By Hannah McCandless
Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s and Gender History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee, a 19th century woman administrator at Berea College. Hannah is also an editor for the Re/Visionist.
The first time I had a male teacher was for my 7th grade math class. To be completely honest, it was startling and I was not a fan of his teaching style. Less about the work and more about the rules, Mr. Whatshisface (I cannot remember his name for the life of me) made the class unbearable and unenjoyable. I’m sure some of it had to do with his unusual military approach to teaching. Despite the fact that every other non-male teacher in the building seemed to have the attention and respect of their students with little to no major disciplinary action, Mr. Whatshisface was unable to attain either. For me, it solidified in my 7th grade mind that women were naturally better teachers than men. Imagine my surprise when high school rolled around and nearly one third of the teachers were men.
I didn’t notice at the time (though it seems apparent now) that when children were young, they were predominantly taught by female teachers. Alternatively, when children aged, they were taught more and more by male teachers. Why? I’m sure you noticed it, too. It becomes even more prominent in college when male professors begin to be about equal or greater than the number of female professors.
There are a lot of reasons why people theorize that women and men teach different age groups. Most of these theories are based in sexism, such as ‘women are a moral center for the family, and therefore make a good teacher for young children.’ (Total BS – “moral” is relative and non-women have every ability to be that ‘moral’ compass.) Another focuses on women being ‘nurturers’ and thus being better suited to teach young children. (Since when can men not be nurturing?) And then when you’re ready for your kid to be thrown into the real world, have them be taught by a man who will be ‘harsh and realistic.’
Whatever merit these ideas do or don’t hold, none of them look at where traditional forms of education (i.s. Reading, writing, math) got started. When colonists first began invading the Americas and settling, education was not a major priority unless you were a Puritan (they sure loved reading the Bible). Most people were just working to survive. Once communities had existed for more time, families that had more wealth began teaching their children at home. Who was the primary teacher for those children, you may ask? The head of the house: good ole dad. Culturally, since the man was the head of the household, it was believed that they should be responsible for the moral, social, and intellectual upbringing of their children, both boys and girls. This was all taking place in the early 18th century before the United States was born.
Though living conditions were better and life got somewhat easier, it became clear pretty quickly that the education of young children took a great deal of time. So gradually, the duties of educating young children in these well to do homes was handed down (yes, that choice of wording was intentional) to the mothers. No worries, though, because now we are entering the cultural phenomenon of “Republican Motherhood.”
Republican Motherhood was the idea that mothers were now responsible for the upbringing of a new and virtuous nation via raising children who would emulate republican ideologies in order to support that new nation. Republicanism during this time period versus now are very different ideas, so take note that “Republican Motherhood” had the intention of raising children who would engage in democracy and work to support the country. Because of this, several educational institutions were opened up in the 1790s in order to educate women, so they might better educate their own children.
Fast forward to the mid-nineteenth century. Public education is becoming more common and available to most white children. As long as you lived near enough people to have a school and you were white, there was a good chance that a school might open up near you. Now, the debates about coeducation and class separation are thought provoking and worth taking a look at, but what we are here to focus on is how women were relegated to certain types of teaching roles. Women were often hired as teachers for children for both single sex and coeducational classrooms. The predominantly male administrators seemed to have no problem with this. But when women began applying for jobs to teach young men, there were serious doubts. This debate about women teaching young men would eventually lead to women being almost completely isolated from jobs teaching boys in adolescence.
The pattern of women being isolated to teaching younger students began long before I entered the 7th grade. As our culture has shifted to value education less and college / job training more, women have become ever more present in the K – 12 educational world. Our culture suggests that the most important learning comes after we finish grade school and thus women in those roles are degraded, underpaid, and overworked. It’s difficult to sum up the issues of our educational system in a quick 1,000 words, but hopefully this gives some perspective. Nothing ever just happens by accident. Women being undervalued as teachers has a starting point.
Tyack, David B. and Elisabeth Hansot. Learning Together: A History of Coeducation in American Schools. Yale University Press: 1990.