The Feminization of Teaching: Move of Women Into the Teaching Force

Even before the ’20s, women had worked intermittently as teachers in the public schools, especially during summer when most of the men were busy farming. The men who taught in these schools were often itinerants, working to finance their own college educations or preparation for the ministry or the professions. Their average salary was $15.44 per month (including board), while their female counterparts earned $5.38 for the same work (Norton, 1926). Terms were short, irregular, often suspended. Both men and women recruited to teach in the late eighteenth century were young, single, and sufficiently free of family responsibilities to engage in this undependable activity.

The most apparent explanation for the preponderance of women moving into teaching in the antebellum period is that a plethora of job opportunities became available to those young men who chose not to labor on the farms. Morain (1980) argues, as well, that as the teaching profession became more organized and formal preparation was required through attendance at a normal school or at a teacher’s institute, those young men who were just teaching for a while to get by were loath to invest either time or money to gain accreditation. Although the young women rarely stayed behind the desk too long, they had fewer options and acceded to the training requirements as they evolved.

Even though at no one point in the ante-bellum period did teaching employ more than two per cent of all white women aged 15-60 in Massachusetts, Bernard and Vinovskis (1977) have concluded that one out of five women in the State during this period taught school at some time in her life. The magnitude of this contact with the classroom for young women bridging the time between adolescence and their own motherhood suggests that not only did females influence the character of teaching but also teaching in these schools at this time may have contaminated the character of their femininity. While we may deplore this contagion of patriarchal culture, Catharine Beecher celebrated the female teacher as carrier.

The great purpose in a woman’s life — the happy superintendence of a family — is accomplished all the better and easier by preliminary teaching in school. All the power she may develop here will come in use there. (Letter to Horace Mann in Common School Journal 5 [Boston, 1843] cited in Sklar, 1973, p. 313)

Strictures against marriage combined with paltry salaries limited this work to young, single people who could supplement their pay by “boarding around,” the practice that required the teacher to live in the home of one of her pupils where she received food and shelter and constant surveillance. Earning 60 per cent less than their male counterparts, female teachers soon began to teach winter school as well, where their lower salaries were economically beneficial to the State. In the 1830s and ’40s, immigration brought many new pupils to urban centers without appreciably raising the tax base, and this cheaper and plentiful labor force of women was employed to stretch the education dollar across a burgeoning population. Some women left to work in the textile mills,  where their teaching experience brought them high regard and higher salaries. There was little incentive to choose teaching as a life-time career as contracts were extended by local boards for only one term at a time and the positions of principal or assistant principal were definitely closed to women.

In 1888, an investigator reporting to the Association for the Advancement of Women declared that while 67 per cent of the teachers in the country were women, only 4 per cent of those with administrative responsibility were women (Rothman, 1978). Nevertheless, as Rothman points out, by the 1880s and 90s there was a surplus of qualified teachers, and many of those who had jobs had begun to hold on to them. In 1888, the average tenure for women teachers in Indianapolis was eight years, and 27 per cent of the female staff had taught for more than a decade. The presence of a pool of committed female educators prepared to fill administrative assignments suggests that the persistent exag- geration of the female teacher’s transcience was an atavism of the early years that became more instrumental than descriptive.

Lower salaries for women hardly required the myth of transcience for justification. The very figures who led the common school movement and supported the employment of female teachers are on record as supporting their recruitment with the argument that they were less costly than men. In drawing up a plan for Iowa’s infant system in 1855, Horace Mann promoted the employment of women with a rationale of frugality (Morain, 1980). It was Catharine Beecher, the founder of the Central Committee for Promoting National Education, who argued for the rigorous intellectual preparation of female teachers and for their placement in the new schools of the western states. Nevertheless, she too justified lower salaries for women. In 1853, in a petition to Congress asking for free normal schools for female teachers, Beecher wrote:

To make education universal, it must be moderate in expense, and women can afford to teach for one half, or even less the salary which men would ask, because the female teacher has only to sustain herself; she does not look forward to the duty of supporting a family, should she marry; nor has she the ambition to amass a fortune. (SEar, 1973, p. 182)

So it would appear that in a state like Massachusetts, where the textile industry and massive immigration brought 37,000 Irish immigrants to the city of Boston in the year 1847 alone, the middle class woman was simultaneously displaced from her position as an active, self-reliant participant in a self-sufficient house- hold and was employed as a low salaried, temporary pedagogue, hired to proclaim and maintain the order and the innocence of that vanished household in the face of industrial urbanization and the centralization of authority in the state.

