Fit to Teach: Same-Sex Desire, Gender, and School Work in the Twentieth Century

reviewed by Susan Birden - 2006

coverTitle: Fit to Teach: Same-Sex Desire, Gender, and School Work in the Twentieth Century
Author(s): Jackie M. Blount
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791462676, Pages: 229, Year: 2005
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Jackie M. Blount’s Fit to Teach:  Same-Sex Desire, Gender, and School Work in the Twentieth Century is a well-researched account of the contributions and struggles of some of the women and men in this country who have founded schools, inspired students, administered districts, and sustained institutions of promise.  Among those women and men were those who desired others of the same-sex or otherwise transgressed traditional gender bounds.  Blount follows the twentieth century policy debates among school officials, psychologists, and an array of others who wielded the wedge issues of gender and sexual orientation in discussions about who should serve as teachers and administrators for our nation’s children, who is “fit” to teach.  

The text explores the numerous instances in which the theoretical stances of school districts and their actual employment practices have led to philosophically incoherent positions:  schools have both nurtured and sought to contain transgressions of gender and sexual orientation.  Early in the twentieth century, for example, schools preferred to hire married men, considering bachelors to be suspicious characters, either lacking manliness or prone to womanizing.  In practice, however, because few male teachers were available, districts hired nearly any minimally qualified man, even those perceived by their local communities to be effete.  

Hiring practices regarding female teachers were equally inconsistent.  Believing that women could be loyal to only one male presence in their lives—husband or male administrator—most districts required female teachers to resign when they married.  Thus, teaching became a single woman’s profession.  In urban centers female teachers often formed communities in boarding houses and apartment buildings.  Districts in which recruitment was problematic built “teacherages,” housing units for female teachers, a relatively inexpensive alternative to providing individual quarters.  These close living arrangements, coupled with shared interests, promoted many separatist cultural centers in which many women formed long-term companionate and/or romantic relationships.  They were a radical departure from the tradition in which middle-class women structured their lives around men.  Yet, their unorthodox sexualities, gender behaviors, and life style—and school districts’ role in promoting them—effectively escaped notice until organized groups of these teachers were perceived to have transgressed their gender appropriate boundaries by entering the public arena to work for social reform.   

Blount also demonstrates the effectiveness with which hotly-contested policy disputes have utilized the gendered needs of students to fuel their rhetoric.  For instance, in 1911 female teachers in New York City were campaigning for equal wages.  The male teachers offered many arguments supporting men’s higher wages including their masculine needs as heads of household and the district’s difficulties in recruiting male teachers.  None of these arguments had any substantial effect until a headline from the New York Times unexpectedly aided their efforts:  “Appeal for Men Teachers—Boys Too Effeminate, Say Principals, When They Haven’t Male Instructors” (p. 12).  The article continued by claiming that a greater male presence in schools would ensure that children develop proper gender qualities.  This tactical shift—rationalizing a group’s position by appealing to the gendered needs of students—swayed public sentiment.  Even though the female teachers in New York City eventually did prevail in their struggle for equal pay, the maneuver of couching policy debates in terms of students’ needs for developing “normal” gendered behaviors established an important precedent.  

By mid-century teams of scientific experts claimed that indulgent mothering and effeminate fathering caused homosexuality.  With proper parenting and attention from teachers, many psychologists argued, homosexuality could be prevented or cured.  These ideas, conflated with the popularization of the work of sexologists, the backlash from the McCarthy Era, and the publication of the Kinsey Reports, effectively converted the image of unmarried women teachers from virtuous individuals who sacrificed family to teach, to that of menacing deviants who should be barred from the classroom.  Married women, heretofore largely denied the opportunity to teach, were seen as a likely solution to the development of appropriate gendered behaviors.  School employees increasingly needed to demonstrate their gender conformity and to appear to be as heterosexual as possible.  

By the late 1960s, against the backdrop of the civil rights movements and the sexual liberation movement, some self-described lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons began rejecting these constraints.  Instead of resigning quietly, some teachers who were dismissed on account of their sexual orientation persuaded the American Civil Liberties Union to join their fight for reinstatement.  Their legal battles stretched over years and most of these litigants were never able to regain their teaching positions.  However, their cases reached headlines and activists began to appreciate deeply the importance of organizing for employment rights.

When the gay liberation movement began to campaign for equal employment protections, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in Florida and the Briggs Initiative in California found the great vulnerability of the movement: lesbian and gay adult teachers in schools and their supposed “recruitment” among children (p. 132).  Bryant and Briggs argued that gay and lesbian teachers not only encouraged more homosexuality by providing unacceptable role models but also could easily sexually molest children.  The Briggs Initiative was defeated, but Bryant’s success in Florida was repeated in numerous locations across the country.  At the end of the 1980s the overwhelming number of LGBT teachers went to their schools every day fearing that their sexual orientation would result in loss of employment.

A shift occurred in 1991 when the report of the Secretary of Health’s Task Force on Youth Suicide revealed that LGBT teens accounted for one-third of all successful youth suicide attempts.  Finally, gay and lesbian educators were able to utilize the same sort of tactics that had been employed against them.  They argued that the gendered needs of gay and lesbian students demanded positive role models if they were to develop into well-adjusted adults.  The broadened focus to include students’ needs helped LGBT teachers cultivate much greater public support for their employment protections.  

As the twenty-first century opens, LGBT school workers continue to face resistance and job insecurity.  Despite important legal and political victories, few LGBT teachers believe they are free of workplace discrimination.  Further, even in the face of abundant and careful research to the contrary, a large portion of the general population still believes that LGBT teachers either wish to molest youth or that they will damage students’ "normal" sexual and gender development. Nonetheless, on a daily basis vast numbers of LGBT school workers, most of whom remain quiet about this central feature of their lives, serve as committed, skilled, and inspirational representatives of their profession.  These individuals follow in a rich legacy of contributions to the welfare of students and this nation’s schools.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 126-128 ID Number: 11883, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 3:17:37 AM

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