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Education and Women's Work: Female Schooling and the Division of Labor in Urban America

reviewed by Kate Rousmaniere - 1993

coverTitle: Education and Women's Work: Female Schooling and the Division of Labor in Urban America
Author(s): John L. Rury
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791406172, Pages: , Year: 1991
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John Rury's Education and Women's Work is a historical study of the reciprocal relationship between women's education and women's work. Guiding the narrative is the thesis that the development of women's secondary schooling at the turn of the century was shaped by economic demands, not social interests or moral priorities. By the early twentieth century, Rury argues, the nature and extent of women's educational opportunity was determined by local labor market conditions. As schools prepared their students for their future role in the economy, the demands of the labor market drove schools to reflect the economy's gender and class divisions. Thus, even in a period marked by the unprecedented expansion of women's education and employment, economic realities limited the educational opportunities of working-class women, and defined the employment opportunities for middle-class women. What Rury identifies as a "curious dialectic of opportunity and constraint" (p. 3) marked the expansion of public secondary schools for women.

The political economy of schooling defined women's educational opportunity as the American public secondary school expanded in the post-Civil War period. Because late-nineteenth-century high school education for girls was not linked to employment prospects, female high school students in the years after the Civil War enjoyed education for education's sake. In one of the few moments of true gender equality in American public schooling, nineteenth-century middle-class girls studied academic subjects next to their brothers, and enjoyed the supervised social life of the early coeducational public high school. For working- class women, however, the lack of a connection between high school education and work had an adverse effect on their educational prospects. Economic demands determined the extent to which working-class parents could afford to give up their daughters' current earnings for an education that provided no vocational advancement. Rury argues that even though high schools became feminized in this period, it was class and ethnicity, and not gender, that critically defined the nineteenth-century high school.

By the turn of the century, the expansion of white-collar work for women changed the role of secondary schools and solidified ethnic and class divisions within the world of women's work. Responding to demands that the public school educate students for lives of social and economic productivity, high schools promised to prepare middle-class women for jobs in the new white-collar fields of clerical, commercial, and professional work. Employers in these feminized white-collar jobs used the requirement of a high school diploma to assure a minimum of literacy and cultural attributes, and effectively to screen out ethnic and working-class applicants. Schools thus played a major role in creating a dual career market for women: Schooling was required for white-collar jobs, but access to schooling was determined by class and ethnicity.

For those middle-class women attending high school after the turn of the century, the school curriculum was determined by the demands of a limited labor market for women. Sex-typed work demanded sex-typed educational preparation. The development of home economics, commercial, and industrial education institutionalized sexual differentiation within coeducational high schools and narrowed the educational experiences and employment potential of high school women. Thus, even as the employment opportunities available to women opened up in the early twentieth century, secondary schools presented certain constraining factors to channel women into feminized work. Ironically, notes Rury, the end to gender equity in secondary schooling was caused not by moral or psychological campaigns about gender behavior, but by educators' attempt to link educational programs with future social roles. As schools developed increasingly closer associations with the labor market, they reflected class and gender biases within the economy.

Rury's study of the pas de deux between women's education and women's work shows how curriculum that is driven by the labor market can forfeit the promise of equal opportunity. The case that Rury presents has a twisted irony for the history of middle-class women who received fair treatment in school only when their employment opportunity after school was restricted. Once middle-class women were seen as economically productive, their education was limited to job training for feminized occupations. For working-class women, the tale is even more bitter: The education that was denied to them effectively boosted their middle-class sisters into jobs that were inaccessible to the working class. One of the tragic results of the way in which women's secondary education expanded was that it reproduced, and perhaps even aggravated, class lines within the female labor force.

Rury bases his argument on a thickly textured interpretation of a wide variety of sources, including surveys of enrollment and employment patterns, regional studies, census data of the ages and family position of female students and workers, and other statistical data drawn from contemporary and historical sources. He also draws on qualitative data, including student and teacher diaries, to interpret why young women in the late nineteenth century chose to attend school if not for vocational purposes. The wealth of Rury's sources often begs for a broader study of school experience than his persistent focus on employment allows, but this study is clearly an analysis of the political economy of secondary schooling for women, and not a social history of girls' education. Therein lie both its limitations and its great significance.The charting of a direct link between women's education and women's work is an important contribution to current and historical studies of curriculum development and vocational education, as well as women's educational and labor history.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 4, 1993, p. 853-855
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 211, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:39:39 PM

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