The common school movement and the feminization of teaching colluded in support of a program of centralized education that exploited the status and integrity of the family to strip the family of its authority and deliver its children to the state. Horace Mann, celebrating his own material success in moving from a rural to an urban culture, saw the common school as providing the work ethos and character building that he attributed to the moral training of his own family. As a Whig legislator in Massachusetts, Mann had been an active member of both the Boston Society for the Prevention of Pauperism and the Prison Discipline Society. In the Legislature he had supported the establishment of a state hospital for the insane and legislation licensing liquor sales. Revisionist historians like Feinberg (1975) and Nassaw (1979) have argued that nineteenth century school reformers, ignoring the inequities and disruption caused by the new industrial order and a privileged class that supported its own affluence, shifted the onus of poverty and disorganization on to the character of the poor. Working class, farming, and immigrant children became, by definition, unfit to participate in the national ethos of self-discipline and productivity without the ministrations of the school. Mann, tired of rehabilitating their fathers in the prisons and asylums of the state, moved to adopt the children and to substitute a common state paternity for a distinct and particularly familial one. He asserted that “men are cast-iron; but children are wax. Strength expended upon the latter may be effectual, which would make no impression on the former,” (Nassaw, 1979, p. 33). Nassaw offers this 1853 statement of the Boston School Committee as evidence of the State’s explicit program to usurp parental privilege:

The parent is not the absolute owner of the child. The child is a member of a community, has certain rights, and is bound to perform certain duties, and so far as these relate to the public, Government has the same fight to control over the child, that it has over the parent …. Those children should be brought within the jurisdiction of the Public Schools, from whom, through their vagrant habits, our property is most in danger, and who, of all others, most need the protecting power of the State. (Cited in Nassaw, 1979, p. 77)

If Mann represents a benevolent paternalism that functioned to strip actual fathers of their authority and parental privilege, Catharine Beecher’s attempt to rationalize maternity and to describe, classify, and organize it and thus extend it to the school, deprived maternal nurturance of the very intimacy, vigor, and specificity that distinguishes the mother/child bond from any other. In the name of womanhood, Beecher’s ideology of self-sacrifice undermined familial resistance to the culture of the state and the factory. The eldest daughter of Lyman Beecher, a Calvinist minister, Catharine clearly identified with this power. The disestablishment of the Church had, as Douglas argues, forced the ministers to look beyond state governance for social structures that would support their moral programs. Sklar locates the model for Catharine’s manipulation of domesticity in the service of education in her father’s use of the family in the service of religion:

One of the first fruits of Beecher’s ministry, and an essential part of the social matrix he hoped to build, was the restoration of family discipline and devotions. He emphasized the necessity of family cohesion not because he thought it more important than other human institutions, nor because he believed that the religious instruction of the home was more efficacious than that of the church, but because the family was one of many mutually reinforcing social institutions that unite to form a consolidated culture. (Sklar, 1973, p. 11)

Accordingly, Catharine Beecher argued for placing educational responsibility in the hands of women, maintaining their submissiveness and elevating feminine self-sacrifice, purity, and domesticity into moral superiority. The good daughter had found a way to advance women into the public sphere without disturbing the dominance of the patriarchal authority. She gave lectures in the major cities of the East, was a prolific author of books and articles addressing the arts of domesticity and the education of women, and was an influential member of the elite struggling to articulate an American ethos, numbering among her friends and relatives, Harriet Beecher and Calvin Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, the Boston intelligensia, Sarah Hale, Lydia Sigourney, and Horace Mann. Sklar summarizes the role that gender played in this project of moral suasion and social cohesion:

Much of the effectiveness of the Beecher family lay in its ability to seize the power of social definition during a time of widespread change …. (Sklar, 1973, p. xiii)

