Those Good Gertrudes: A Social History of Women Teachers in America

reviewed by Doris A. Santoro - May 01, 2015

coverTitle: Those Good Gertrudes: A Social History of Women Teachers in America
Author(s): Geraldine J. Clifford
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 1421414333, Pages: 496, Year: 2014
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What does teaching do to women, what do women do to teaching, and what do women do with teaching? These plays on Willard Waller’s famous question, “What does teaching do to teachers?” suggest what is offered in Geraldine J. Clifford’s Those Good Gertrudes: A Social History of Women Teachers in America.  Clifford represents women educators as a sundry lot who variously use teaching to support families, their parents, and extended families; come to teaching with a love of children; employ the profession as a springboard to a life of civic engagement; and who hate the work and bridle against the few options open to women with an intellectual spirit. Regardless of their orientation toward teaching, Clifford's representation of the agency, capacities, and desires of these women makes this expansive history a feminist text—not only for its focus on the experiences of women, but for representing them as multi-dimensional subjects.

Those Good Gertrudes offers an encyclopedic research trove for those focused on feminist research, historians of the U.S., and educators broadly. Clifford claims, “If education, particularly the public school, has been America’s only agreed-upon faith, its primary instrument became the woman teacher” (p. 257). While many histories focus on how the U.S. has exercised this faith, Clifford’s project enables insight into this work from the perspective of women who performed it.

In this self-described magnum opus, the archival research represents a lifetime of work and powerfully illuminates the private musings and full-fledged arguments of those engaged in the public life of teaching.  Clifford’s extensive research draws from over 600 collections of personal history documents. Through diaries, memoirs and letters, Clifford gives readers access to teachers’ experiences disciplining students, interacting with parents, and strategizing how to move to higher-paying schools.

Catharine Beecher, whose ideas so often dominate historical accounts of women in teaching, is refreshingly, barely a minor character amidst the well-known and unknown women in Clifford’s expansive social history. Clifford broadens the notion of what should be included in a history of women teachers in the United States. She not only includes women teachers in early versions of American public schools, subscription schools, and the early common schools, but covers women in religious orders who taught, women who served as missionaries abroad and within the United States, women who educated the children of military families in Department of Defense Schools, and women who served as agents of the U.S. government in newly-annexed former Spanish colonies.

Clifford weaves a textured backdrop for each period in which she discusses the work of teaching, covering the earliest settlement of the United States by Anglos to approximately 2005 (although the chapters are uneven in their treatment of the near present). This backdrop provides necessary context to understand shifts in teaching demographics. For instance, Clifford explains that Ireland’s Great Hunger led to many young Irish women arriving in the U.S. on their own. This gendered immigration pattern facilitated Irish-American women’s education and eventual professionalization in the U.S. due to both the burden of family (teaching to earn income to send home) and independence of family (being free to stay in school longer in order to gain necessary teaching credentials). Whenever possible, Clifford demonstrates how the “rhetoric of a ‘woman’s place’ must be seen for the possibilities it offers as well as for the restraints it imposes” (p. 315).

Teaching holds a tenuous significance for many feminists. It is a social location from which teachers may enact agendas for social change and a “proper place” from which to uphold norms of femininity and notions of women’s essential or natural capacity for care. Clifford sustains this tension throughout her book, although I would have benefitted from more of her insightful commentary that appears too sporadically throughout the text. For instance, through their work from America’s colonial past to the present, women teachers were early advocates and models for the education of women domestically and abroad. Teaching in normal schools and then in teachers colleges provided some of the earliest entrees into college and university teaching for women. Women paid for their college educations, including medical schools, by teaching. Likewise, teaching gave women who were not wealthy nor married the opportunity to travel throughout the U.S. and internationally. By the same token, women railed against a life being stuck in a schoolroom with children, especially when their intellectual ambitions lay elsewhere.

Women teachers’ longstanding record of activism for school-related matters and for broader social concerns was of particular interest to me. In conducting my own research with teachers, I have wondered why so many describe themselves (and their colleagues) as unwilling to “rock the boat” and suggest that teachers by and large are “rule followers.” Of course there is nothing new to the gendered expectation to be a “good girl” and follow the rules set disproportionately by men in government and school administration at all levels; however, Clifford’s history shows that the widespread attitude of accommodation rather than agitation is one that may be fairly recent.

Clifford shows that plenty of teachers have been fighting for the rights of women, the betterment of society or improved wages since the time of the earliest subscription schools. White teachers circulated petitions in communities to accept black and Hispanic teachers. Leaders in the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, the Niagara Movement (the predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and the National American Woman Suffrage Association had a background in teaching. While women’s speaking engagements in public on behalf of causes such as abolition, temperance, and the right to vote met resistance by those who felt that they transgressed gender norms, the evidence does not show that they were rebuked for speaking out as teachers.

While Clifford’s history highlights the alliances that were forged between women of various ethnicities, races, classes, and religions through teaching, there is a curious silence about a significant chapter in more recent history. Although Clifford notes that approximately 39,000 black teachers and principals lost their jobs in the school desegregation efforts that followed Brown, the discussion appears, almost as an afterthought, in the conclusion to the book. Clifford provides extensive primary source examples throughout The Good Gertrudes of teachers’ reflections on the significance of their employment to their livelihood and self-worth and their relationships to their communities in the role of teacher. It reads as a glaring omission that Clifford includes few to no voices of teachers, black or white, who lived through this upheaval. By Clifford’s own account, teaching moved many black women and their families into the middle class. Including reactions of the many black women whose loss of employment and social status were affected could have corrected a too-simple story told about the victory of Brown and given voice to those whose experiences deserve to be recognized.

Finally, the “Gertrudes” conceit that provides the title for this social history runs through the text inconsistently and, at times, contradicts the purpose of offering a window into the diverse lives of women who taught. Clifford occasionally lapses into normative phrases such as “spoken like a true Gertrude” that flatten the complex and substantial history that this important work provides.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 01, 2015 ID Number: 17950, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 8:33:59 AM

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