Select Page

Woman’s Work in Education

1884 — Madison WI


This evening is not to me of merely grave importance, not merely of secondary interest, but it is to me of historic suggestion and of historic value, for, grateful as I am for it, glad as I am to seize upon this opportunity and use it, proud as I am of the noble women who will follow me, with words of eloquence and wisdom and instruction, yet I recognize this as merely an historic survival. This occasion is a survival from the time now dead, when every church held its distinct corner for distinct and inferior classes. Not that we are considered inferior; not that we are brought here as curiosities to be exhibited ; we are I know welcomed by our loyal-hearted president as having equal claim upon this platform with men ; still it is a picture, still it is a survival from that time, and of greater interest to me as a survival than from any other standpoint. One thing, if the gentlemen who have spoken before various sections of this convention will permit me in perfect good humor to allude to it, and if they will in perfect good humor receive it, will illustrate my meaning. Notwithstanding the fluttering of fans and the fluttering of ribbons, and the gay waving of plumes, and the glancing smiles, and the eloquent blushes from the audience, speakers have persisted in addressing their audiences as “gentlemen.” Doubtless a preconceived supposition of who would be here has been more to them than the testimony of their eyes, and notwithstanding the major part of their audiences, save the audience of superintendents convened this afternoon, notwithstanding the major part of every audience has been constituted of women, gentlemen have absolutely been enabled to see them, and have persistently addressed the remarks, which women were assiduously endeavoring to hear and profit by, to men.

However, as I have but fifteen minutes of time, I will address myself to briefly discussing two or three of the points in which I think women have contributed to the work of education in this country. The first visible effect of women’s entrance upon the profession of teachers was the amelioration of discipline in the school-room. I will not be so presumptuous as for one moment to assume that that amelioration sprang from the greater tenderness of woman, that it sprang from the greater consideration of woman, that it sprang from greater philosophical insight into the child’s needs and the effects of various orders of discipline. I confess freely that the first effect of woman’s influence in the profession, theamelioration of discipline, was the direct result of her inferior physical strength. This inferior physical strength compelled women to substitute for the physical agencies that had before been used, spiritual ones. Not the increased happiness of the child in the school, not the increased physical safety of the child in the school, not the increased physical care and comfort, was the greatest gain from this amelioration of discipline, but so soon as spiritual agencies were introduced we learned that spirit kindled spirit.

The moral sense is a divining rod, and so soon as the moral sense of the teacher was brought to bear upon the child, so soon, and never before, were the moral powers of childhood discovered. It is true indeed that softer discipline, that moral suasion, that spiritual force, were resented by the big boys. He demanded the birch and the rawhide and ferule upon his teacher’s desk as external symbols of the superior animal force by which alone he wished to be bound. Notwithstanding the big boy’s resentment, which for a time worked out its purpose, and confined women teachers in the country to district schools in the summer, when the big boy could not be there, notwithstanding that, the spiritual agencies substituted by women were necessarily soon adopted by men, and the growth of the moral powers, which had, perhaps by accident, or, at least unconsciously, been discovered by women, was thenceforth conscientiously and studiously developed. This seems to me the second great contribution made by women to our profession, the discovery of the child’s moral powers, and the conscientious, intelligent, and studious prosecution of effort to develop and train those moral powers. With rattan and birch in hand it is quite impossible for our profession to make a successful prosecution of psycho logical study. The third great contribution of woman to our profession, it seems to me, we owe again to a deficiency. I hope the gentlemen in the audience will mark the modesty with which I make the claims for our sex. We owe what they have given us to our defects. It was without doubt the inadequate education of women, the inadequate education with which women began their work, which enabled them or led them or forced them into such laborious, painstaking, conscientious efforts to make the very most of their feeble resources, whereby they learned also to economize the child’s powers. The waste of childhood the world knows, and the world weeps, and the world bewails, and from the waste of childhood the world, I will not say never will, but, it seems to me through ages and ages, cannot recover. So the economy of childish power, of childish talent, of childish love, of childish zeal, following the necessary economy of the teacher’s own powers was the third great contribution made by her sex to professional advancement. Thus far the moral effects have been chiefly noted. I wish briefly to review other limitations.

