The Feminization of Teaching
The Feminization of Teaching
Expanding System. Alongside the expansion of public education rose the demand for an expanded teacher corps that could be trusted with the increasingly critical task of overseeing proper moral instruction. This demand, together with women’s own aspirations for an alternative to the narrow opportunities available to them and the rise of an intermediary, bureaucratic layer of administrators, opened the door to large-scale employment of women in the classroom. Prior to 1850, popular acceptance of the notion handed down from the revolutionary period—that women were especially suited for the role of raising and training a republican citizenry—had meant that teaching was one of very few professions open to women. Even before midcentury, women made up a significant proportion of the teaching corps, though in most places men still predominated. Between 1840 and about 1860, however, the trend was reversed. Almost every school district in the country reported a shift in the direction of employment of women. In Massachusetts the percentage of male teachers in the public schools fell from 60 in 1840 to just 14 in 1860. In Connecticut, where women made up 56 percent of the teaching corps in 1846, they represented over 71 percent a decade later. In New Jersey the state superintendent reported in 1862 that it was “somewhat remarkable that the number of female teachers has been gradually increasing from year to year, until it now exceeds the number of male teachers. Ten years ago,” he reported, “the number of male teachers was more than double that of female teachers; now the whole number of males is 1104 and the whole number of females is 1108.” Similar
trends were reported throughout the country, exacerbated in later years by the Civil War and its drain upon local male populations: from 80 percent of the Indiana teaching workforce in 1859, men comprised just over 50 percent by the war’s end in 1865. Similarly, New York reported a loss of 1,119 male teachers between 1862 and 1863 alone.
Public Role. No single factor can explain this dramatic shift in the teaching workforce; rather, several developments seem to have converged to propel women into the classroom in large numbers. From the revolutionary era American women had been bequeathed, for better or worse, definite ideas about their appropriate role in a republican society. While proscribing open, public involvement in politics, republican notions of womanhood placed a premium on women’s role, as mothers, in “shaping the character of their sons as future republicans.” Just before midcentury, one leading educator expressed his faith that American women would “never seek distinction in our public assemblies for public discussion, or in our halls of legislation” but hoped at the same time that they would continue to “distinguish themselves” in “their appropriate work of educating the young” and “forming the opening mind to all that is good and great.” Limited though this conception was, it did have an effect on women’s access to education. Women could not be expected to raise an intelligent and well-informed citizenry unless they themselves had access to knowledge. As the common-schools movement gathered momentum toward midcentury, its emphasis on moral instruction seemed to provide a bridge between women’s role as the guardians of republicanism in the home and their suitability as teachers outside the home. Teaching in the common schools was viewed as a natural extension of their domestic roles into the public sphere; its ambiguity suited both traditionalists who might otherwise have shown little interest in extending public opportunities for women and those women frustrated with the limited horizons and lack of independence offered them under existing arrangements.
A Woman’s Place. To some enthusiastic supporters of the common schools’ emphasis on moral instruction, the shift toward a female-dominated profession seemed appropriate and even necessary. Women, they argued, were not only the equals of men as teachers but were actually better suited for the mid-nineteenth-century classroom. In language typical of the reformers, Henry Barnard expressed approval of the trend in an 1857 editorial in his Journal of Education:
Our experience in New England has already shown, not only the capacity of women, but their superiority to the male sex, in the whole work of domestic and primary instruction…. Their more gentle and refined manners, purer morals, stronger instinctive love for the society of children, and greater tact in their management—their talent for conversational teaching, and quickness in apprehending the difficulties which embarrass the young mind, and their power … of governing the most wild and reckless dispositions. . . .
Interestingly, the reformers’ enthusiasm for women as classroom teachers did not extend to their employment as principals or administrators. In the increasingly elaborate division of labor that was developing in step with professionalization, women occupied the bottom rungs of the education workforce hierarchy: “The emerging pattern in nineteenth-century education,” one study concluded, “was for men to manage and women to teach.” Female teachers were assigned primarily to teaching children in the lower grades, and female principals and superintendents were practically nonexistent. It was frequently the case that female teachers, who had attended normal schools, had undergone more formal training than administrators. This points to another, less obvious reason for the shift toward a predominantly female teaching corps: the expansion of the common schools was made possible, in part, by the easy availability of a low-paid female workforce. The abandonment of the teaching profession by men after 1840 had to do, in part, with their access to greater opportunities elsewhere. Women’s options during the same period were far more restricted: “There is not the same variety of tempting employment for females as for men, they can be supported cheaper . . .,” a contemporary advocate of the feminization of teaching observed. “How much more satisfying was the classroom and a chance for a modest income,” a historian reasoned more recently, “than a life as an unwelcome dependent in the home of a relative.” The lack of alternative employment meant that women teachers were paid less than men doing the same work: where rural male teachers earned an average of $4.25 per week in 1850, females averaged just $2.89; low salaries in the countryside were offset by the practice of “boarding round” with students’ families. The differential between male and female teachers in the cities was far worse and remained fairly constant through the mid 1860s. Whereas the salary of male urban teachers in 1864, over $20 per week, paid them nearly three times as much as common laborers and almost double the amount earned by skilled artisans, their female counterparts brought home a pittance of $7.67, making them the least compensated of all.
A Breach in Restrictions. One consequence of the meager financial incentives was high turnover among teachers. Women who entered the profession in order to gain some level of independence often found marriage a more attractive option after several years in teaching. Nevertheless, the importance of women’s employment as teachers in opening a breach in the restrictions on their role in nineteenth-century America cannot be gauged through measuring changes in their financial status alone. Access to paid work outside the home afforded women an unprecedented opportunity for independence, and their enrollment in normal schools and teacher-training institutes paved the way for large-scale entry of women into higher education, a development that could not have been contemplated by an earlier generation.
GUARDIANS OF MORAL VIRTUE
The large-scale entry of women into the teaching profession both challenged and reinforced stereotypes about women’s “place” in American society, as exhibited in this excerpt from an article in the June 1857 American Journal of Education:
Our experience in New England has already shown, not only the capacity of women, but their superiority to the male sex, in the whole work of domestic and primary instruction, not only as principal teachers of infant and the lowest class of elementary schools, but as assistants in schools of every grade in which girls are taught, and as principal teachers, with special assistants in certain studies, in country schools generally. Their more gentle and refined manners, purer morals, stronger instinctive love for the society of children, and greater tact in their management—their talent for conversational teaching, and quickness in apprehending the difficulties which embarrass a young mind, and their power, when properly developed and sustained by an enlightened public sentiment, of governing the most wild and reckless dispositions. . . .
Anne Firor Scott, “The Ever-Widening Circle: The Diffusion of Feminist Values from the Troy Female Seminary, 1882–1892,” in The Social History of American Education, edited by B. Edward McClellan and William J. Reese (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987);
Joel Spring, The American School, 1642–1985 (New York: Longman, 1986).