Teaching and "Women's Work": A Comparative Historical and Ideological Analysis

by Michael W. Apple - 1985

The fact that most elementary school teachers are female provides a key to understanding why there are often attempts by state bureaucrats, industry, and academics to control the curricular and teaching practices in classrooms. It also explains why these externally derived controls are often transformed by teachers once they are in their classrooms. (Source: ERIC)

This is an extended and revised version of a paper published in Expressions of Power in Education: Studies of Class, Gender and Race. It appears here with the permission of its editor, Edgar Gumbert. I would especially like to thank Rima D. Apple for her critical comments and assistance in the writing of this article. Additional help was given by Mimi Bloch and Kenneth Zeichner, each of whom provided important material for my arguments here, and by Esteban De La Torre, David Hursh, Dan Liston, and Ann Wilson.

In some of my recent work, I have argued that we cannot completely understand why curricula are built the way they are without understanding at the same time who is doing the teaching. For instance, I noted that it is a structurally significant fact that in the United States one of the most massive attempts at altering curricular and teaching practices in our elementary school classrooms-the federally funded and sponsored attempts in the late 1950s and 1960s to get discipline-centered curricula in schools, such as the new math and new science—had as its target a group of teachers who were predominantly women.1 In so doing, I urged us to examine teaching as a labor process that was articulated with changes over time in the sexual division of labor and patriarchal and class relations. I argued as well that just as the work of other women and men had historically been transformed by the rationalizing logics of capital, so too had the work of teachers.2 Teachers were becoming deskilled.

But it is not just teachers in general who face this. The fact that most elementary-school teachers then and now are women provides us with a key element in understanding why there have often been attempts by state bureaucrats, industry, and (a largely male body of) academics to control the curricular and teaching practices in classrooms. It also provides us with a key element in explaining why so many of these externally defined and controlled curricula are transformed by teachers once they are in their classrooms. In essence, it is at least partly tied to the resistances of a female work force against external incursions into the practices they had evolved over years of labor, “resistances that are quite similar to the history of ways in which other women employees in the state and industry have reacted to past efforts at altering traditional modes of control of their own labor.“3 Since women’s work is so often the target of both rationalization and attempts to gain control over it, such attempts and the resistances to them become quite significant economically and politically, to say nothing of educationally, in schools.

In this article, I would like to inquire into how it came about that women were in the position to be so targeted. Not only here in the United States, but in other countries as well, the control of teaching and curricula had a strong relationship to sexual and class divisions. I shall focus historically here on the United States and England, though the arguments presented are not necessarily limited to these countries.


As one of the very best historians of women’s labor has recently argued, most historical analyses of the rationalization and control of labor have been “preoccupied with artisans or skilled workers” such as weavers, shoemakers, or machinists or with those people who worked in heavy industry such as miners and steelworkers. Almost by definition this is the history of men’s work. Only a relatively few individuals—though luckily this number is growing rapidly— “have considered the implications of rationalization for women workers, despite the steadily growing number of women in the workforce.”4

In brief and very generally, what does the shape of women’s paid work currently look like? Such work is constructed around not one but two kinds of divisions. First, women’s work is related to a vertical division of labor in which women as a group are disadvantaged relative to men in pay and in the conditions under which they labor. Second, such work is involved in the horizontal division of labor where women are concentrated in particular kinds of work.5 Thus, 78 percent of all clerical workers, 67 percent of service workers, 64 percent of teachers (the percentage is much higher in the elementary school), and so on are women in the United States. Less than 20 percent of all administrative, executive, or managerial workers in the United States, and up to a decade ago less than 10 percent in England, are women.6

The connections between these two divisions, however, are quite striking. Low-wage, competitive-sector employment contains a large share of women in both countries. In England, 41 percent of jobs women hold are part time, thereby guaranteeing lower wages and benefits and less control, but also documenting the linkages between patriarchal relations in the home (it is the woman’s place to work only part time and take care of children) and the kinds of work made available in the wage labor market.7

We can get an even better idea of the concentration of women in certain occupations in the following data. As of 1979, in England, two-thirds of all women engaged in paid work were found in three occupational groups. Over 31 percent were working in clerical and related jobs; 22 percent worked in personal service occupations; and approximately 12 percent were employed in “professional” and related occupations in health and welfare. Within nearly all occupations, however, “women were over-represented in the less-skilled, lower status or lower-paid jobs, while men were over-represented in the highly-skilled and managerial jobs.“8

The figures are similar in the United States. Clerical work constitutes 35 percent of women’s paid labor, followed by service work at 21 percent; educators, librarians, and social workers make up 8 percent; retail sales, 6 percent; nurses and health technicians, 5 percent; and clothing and textile workers 4 percent.9 Michele Barrett and others have pointed to the close correspondence between the kinds of paid work women tend to do and the division of labor in the family. Service work, the “caring professions,” domestic service, clothing, human needs, and so forth, all remain part of this relationship between work inside and outside the home.10 As I shall document in the next section, this relationship has a long history in education.

