Most public-school teachers are women. And they’re still fighting for the fair pay and respect that feminists rallied for more than a century and a half ago.
Now that the back-to-school rush is over, those of us who aren’t students, educators, or parents of students likely stop paying much attention to what’s going on in public classrooms. But before we close the school doors for another year, we should take a minute to ponder this simple statistics problem. Of approximately 3.4 million American public-school teachers, what fraction are women? Quick answer: about three quarters. Longer answer: It depends. Before high school, there’s somewhere between a 75 and 85 percent chance that a child’s teacher will be female, and about a similar chance that she’ll be white. In 2012, a hair over 98 percent of preschool and kindergarten teachers were women. More men enter the picture as children get older, until high school, when about 42 percent of high-school teachers are men (by contrast, the numbers of African- American and Latino teachers drop to about half the levels in the elementary grades.). This gender situation hasn’t changed much in almost two centuries, and the numbers are similar in private schools. Statistically speaking, in the United States, women are teachers and teachers are women. But what does this mean for women?
Even when we’re paying attention, we tend not to ask this question. Instead, we want to know what this gender imbalance means for boys and men. Why don’t more men go into teaching, especially at the elementary level? Just last week, the New York Times ran a Sunday Review article asking just that question, rehearsing two familiar ideas: that boys need male role models in the classroom (an idea that the article acknowledges “underscores gender stereotypes”); and the more pernicious issue of status, a vicious cycle by which female-dominated jobs get less respect, and therefore attract fewer and fewer men. But perhaps those dominant women should be at the center of this story? Women who don’t teach, but do vote, should remember that when politicians and education reformers rail against “bad teachers,” demanding accountability and an end to union protections, the targets of their attacks are disproportionately women. When they talk about teacher layoffs and school closures, they’re talking about putting hundreds or thousands of women out of work.
When did we get so used to the idea that teachers are female, and, by extension, that teaching is a low-status profession? In her enlightening new book The Teacher Wars, education journalist Dana Goldstein shows that this was not always the case. In early America, classrooms were makeshift and an afterthought. Outside the wealthier New England enclaves, children who were old enough to learn to read and write were old enough to help out in the family business of survival. But by the turn of the 19th century, more reformers and civic leaders, usually churchmen, started to advocate for more widespread educational opportunity—although then as now, they met with resistance from those who didn’t want to pay higher taxes. Schools were locally organized and left to town councils, churches, or charities to run. The main job of a teacher was to keep order, and unlike today, nearly every teacher was a man.
According to Goldstein, the feminizing of teaching can be traced back to Catharine Beecher, older sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who is not usually remembered as a feminist ally: Since she thought politics corrupting, she was a fervent opponent of women’s suffrage. But she believed that women had the capacity and desire for serious work, and could play a role in society beyond marriage and childbearing. When Catharine was 21, she lost her fiancé—a Yale math professor—in a shipwreck. She surrounded herself with his books and papers and embarked on a course of commemorative self-education. This led her, by the early 1830s, to the conviction that women should be educated in ideas, not just virtue and needlework, and that they should be allowed to teach. At around the same time, stories began to circulate that painted male teachers as brutal, sadistic, and often drunk. These stories, based on isolated reports and rumors, nevertheless went viral, in a 19th-century sort of way—traveling far and connecting up so that they seemed to express a universal truth that men were bad teachers. By the beginning of the 1840s, in Massachusetts, there were four times as many female teachers as male. The idea had taken hold that women’s nurturing instincts naturally stretched from the home to the classroom. Furthermore, in her determination to advance women’s professional opportunities, Catharine Beecher made a major practical compromise: She argued that women could be paid less than men, which cemented their appeal to lawmakers and local school boards. The result, as Goldstein puts it, was “masses of low-paid, poorly educated ‘motherteachers,’ prioritizing faith over academic learning.”