The most important characteristic of this new domestic space was its ability to integrate personal and national goals. It fostered uniform communities, molded socially homogeneous human beings, and produced a set of predictable habits among contemporary Americans. To do this and at the same time to defend the virtues of self-reliance, freedom of choice, and independence of mind required considerable ingenuity. Catharine Beecher was among the first to engage in the contradictory task of both nationalizing and personalizing the American domestic environment. Like others so engaged, she found the key to her task in gender roles. The dichotomies of masculine and feminine identity could be orchestrated to agree with both a standar- dized cultural score and a specialized personal calling. Womanhood could be designed to engage all one’s creative energies, yet simultaneously to smooth the edges of one’s regional, lineage, or class identities and to articulate the similarities one shared with other women. The same could be done for American manhood. In a nation tentatively evolving new democratic forms, gender roles were an effective way to channel the explosive potential of nineteenth-century social change and bring it at least partially under the control of a national elite. (Sklar, 1973, p. xii)

The women who poured into the common schools lived out this contradiction under the banner of maternal love and participated in a process of denial that Ann Douglas has labelled sentimentalism:

Sentimentalism is a complex phenomenon. It asserts that the values a society’s activity denies are precisely the ones it cherishes; it attempts to deal with the phenomenon of cultural bifurcation by this manipulation of nostalgia. Sentimentalism provides a way to protest a power to which one has already in part capitulated. It is a form of dragging one’s heels. It always borders on dishonesty but it is a dishonesty for which there is no known substitute in a capitalist country. (Douglas, 1977, pp. 11-12)

What the society denied to the women of the nineteenth century was a vigorous, active motherhood. With one hand it took away the men and the children, and with the other it bestowed the cult of motherhood, replete with a rhetoric of false praise. In her foreword to Froebel’s collection of instructive songs and games entitled Mother-Play and Nursery Songs (1878), Elizabeth Peabody (who was also Horace Mann’s sister-in-law) glorified this passage to submissiveness:

The only perfect guardian and cherisher of free self-activity is the mother’s love, who respects it in her own child by an instinct deeper than all thought, restraining her own self-will, and calling out a voluntary obedience (the only obedience worthy of the name), because it proceeds from hearts that “the forms of young imagination have kept pure.” (Peabody, p. 7)

Mother and child would form the perfect vessel. Into the constricted routine of the mother’s domestic isolation would be poured the clear fluid of the child’s inexperience. The education for this cult of motherhood required the mastery of self-denial as this excerpt from the journal of a ten-year-old Louisa May Alcott indicates:

A Sample of Our Lessons
“What virtues do you wish more of?.” asks Mr. L. I answer:
Patience, Love, Silence, Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance, Industry, Respect, Self-denial.

“What vices less of?.”
Idleness, Wilfulness, Vanity, Impatience, Impudence, Pride, Selfishness, Activity, Love of cats. (Cited in Moffat and Painter, 1975, p. 32)

The reward of this self-discipline was to be the calling of Motherhood. Elizabeth Harrison, another promoter of Froebel’s philosophies and of the kindergarten movement, gilded submissiveness with these false titles: Motherhood “demands of woman her highest endeavor… It demands of her that she become a physician, an artist, a teacher, a poet, a philosopher, a priest. In return, it gives her an insight into science, into history — into art, into literature, into human nature” (cited in Rothman, 1979, p. 103).

This sentimentalism, this rhetorically inflated and practically deflated function of mothering, was not an isolated phenomenon. It accompanied the concentration of population in urban centers and the complexity and confusion that these pluralistic cities brought to families who had moved there either from European villages or from the small towns and farms of rural America. Phillipe Aries has argued that the very concept of childhood itself was drawn from the nostalgia and resistance to urban life that characterized the response of nineteenth century Europe to life in its cities (1965). Bernard Wishy’s study of the child nurture literature of the nineteenth century makes the similar claim that, as Americans surrendered the ordered and familiar ways of rural life, they projected their yearning for lost innocence onto their children and onto the women who would care for them (1968). The profound rupture created by the shift from farm to city was never mended; nor was it left behind or outgrown. It too became part of urban life, glimpsed in the growing schism between public and private, work and home, men and women, adults and children. It extended into the distinctions that developed between the culture of the home and that of the workplace and was expressed in the differing expectations of the men, women, and children who spent their days in those spaces. Women were detained in their kitchens and nurseries, and their exile was as extensive and efficient as the taboo that the Ndembu place upon the presence of women during Mukanda, banishing them to their cooking fires on the periphery of the ritual grounds. Douglas underscores the contradictions implicit in this ideal woman:

