and receptions that were held while Congress was in session. What this meant is that Julie knew more than just the skills she needed as a future housewife and mother; her German-born father had ensured that his daughter also knew how to support herself and instilled a lifelong passion for learning. She graduated from finishing school at the age of 19, at which point a change in family fortunes meant that Julie had to earn her own living. She taught for five years in Virginia, during which she met and married John Tevis, a circuit rider.

During her honeymoon in 1824, John and Julie visited land given to them in Kentucky. During the visit, Julie convinced John to let her open a school on the land, located in what is now Shelbyville, while John took up a post in Louisville. The next year, Science Hill Female Academy opened – but what its students encountered was something markedly different from other academies. Julie – whose own education had been broad – had new ideas for what girls should learn , naming the academy “Science Hill” in honor of her desire to teach “radical” subjects for girls at the time: science, math, history and rhetoric. It was also one of the first Protestant female academies west of the Alleghenies. The first session welcomed twenty students, including four boarders, and rapidly grew.

Julie’s students came from throughout the nation, mostly the South, and benefited from Julie’s belief that girls were just as capable of mastering the sciences as boys. Using the Lancastrian system – in which advanced students taught pupils below them – the school was primarily for upper class girls whose parents could afford the tuition and desired their girls to learn traditionally male subjects such as Latin, mathematics, and algebra.

By 1857, the school’s enrollment peaked at 230 per term – and many stayed during the Civil War. Unfortunately, the war brought tragedy: John Tevis died in 1861, and Julie took over as sole manager. Despite her management, the school was owned after John’s death by Dr. Wiley Taul Poynter of Carrollton, who sought to upgrade and adjust the school’s curriculum. Yet Poynter kept true to Julie’s mission: his upgrades ensured that Julie’s students could meet requirements for admission to women’s colleges – such as Vassar and Wellesley – and made it one of the most popular preparatory schools in the South.

In 1878, Julie published her autobiography, Sixty Years in a School-room, recounting her journey – a life of working for the education of others, amidst raising seven children and being a staunch abolitionist. The next year, Julie celebrated her 80th birthday, which was covered by The Lexington Intelligencer. She was recognized for serving over fifty years as principal of the school and “the successful educator of thousands of matrons in all parts of the country.” During the celebrations, one of Julie’s granddaughters performed an instrumental duet and Dr. Poynter declared December 5 as “Founder’s Day” in honor of Julie’s achievements.

Julie died just one year later. The school continued under Poynter’s sisters until 1939, when it closed permanently. Today, it serves as an antiques gallery and apartments, though the building remains in much of the original condition and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Despite closure, Science Hill Academy is still remembered among Kentuckians – having trained over 3,000 young women in its 114-year history and inspiring works of fiction such as Rachel M. Varble’s novel, Julia Ann, which is based on Julie’s diaries and private papers.

Now, Julie’s story may seem in opposition to Mary Catherine Spalding’s, but were the two really different?

Both Catherine and Julie exemplified female education in Kentucky – which, in some ways, was more forward-thinking that schools elsewhere. Despite an emphasis on the traditional domestic role, and its many ornamentations, Catherine and Julie also felt that girls should receive equal education to that of boys – for no other reasoning than girls’ own equal abilities. Their emphasis on languages, history, and skills such as rhetoric trained generations of Kentucky girls – and other, mostly Southern, girls – and likely had wide-ranging impacts, helping perpetuate ideas of female equality and equal opportunity at a time when such subjects were just beginning to take hold in the national consciousness.

Science Hill Academy remains the more progressive of the two educational institutions, both for its subject matter and for its long history.

Published by kentuckymuseumwku

The Kentucky Museum is located in the Kentucky Building on the campus of Western Kentucky University. The Museum houses several changing exhibits. There are a variety of partnerships, services, opportunities, workshops, camps and other outreach provided to the public each year.