The Only Way to Win: Pt.2

1900 school  The first fifteen years of the 1900s revealed the early controversy about what public education should accomplish, who called the shots, and the role of women. There are not many records of women establishing and administering their own schools, but Margaret Haley old teacherwas the first women and teacher to speak at the NEA in 1901. Already in 1902 there was both a movement to teach at home and to refuse to pay taxes for education. The next year W.E.B. DuBois was at odds with Booker Washington over the appropriate direction of education for African-Americans. While Mother Jones argued against child labor, saying children should be in school. Margaret Haley continued to try to lead by urging teachers to organize while an opposing movement among workers began their own educational organization.

But the movement for suffrage successfully co-opted women teachers and leaders’ energies. As Gloria Steinem pointed out, women are always devoting their energies to help others. What they don’t do is devote their energies to their own best interests. Getting the vote was in women’s interest, but teaching status took a back seat in the movement, and was scarcely visited again.

1920 proved to be a watershed in the survival of teachers’ academic freedom and professional autonomy. While John Dewey supported unionization, he was still the leader of the university movement to spearhead the direction of public education, not the teachers who were teaching. The women’s movement, headed in part by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a teacher, shifted to organizing for suffrage and civil rights, forming  The National American Women’s Suffrage Association.

Women teachers continued to educate the people of the country in spite of organized opposition to their work by school boards and administrators. Many of the types of opposition used then are still used today, in spite of unions’ and other organizations’ zeal to take credit for perceived improvements in teaching conditions. The pressure to keep teachers from exercising autonomy in classrooms has not relented as conservative political climates often target teachers to blame for conditions in the usual “responsibility but no authority” game. (

Depending on the source, women earn 33-45% of bachelor’s degrees today and are often educated more than their male coworkers, still earning less. In 1928, the percentage had risen to 39% so the rate of change is not impressive.

Also prevalent today is the anti-union stance which eroded the advertised “good life”. Some areas are subsidizing teacher housing because salaries are  not professionally competitive. Teachers then and now are being fired (transferred, re-interviewed, etc.) for vocal criticism of administration. The New York Superintendent of Schools replied in 1905 there were no conditions that would justify a teacher complaining to a supervisor. Also similar today was the practice of removing older teachers to recruit newer, less expensive younger ones. Academic freedom was affected by the courts then, as well, one example being the Scopes trial focusing on the right to teacher evolution, which is still debated today.

Centralized book selection began during this time and continues today because of men’s inability to trust women’s judgement. The New York Lusk Laws in 1921 declared that teachers assume obligations and must give up intellectual freedom. In 1929, Paul Douglas, an Illinois senator and former professor asked why educational policy was “’allowed to be determined by vaudeville promoters, real estate agents, and lawyers, bankers, and every interest in the community sitting on school boards, except teachers?’”

For teachers, the more things change, the more they stay the same, but this is not accidental. It is a foundation of the teacher’s role in education historically. Anyone going into teaching today or continuing in it must realize that the intractability of low wages, professional low status, and lack of academic freedom are built into the system as part of it being a gendered profession.



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