Beginning with the common school movement in the late 1830s, teachers increasingly began to be recruited from the female population. This was in contrast to the colonial period and the post revolutionary period when men dominated the profession. Women were teachers during this earlier period, but only at the lowest levels, as indicated by the titles given to teachers, including masters, tutors, governesses, and school dames.
Rationale For Bias
Women were recruited into the teaching profession— particularly very young women (often at the age of thirteen or fourteen)—because they were an inexpensive and malleable labor group who readily met the demands of a burgeoning school system. In many instances, teaching became a brief interlude in the lives of young women, one which took place prior to marriage and the bearing of children.
While young female teachers were clearly exploited by the society as a source of inexpensive and readily available labor, teaching, like nursing, provided access to education and respect from the community at a time when few professions were open to women. It was also a profession that was relatively easy to enter, typically requiring only a year or two of training at the high school level.
Women were often encouraged to enter the profession, since it was perceived by the larger society that teachers had a nurturing role. This point of view, which is largely taken for granted today, was not necessarily held by many people prior to the common school movement, when teachers were seen in a more authoritarian and dictatorial light.
Female teachers were significantly discriminated against compared to their male counterparts, a reality that has continued to some extent even into the present. Rarely was a woman made a school superintendent until well into the twentieth century. Salary discrimination based on gender was the norm. In 1880, the beginning salary for a female high school teacher in the United States was $850 a year; a male teacher received $2,000. Just as White male teachers made more money than White female teachers, White teachers made more money than Black teachers. Thus Black female teachers were particularly discriminated against.
Ebb And Flow Of Men
During the Civil War, women teachers naturally outnumbered men, sixteen to one, as men went off to war and war-related industries. Since most women taught in elementary schools, these schools were not as disrupted by the war as were the high schools. By 1870, there were 123,000 women and 78,000 men teaching in the United States. Most of the men taught at the secondary level. It was perceived that women were more suited to teach in the primary grades, especially if a school was graded.
In the first survey of teachers, conducted in 1910, it was determined that the majority of teachers were White women, and most of the women were the daughters of farmers and small businessmen. The female teacher was often one of the few role models of a “working woman” available for many young girls, who often followed their mothers, sisters, or other female relatives into the profession. Teaching was an “acceptable” job for many young women, until they got married. In fact, in St. Louis, Missouri, and other cities, as late as the mid-1940s, a female teacher had to resign if she got married. Teaching also provided economic independence and status to the women who chose not to get married or to be “dependent old maids,” living with their relatives.
By 1930 there were five times as many female teachers as male teachers in the United States. As women came to dominate the profession, its status fell in comparison with other professions that were dominated by men, such as law and medicine. During the Great Depression, men were often given preference over women when teaching jobs were being filled, so that the number of male teachers increased to 25 percent of the total number of teachers in the United States. That percentage fell again during World War II, and then picked up again after the war as men were recruited into the profession (the same phenomenon had occurred after World War I). One of reasons given for recruiting men was to give boys, especially adolescent boys, strong role models in the classroom.
Rather than returning to teaching following the war, many men who had been teachers took advantage of the GI Bill. As a result, many married women who had been “allowed” to teach during the war were kept on; the “spinster teachers” were aging, and there simply weren’t enough young single women to fill the need. By the end of the 1940s, restrictions on women being married and teaching were dropped across the country. For the first time, middle-class, married women with children began filling the ranks of teachers. By 1960, married women made up 71 percent of the female teaching force. Their presence created a new twist on the disparity between salaries for male versus female teachers: It was felt that since a married woman’s salary was a second income for her family, the male teacher should still be paid more money.
By the 1980s, one third of the teachers in the United States were men, two thirds women. Perhaps of more importance is the fact that there were almost an equal number of men and women teaching at the high school level; salary equality was at last being fully achieved. As salary levels across professions increased, many talented women dropped out of the profession, bypassing traditional nurturing jobs such as nursing, teaching, and social work for the status and increased income found in the business world and the professions of law and medicine.
Because teaching is a feminized profession, male teachers suffer the lesser status afforded women in American culture. This issue is deeply rooted in historical traditions, one which is only beginning to be overcome through legislation and changes in social attitudes as women continue to achieve greater equality in American society. At some time in the not too distant future, it is hoped that the status of teachers— male or female—will increase along with the general status of women in the culture. At that point, the feminization of the teaching profession may remain relevant only as an interesting historical artifact.
- Clifford, G. J. (1989). Man/woman/teacher: Gender, family, and career in American educational history. In D. Warren (Ed.), American teachers: Histories of a profession at work (pp. 293–243). New York: Macmillan.
- Provenzo, E. F., Jr., & McCloskey, G. N. (1996). Schoolteachers and schooling: Ethoses in conflict. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.
- Rury, J. L. (1989). Who became teachers? The social characteristics of teachers in American history. In D. Warren (Ed.), American teachers: Histories of a profession at work (pp. 9–48). New York: Macmillan. Sedlak, M. W. (1989). Let us go and buy a school master:
- Historical perspectives on the hiring of teachers in the United States, 1750–1890. In D. Warren (Ed.), American teachers: Histories of a profession at work (pp. 257–290). New York: Macmillan.
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