Friday, January 3, 2014

Books Worth Reading: "Woman's 'True' Profession"

In America, teaching is predominantly a job for white females.

It's also a relatively low-paying job, even compared to other countries.

I recently picked up "Woman's 'True' Profession" in hopes of understanding a bit more about how we got here. Already it's fascinating. 

Back in the day teachers were mostly men:
The teacher of the village school was usually a man, as were the teachers in urban areas. A student of the ministry or at college to learn a profession, he taught not for love but to earn money during his long winter vacation. Farther from the city, the teacher was often a college dropout or a fellow with some handicap that ill-suited him for farm life.
Wondering where "Those who can't do, teach" comes from?
Said one forthright commentator looking back in 1890, teaching was a "half-house for those bound for the learned professions, and a hospital for the weak-minded of those who have already entered them."
But all this changed with the creation of our modern school system and industrialization:
In Massachusetts where feminization happened earliest, between 1830 and 1880 a quarter of all native-born women who worked outside of the home were at one time teachers. Their tenure was on average two years.
There are a whole complex tangle of causes for this movement that are identified by scholarship, but I'm still getting the hang of them all. One thing that's especially cool is that in the 19th century everyone was saying that teachers ought to be women, because of their motherly habits.
Catherine Beecher, the early and eloquent spokesperson for woman's profession, used the doctrine of separate spheres to do 'ideological work.' [...] Women were more suited than men to the work of human development, she argued, because they were more "benevolent" more willing to "make sacrifices of personal enjoyment."
We're pretty much stuck with these two images these days. Teachers are still either seen as hapless men or as caring and supportive surrogate parents.

It's starting to seem to me that gender is a helpful lens for understanding the current education reform movement, but all of that's for another day. I'll be sure to share more cool stuff as it comes along in my reading.


  1. Michael

    Interesting timing on this post. Just this past week I was in a discussion about the lack of male role models in early education. My 10 year old son is in an elementary school where the only males he encounters are the PE coach, a teaching assistant, and an administrator. He's got fantastic adults all around, but I can't help but feel that it would be beneficial for him to have more men around.

    1. I suppose that my elementary school (K-5, around 450 students) is an exception. We have several male teachers, including me (a math specialist), a 4th grade and a 5th grade teacher, 2 PE teachers, and an art teacher, and, up until last year, a special ed teacher. And the principal is also a male.
      Several years ago I was driving to work and passed a local elementary school where the teachers were outside demonstrating as part of a job action. I'm sure there must have been at least a few men in the crowd, but it looked like all women. It struck me for the first time; I've always known I've worked in a female dominated profession but this made me think if some of the animosity that is directed against the profession might have a misogynistic element to it.

    2. Principal being male is fairly normal, I think. At the very least, historically it's been the norm.

      And while it's immensely difficult to solve this particular chicken/egg problem, it seems likely that misogyny plays its part.