The very same feeling, the very same line of thought, the same arguments that held the first generation of teachers in the district schools in the summer term, later held the next generation of teachers in the primary departments of the city schools, the thought being that the little child can be swayed by moral means only, the little child can be led by such moral agencies as the defective physical force of woman made necessary, perhaps underlying that this farther thought, that only the young child is yet near enough to God to be held remote from man and the physical agencies of discipline which ho would enforce upon the child. Gradually the woman walked through the elementary departments, through the grammar departments, into the high school. Still the thought remained that nature had endowed man for the ruling places there, and as a principal of high schools, only very recently has woman been given the opportunity to show what she might do. Still the thought remains that for the executive labor that falls to the superintendent, a man yet must be retained, and only very rarely are women called upon to fill those places, kept from them by the same limitations of thought, the same limitations of feeling, the same limitations of prejudice, even in this relatively enlightened hour, that they were at first kept entirely from the school-room. Women do, however, hold the office of superintendent, and in these higher places, as superintendents, as principals, as professors in colleges, as tutors, the same agencies are working to the same results, and the insight, ability, which lies at the basis of psychology, psychology necessarily lying at the basis of instruction, is going through her work with the larger as through her work with the younger. The intellectual contributions of woman to education can hardly be sketched. One may say there is not much yet to tell. Naturally, so far. woman’s best efforts have been given to the young of their own sex, for the educated woman’s first feeling, I might almost say her primary conviction, is that her duty binds her to her own sex. that she may make to them possibilities for such training as was denied to her. So most of the great teachers among women, those whose names have become at all illustrious in the profession, have become so in connection with girls’ schools or women’s colleges, established and carried forward by them in the hope, expressed or un expressed, of, through these efforts, by and by, attaining the absolute equality that the first aspiring women dreamed of. From these limitations has come one more contribution which I cannot forbear to mention, that which we may call the inspiration of the profession. I do not doubt that the gentlemen present, as well as the women present, if their school-days are sufficiently near to have placed them under the influence of women teachers, would join in the testimony that it was the women teachers rather than the men teachers who have inspired them with the ambition to go beyond what seemed to be the limits of their possibilities, under their instruction. This inspiration, which may spring from what may be called the intuitional or the emotional nature of woman, has yet been a great contribution. How is that inspiration illustrated in this meeting?

To me, ladies and gentlemen, it has been a most touching sight to see the women from the Gulf of Mexico, and the women from the Pacific slope, who had endured the expense, the burdens, the fatigues of a long and wearisome journey, that they might come to meet with the teachers who, coming from the supposed, and probably the truly supposed, more en lightened sections of the country, could give to them such help as they could not get within their own States. I believe myself that woman’s farther contribution in the school in our profession will be closely connected with the effort which statesmen have in mind, but so far have failed to make good. If the chasm that has divided sections of our country is ever to be bridged, it will be bridged by the school and the home ; it will be bridged, not by the efforts made at the ballot-box, it will be bridged by the intelligent, the conscientious, the patriotic, the devoted instruction given in the schools of North and South to the boys and girls within those schools. This is one glimpse of intellectual help that shall come side by side with the moral help that has come, and in direct line with the flow of moral help that still continues from woman’s work in education  but, above all, I must believe that, this intellectual service being rendered, the moral service rendered by woman in our profession will remain her great service. I believe that, within my own memory of current opinion, I can see that the current opinion regarding daily moralities has been greatly modified by the influence of women in our public schools. Women there, competing more on an equality with men than in any other profession or walk in life, have gained that accuracy, hat promptness, that sense ‘of punctuality, of order, of business integrity, theretofore monopolized by men. Men, there competing with women, have attained an almost feminine purity. That is not perhaps the final, but one of the great contributions of women in their work in education.



Source: Journal of Proceedings & Addresses of the National Education Association, Session of the Year 1884 at Madison, Wisconsin  (Boston: J.E. Farwell & Co.) 1884, pp. 153-156.