Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Feminization of Teaching, Part 1: Historical Precedent

Teachers’ professional status is a big issue in the country right now. I want to discuss contemporary issues, but I think it’s worth getting into the historical issues first. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will address what is happening now. The low status of teachers and the feminization of teaching are easily seen from the birth of a public school system in this country. The common school movement of the 1830s-1850s is the beginning of the story.

Horace Mann is the person who comes to the minds of education historians when they think of common schools. While I am usually reluctant to narrow a movement down to one person, in this case, it makes a bit more sense: Horace Mann was the state secretary of education for Massachusetts, and he was worried that the new republic would fail without a school system that promoted Protestant, middle class values. He worked tirelessly to spread his ideas throughout the state of Massachusetts, and eventually the rest of the Northeast. He is the face of the common school movement. He wanted a moral education for a moral republic, and he believed this meant teachers had to be models of morality as well. For several reasons, he thought, women were best suited to the job:

1. Women were thought of as the more natural caretakers of children. He thought women were more nurturing and therefore better suited to dealing with kids (schools at the time tended to be of the one-room schoolhouse variety, with kids aged 2-14 falling under a single teacher’s authority. How the hell someone is supposed to deal with that age range is beyond me). This is ridiculous, of course. And there is evidence to show that people did not wholeheartedly accept this view even then. A “manual mania” trend started up mid-century that was meant to explain how women should best care for their homes and families. If this is the gender naturally suited to children, why did they need instruction manuals? From our 21st century perspective, it is even easier to see that women are not biologically destined to be nurturers, and that some men are. That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with the non-nurturing women or the nurturing men. Rather, it’s an issue of social expectations. Apparently they weren't foisted on me: I’m a woman, and if someone told me I’d have to deal with a group of young kids and teenagers all by my lonesome, you’d see a Jess-shaped hole in the wall.

2. Horace Mann also openly acknowledged that women could be paid 2/3 less than men, because they had no other career options. So right from the beginning, these teachers were supposed to be paid less than men for work that Mann acknowledged was difficult. But women could not be expected to become lawyers or doctors or do any sort of trade, like blacksmithing. Teaching was it. Women are still paid less than men no matter what the job: we are still making only $.77 to the male dollar. I’ve known many teachers who needed a second income, either from a spouse or from doing some other job like bartending to make ends meet. It’s pathetic and depressing, and why I get so enraged when assholes like Scott Walker, with his $100,000+ salary and pension, talk about how teachers need to be willing to make sacrifices. Teachers are already sacrificing by going into the field: they are not earning the pay they deserve, they have to deal with people taking them less seriously than they would doctors or lawyers, and, as we will discuss, they often lose certain individual freedoms.

3. In addition to women being natural caretakers and unable to bargain for a higher salary, they were considered more moral than men. In fact, the common school reformers believed that men were 20:1 more likely to engage in vice. Therefore, women were the only appropriate teachers for a moral republic. This puts a great deal of pressure on teachers not only to turn their class of 2-14 year old kids into angelic moral beings, but also to be perfectly moral themselves. I always have students in my history class who start off thinking that this is somehow complimentary to women. But the fact is, women are people, just like men are people. Some women do things Horace Mann would think are bad (drinking, for example, or spending too much money, or being promiscuous). Men do too, though. There is no “better” gender. Any variation between genders is far outweighed by variation within genders. So women are not better suited to modeling moral behavior. Aside from being factually incorrect, this morality premise presents another issue: the policing of women’s behavior. If the entire point of this common school experiment was to make the nation more moral, then the behavior of teachers – women, remember – outside of school becomes just as important as their behavior in school. Women were meant to model morality for the entire community, not just their classrooms. So what happens to women who are not falling into line? They not only get fired, they become an example of society’s decline. “Immoral” teachers are considered especially pernicious. Stay tuned for a future post discussing the problems faced by LGBTQ teachers in the past and the present thanks to these oppressive ideas about gendered morality. Here’s a spoiler, though: if a teacher’s morality and what she does in her personal life is the point on which society’s health is balanced, can you imagine what a bunch of homophobic jackasses will do when they find out she is sleeping with another lady? And this is not to ignore gay men – they are not, after all, excluded from the homophobic jackassery rampant in society, and gay male teachers have come under just as much scrutiny as lesbian teachers.

Interestingly, Horace Mann wanted to make teaching more professional. He was very concerned that teachers get appropriately educated for teaching, and that teaching be standardized across the state. He got into hot water pretty early on with a group of Boston teachers who did not want this guy, who had never been a teacher, telling them what to do. They did not want administrators dictating how classrooms should be run. From the beginning, teachers worried that what he was actually doing was taking away what status and autonomy they had.

Tomorrow, I will post some ruminations on the current issues in education and teacher deprofessionalization. Thanks for sticking through a history post - you're a champ.


  1. Loved this! Have you read Madeleine Grumet's Bitter Milk? She does a beautiful job talking about the feminization of teaching--and talking about the conflict between the teacher-parent (mother) relationship.

  2. Thanks, Desi! It's going on my Amazon wish list right now. :)

  3. Interesting. I have some further thoughts, obviously, but would just point out that the contractual obligations on teachers did apply to both male and female (though admittedly it was only women who could get fired for dating or for getting married, and most clothing restrictions applied to women). Men, for example, could also be fired for not attending church, for going to a barber shop or ice cream parlor, or other similar contractual violations on their part.

    I think Catherine Beecher addressed, somewhat, your question of why it was necessary to prepare women for their roles if they were naturally suited for them. She argued, essentially, that 'modernization'had moved women away from their traditional roles and corrupted their values, and that far too many young girls were focusing on the wrong things in life. Will you be discussing Catherine in a later post?

    More thoughts from me later.. :) Favorite post so far. I confess that I greatly admire Horace Mann as an idealist (however misguided) and a fellow Masshole...

  4. Thanks, Steve!! I probably will talk about Catherine at some point. I might shoot for a post a week that is mostly historical, like this one. Catherine would be a logical next step.

    You're right that not everything was perfect for men, either - I just wanted to show that the way teaching looks now is no accident.

  5. Excellent summary, love. I will be sharing this with my students and naming it "A Clear Explanation of Why I Don't Want to Read Your Horace Mann Biography Essay". ;)

  6. Aww, thanks, my darling. :)

  7. So why WOULDN'T you want to read a Horace Mann biography essay (besides the fact that a student would write it)? You simply cannot discuss public education, for good or ill, without considering the influence of The Mann.

    And if you were being snarky, disregard. It's been a long day with disgruntled students.