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Teaching, Feminism, and School Rule

ExploringNCTEhistoryThe following post is the second in a series by Jonna Perrillo, NCTE’s Historian.

“Women are destined to rule the schools of every city,” Chicago school superintendent Ella Flagg Young declared in 1909. Better qualified than many men, she contended, women were “no longer satisfied to do the greatest part of the work and yet be denied leadership.”[1] To Young, the nation’s only female superintendent, school reform was one of the nation’s most important feminist projects.

She would have been bitterly disappointed if she were able to survey the education landscape six and a half decades later, during the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment. Female superintendents were still virtually unheard of. While 84% of elementary school teachers were women, 81% of elementary school principals were men.  In high schools, 46% of teachers were women; over 98% of principals were men.[2] Women were underrepresented in administration for the same reason they were overrepresented in elementary classrooms: they were considered nurturing and “soft,” while men could discipline children and colleagues alike.

Women teachers in the 1970s, like other groups of working women, fought for maternity leave, equal pay, and access to administrative channels from which they had historically been shut out.  But to change any of the inequities of the job, they needed to address a professional culture that rewarded a minority of men.

With this mind, NCTE’s Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession met in the fall of 1971 to draft recommendations for producing “positive change” for women teachers. The guidelines advanced a platform of self-reflection and personal narrative that paralleled the composition theories NCTE members were adopting in their classrooms.  They recommended an educative approach to sexism, one that focused on “awareness” and teachers’ “own unexamined assumptions,” and urged women teachers to “involve their colleagues and administrators in self-evaluations of their attitudes towards women.” Men needed to change, the committee argued, but so did women, who required encouragement “to participate actively in all professional meetings” and “to answer the questions men ask.”[3]

In the committee’s identification of “culture” as the enemy, it embraced a less radical and policy-focused version of feminism than what was being exercised outside of the schoolhouse, one that assumed that the penalties women teachers faced resided as much in their own limited professional self-perceptions as in institutional structures.  But this view also coupled personal accountability (in women and men) with professional partnership (between women and men) in ways that correctly read how healthy academic institutions should work.

Today teaching remains a feminized profession: 76% of all public school teachers are women.  But in the forty years since the committee issued its guidelines, women have risen up through the administrative ranks. Nearly 52% of principals now are women.  Even with a continued gender disparity between elementary and high school leadership, the difference marks a significant change that, along with changes in maternity leave and pay structures, reflects the realization of many 1970s feminist teachers’ goals.

Yet, as Kate Rousmaniere argues in The Principal’s Office, differences in school administration are due less to the culture within individual schools and more to wide changes in the profession.  Simply put, as the principalship became less attractive beginning in the 1980s—more focused on mandate regulation and management than instructional leadership—fewer men were interested in the job.[4]  Women have broken through a cycle Young described in which leadership was treated as “the inherited right of man alone,” but women’s own inheritance is a mixed bag.[5]

In many ways, today’s teaching environment is far less liberatory than that of the 1970s; women may have earned access, but they have lost intellectual autonomy.

Given that women continue to occupy the majority of positions in schools, advancing the profession—improving the job and the quality of education offered to students—will remain women’s work.  NCTE members are in a particularly strong position to continue to develop new sets of guidelines that address teacher and student disenfranchisement and highlight teacher leadership in our classrooms, schools, and nation.  The Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession was right to see that attitudes toward ordinary teachers matter and that partnership in schools is key to reform.  This is as good a time as any to be reminded of what 1970s teachers already knew.

[1] “The Highest Salaried Woman in the World,” Western Journal of Education 14 (1909): 515–516.

[2] Tyack, David, and Elisabeth Hansot, Managers of Virtue: Public School Leadership in America, 18201980 (New York: Basic Books, 1982), 183.

[3] NCTE Committee on the Role and Image of Women in the Council and the Profession, Guidelines for Confronting Attitudes that Penalize Women (Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1971).

[4] Kate Rousmaniere, The Principal’s Office: A Social History of the American School Principal (Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2014).

[5] “The Highest Salaried Woman in the World,” 516.