She was to exert moral pressure on a society in whose operations she had little part, and to spend money — or have it spent on her — in an economy she could not comprehend …. The lady’s function in a capitalist society was to appropriate and preserve both the values and commodities which her competitive husband, father and son had little time to honor and enjoy. She was to provide an antidote and a purpose to their labor. (1977, p. 69)

The contradictions implicit in this image of the ideal woman and the ideal mother were extended into the training and work of the ideal teacher. The intimacy, spirituality, and innocence that teachers and students were to inherit from the mother-child bond — the prototype for their relationship collapsed into strategies for control. The ideal teacher was one who could control the children and be controlled by her superiors. In 1867, visitors to Boston’s Emerson school noted its exemplary order: “Every pupil appears to be in anxious waiting for the word of the teacher, and when issued it is promptly obeyed by the class. The movements and utterances of the class are as nearly simultaneous and similar as they can be” (Tyack, 1974, p. 54). Compliance was the key to success for teachers as well as for students, as this report of the Boston School Committee in 1841 attests:

“They [female teachers] are less intent on scheming for future honors or emoluments [than men]. As a class they never look forward, as young men almost invariably do, to a period of legal emancipation from parental control” (Tyack, 1974, p. 60).

In 1870, women constituted 60 per cent of the nation’s teachers; by 1900, 70 per cent; by 1910, 80 per cent (Rothman 1978). Figures from the mid-1970s indicate that 67.1 per cent of all teachers are women. (The percentages in elementary teaching are 87 per cent; in secondary they are 48 per cent.) Teaching had become the shelter of the educated woman. It was a refuge both familiar and alien, a boarding house where she didn’t make the rules and didn’t even have her own key.

From those early days of industrialization when the first women took a turn at a day school or summer school session to their majority in the teaching corps today, women teachers have been weighted down by this attribution of passivity and self-abnegation) In 1795, the Reverend John Bennett published a book of essays entitled Strictures on Female Education in which he enunciated the doctrine of docility and denial that still, I will argue, misrepresents both the women and the work.

Their virtues, exercised in solitude and springing purely from the heart, make no noise, and court no observation. Lavished chiefly on their children and their friends, they blaze not on the world, nor are they thought of dignity or consequence enough to embellish the recording page. Still let not these degrading fair ones despond …. Many are the statesmen they have raised by their secret magic, into fame; and whenever they are tempted to repine at the appearance of weakness and inferiority it becomes them to remember that their greatest strength lies in their weakness their commands in their tears. (1971, pp. 99-100)

This was the sentimentalism that served to mute this culture’s acknowledgement of the bargains that it had made with expansion and industrialization. It had bartered the City upon a Hill for sprawling settlements, had substituted religious pluralism and voluntary participation for a tight Calvinistic order, had abandoned its kitchens as well as its plows for mill towns and cities. The feminization of teaching became a form of denial as the female teachers in the common schools demanded order in the name of sweetness, compelled moral rectitude in the name of recitation, citizenship in the name of silence, and asexuality in the name of stillness.

Well the times have changed. As social science laid claim to the child and identified the devoted mother as a threat to normal social development, the early twentieth century brought an attack on the very maternal solitude that the nineteenth century had valorized. Employment opportunities for men contracted and other kinds of work slowly opened up for women. Nevertheless, the contradictions that evolved in those times between the doctrine of maternal love and the practice of a harsh and regimented authority, between the dominance in numbers and the exclusion from leadership, between the overwhelming presence of women in classrooms and the continuing identification of men as the only persons with the capacity to act, are still present in the culture of schooling. It is at this juncture that this discussion must turn from social realism to examine the psychoanalytic implications of the social conditions. History can offer us the figures on the GNP, the ratio of male to female teachers, and the rhetoric of the Bennetts, the Beechers, the Manns, and the Peabodys, but it cannot tell us how the experiences symbolized by these signs were integrated into the daily lives and understandings of the women who lived them.