But once teaching had been established as a respectable way for women to earn a little money (and perhaps dodge an unwanted marriage), its professional injustice began to turn those women into activists and feminists. Susan B. Anthony began teaching at 18, was the head of girls’ education at a large academy by age 26, and realized she preferred money and independence to marriage and babies. By 1848, pay inequality and the impossibility of rising any higher in her school (her boss was a 19-year-old man) drove her out of teaching and on to Seneca Falls. She made her first public speech at a meeting of the New York State Teachers’ Association in 1853, where she argued that teachers would never be as widely respected as doctors or lawyers as long as those professions were closed to women, and teachers were paid a pittance—arguments that are still being made today.
Anthony’s famous activism was matched over and over again by other women whose first experience of work, public speaking, and something like independence came in a classroom. Goldstein tells the story of Belva Lockwood, widowed as a young woman, who supported herself by teaching and became furious at being paid less than her male counterparts, and went on to earn a law degree, argue in front of the Supreme Court (the first woman to do so), and run twice for president. During the Civil War and Reconstruction, when the question of education for African Americans was fiercely contested, teaching turned women into activists and pioneers. It was both an inevitable career path and a missionary calling for a woman like Charlotte Forten, a wealthy, free-born, educated black woman who during the Civil War traveled south to teach formerly enslaved pupils, from toddlers to grandmothers, how to read and write.
Teachers’ unions, the current target of so much political ire, also owe their existence to women politicized and goaded to action by injustice. The first such union, the Chicago Teachers Federation, was a combative organization founded in 1897 and headed up by the formidable Maggie Haley, a teacher since the age of 16. Its fights sound depressingly familiar—Haley’s first goal was to get her state to close corporate tax loopholes and pursue tax-dodging businesses to fund the schools adequately and stop teachers having to fight for every tiny wage increase. Dubbed the “lady labor slugger,” Haley fought the complacent myth that women in the classroom were mothers or missionaries, led there by duty and therefore obedient to authority. Today, despite the disproportionate ire that they draw from the right, unions protect only seven percent of American workers. The current president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, therefore understands some of the tide of attacks on teachers’ unions as rooted in envy; as she explains to Goldstein, they can look like “islands of privilege” to other unemployed or unprotected workers. But women workers are already underpaid and likely to be juggling part-time, low-status jobs without benefits. Seen from the perspective of the alternatives, unionized public school teaching seems like it should be a coveted, high-status job in this economy.
But those qualifiers—unionized, public school—are major ones, at least since the wholehearted embrace of high-stakes testing by education reformers since the early 1980s, and the more recent embrace of charter schools. Diane Ravitch, the former Bush-administration advocate of No Child Left Behind, has turned her back on the concepts that guided that reform movement, and is now crusading to do something that a few decades ago seemed unthinkable: save public schools from disappearing, sinking in the waves of the charter-school movement that takes public money without any of the accountability of public schools to keep struggling kids enrolled, to answer to voters, or to offer teachers job protections. People like Bill Gates, with deep pockets and big ideas, are fond of explosive reforms that ignore the dull, everyday realities of teaching and social change: that a mythical great teacher can’t inspire a kid out of poverty overnight, and that systemic social problems aren’t as easily disruptable as business gurus want to believe.
There’s a vast mismatch between our lofty goals for public school—lifting children out of poverty, turning them into leaders, teaching them to dream big—and our micro-managing methods—endless tests, evaluations, and paperwork. The teachers Goldstein interviews in classrooms from Newark to Los Angeles are frustrated by the administrative demands on their time and by the disrespect and suspicion with which they’re treated; many of them also wish that there was more time to develop kids’ creativity or challenge them intellectually. The recent emphasis, in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, on tying student test scores to individual teachers, flies in the face of some of the best current research that the best way to help teachers improve is to allow them to collaborate, share ideas and lesson plans, and watch each other teach. It may be an essentialist step too far to suggest that this kind of collaborative approach is one that women would be especially good at. But it’s certainly clear from Goldstein’s book that teachers’ intelligence and experience are routinely dismissed in favor of top-down, radical reform agendas. In the far-from-radical words of Christina Jean, a social studies teacher turned instructional coach, teaching should be a profession that is “challenging and stimulating to adults”—an aim that harkens all the way back to Catharine Beecher’s desire for intellectually stimulating classrooms. Teaching and its current battles are a reminder that the most basic feminist goal, that women will be taken seriously as intelligent adults and trusted to do a good job, is still a long way out of reach.
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