Sentimentality versus Reality

The unavoidable incapacity of the loving teacher to save society through the example of her own submissiveness led to an inevitable failure — a failure of moral fibre, a failure of femininity, a failure of professionalism. It is no wonder that those recalcitrant students who were reluctant worshippers at the altar of maternal love (otherwise known as the tedious and strict classroom of the common school) were branded as deficient, if not pathological, in order to share this burden of blame. As Catharine Beecher assumed meekness and orderliness to be essential properties of femininity, so teachers were quick to stigmatize those students who were not meek and orderly with class and ethnic and racial deficiencies. Blind to the class specificity associated with this ideal of feminine gender and with its denial of eroticism, of anger, of ambition, women of all classes who ventured into teaching must have experienced the collision of their needs, personalities, and expectations with this feminine version of the Protestant ethic. We find the doctrine of self-control and denial of emotions extended into those traits listed as desirable in the 1928 Commonwealth Teacher Training Study:

Traits which serve as example to pupils
Striving systematically to set pupils a good example; exercising self-control in the face of irritation; being polite and courteous to impolite pupils; being on time when pupils are detained by other teachers: setting an example of open-mindedness by setting prejudices aside.

Traits involved in winning of pupils respect
Keeping one’s temper, repressing anger, irritation, desire to punish; not waiting for pupils to start something, taking initiative, seizing opportunities to show command of the situation; avoid confidences, maintaining reserve, preserving dignity without being unfriendly.

Traits involved in maintaining friendly relations with pupils
Taking genuine personal interest in pupils’ problems; listening to pupils’ grievances, expressing sympathy at appropriate times; being tactful with pupils who are antagonistic; doing good turns for pupils, being generous and forgiving toward petty offenses; keeping cheerful, looking happy when feeling otherwise; indulging in good-natured kidding within proper limits; dropping classroom manners out of class.
(Charters et al, 1928, p. 467-8)

For those seeking independence from maternal authority, the paternal authority of the principal, the normal school instructor, the minister on the Board of Visitors offered an attractive if chimerical alternative.

The father/daughter relation of the teacher to the department head, principal, or superintendent functioned to deny the eroticism and extend the infantilization of the teacher. The cult of maternal nurturance ignored female sexuality, oblivious to the erotic gratifications of maternity and the sensual and sexual life of the young women it kept under constant surveillance. The teacher was expected to banish sensuality from the classroom and from her life. The repudiation of the body was a blight that fell upon the curriculum as well, severing mind from body and draining the curriculum of the body’s contributions to cognition, aesthetics, and community as realized through its capacity for sensuality, for movement, and for work.

The urge to gain paternal approval may have undermined the support that the normalities were prepared to extend to each other as it was paternal sanction that promised their continued presence in the world of work rather than a collective spirit. In an earlier paper I have argued that men and women look to education to reverse their initial relations to their children (Grumet, 1981). Women, intertwined with their children and their mothers in a biologically symbiotic interdependency, have seen education as differentiation, a gradual growth in independence. Men, troubled by the inferential character of paternity, have sought to extend their claim on the child through strategies of influence and control.

A similar reversal may have been operating for the male educational administrators and theorists as well as the female practitioners. Sugg suggests that Horace Mann’s preference for female teachers and an ideal of gentle, loving influence was a reaction against the harsh Calvinism of Nathaniel Emmons, the powerful minister of his boyhood. Associating Emmons’s severity with pure intellect, Mann preferred to match the “mild and gentle manners of women to the tenderness of childhood” (1978, p. 74). It is possible that the feminization of teaching was originally located at the crossroads of masculine and feminine projects to rectify their own object relations. Cut off from their mothers by the harsh masculine authority of church and fathers, theorists like Mann sought the reclamation of mother love by promoting women as teachers of the young. Overwhelmed by the presence of their mothers, women entered teaching in order to gain access to the power and prerogatives of their fathers.

This thesis which suggests the desire of the male to reclaim the early preoedipal intimacy with his mother is reinforced by Mann’s restriction of maternal nurturance to young children:

They are best for young children —
They have much feeling and if not excited it must lie dormant — Is she not fitted to commence the first work in the Temple of Education?



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