While these statistics are important in and of themselves, what they do not reveal is the working conditions and class dynamics involved. Historically, women’s jobs have been much more apt to be “proletarianized” than men’s. There have been constant pressures to rationalize them. This is brought home by the fact that in our economy there has been a major expansion in positions with little autonomy or control, while the number of jobs with high levels of autonomy has declined. These proletarianized positions are largely filled by women.11 Evidence of this is given by the fact that the majority of working-class positions (54 percent) in the United States are held by women, a figure that is increasing.12 These figures actually speak to a complicated and dialectical process. As the labor market changes over time, the decrease in jobs with autonomy is related closely to changes in the sexual division of labor. Women will tend to fill the jobs with less autonomy. Just as importantly, as jobs—autonomous or not—are filled by women, there are greater attempts to control both the content of the job and how it is done from the outside. Thus, the separation of conception from execution and what has been called the deskilling and depowering of jobs have been a particularly powerful set of forces affecting women’s labor. (The current transformation of clerical work by word processing technologies, with its attendant loss of office jobs and mechanization of those jobs that remain, offers a good example here.13)

These points have important implications for the analysis I am presenting. The sex-typing of a job is not likely to change unless the job itself undergoes substantial alteration. Either the surrounding labor market changes or the tasks of the job itself are restructured.14 But sex-typing when it has occurred has had a distinct impact on conflicts in the work place and on negotiations over such things as the definition of jobs, pay level, and determining whether a job is considered skilled.15

In general, there seems to be a relatively strong relationship between the entry of large numbers of women into an occupation and the slow transformation of the job. Pay is often lowered and it is regarded as low skilled so that control is “needed” from the outside. Added to this is the fact that “those occupations which became defined as female were expanding at a time when the skills needed to do them were [seen as being] commonly held or easily learned and when there was a particularly high demand for labour, or an especially large pool of women seeking work.“16

Of course, sometimes the very tasks associated with a job reinforce such sex-typing. Since teaching, for instance, does have a service and nurturing component to it, this reconstitutes in action its definition as women’s work. And given “our” association of service and nurturing activity as less skilled and less valued than other labor, we revivify patriarchal hierarchies and the horizontal and vertical divisions of labor in the process.17 In many ways, the very perception of an activity is often saturated with sexual bias. Women’s work is considered somehow inferior or of less status simply due to the fact that it is women who do it.18 Because of these conditions, it has been exceptionally difficult for women to establish recognition of the skills required in their paid and unpaid work.19 They must fight not only the ideological construction of women’s work, but also the tendencies for the job to become something different and for its patterns of autonomy and control to change.

In this presentation of data to show the progression of teaching from being largely men’s work to that of women, we shall want to pay close attention to how teaching may have changed and to the economic and gender conditions surrounding this. In essence, we may not be describing quite the same occupation after elementary-school teaching becomes women’s work. For jobs are transformed, often in significant ways, over time. A good example is clerical work. This too changed from being a masculine occupation in the nineteenth century to being a largely female one in the twentieth. Yet the labor process of clerical work was radically altered during this period. It was deskilled, came under tighter conditions of control, lost many of its paths to upward mobility to managerial positions, and lost wages during the end of the nineteenth century both in the United States and England as it became “feminized.”20 Given this, it is imperative that we ask whether the job of teaching following what has unfortunately been called the feminization of teaching is actually the same job it was when held by men. I will claim that in fact, in some rather substantive economic and ideological aspects, it is not. This transformation is linked in complex ways to alterations in patriarchal and economic relations that were restructuring the larger society.


What has been called the feminization of teaching is clearly seen in data from England. In 1870, before the rapid growth of mass elementary education, men teachers slightly outnumbered women. For every 100 men employed as teachers there were 99 women. This, however, is the last time men had a numerical superiority. Just ten years later, in 1880, for every 100 males there were 156 women. This ratio rose to 207 to 100 in 1890 and to 287 in 1900. By 1910, women outnumbered men by over three to one; by 1930, the figure had grown to closer to four to one.21

Yet these figures would be deceptive if they were not linked to changes in the actual numbers of teachers being employed. Teaching became a symbol of upward mobility for many women and as elementary schooling increased so did the numbers of women employed in it, points I shall go into further later on. Thus, in 1870 there were only 14,000 teachers in England, of which more were men than women. By the year 1930, 157,061 teachers worked in state supported schools in England and Wales. Close to 120,000 of these were women.22 The definition of teaching as a female enclave is given further substantiation by the fact that these numbers signify something quite graphic. While the 40,000 men employed as teachers around 1930 constitute less than 3 percent of the occupied male workers, the 120,000 women teachers account for nearly 20 percent of all women working for pay outside the home23 (see Table 1).

If we compare percentages of male to female teachers in the United States to those of England for approximately the same time period, similar patterns emerge. While there was clear regional variation, in typical areas in 1840, only 39 percent of teachers were women. By 1850, this had risen to 46 percent.24 The increase later on is somewhat more rapid than that in the English experience. The year 1870 finds women holding approximately 60 percent of the public elementary-school teaching positions. This figure moves up to 71 percent by 1900. It reaches a peak of fully 89 percent in 1920 and then stabilizes within a few percentage points over the following years (see Table 2).

Given the historical connection between elementary-school teaching and the ideologies surrounding domesticity and the definition of “women’s proper place,” in which teaching was defined as an extension of the productive and reproductive labor women engaged in at home,25 we should not be surprised by the fact that such changes occurred in the gendered composition of the teaching force. While there are clear connections between patriarchal ideologies and the shift to teaching’s being seen as “women’s work,” the issue is not totally explained in this way. Local political economies played a large part here. The shift to nonagricultural employment in male patterns of work is part of the story as well. Just as important is the relationship between the growth of compulsory schooling and women’s labor. As we shall see, the costs associated with compulsory schooling to local school districts were often quite high. One way to control such rising costs was to change hiring practices.26 One simply hired cheaper teachers—women. Let us examine both of these dynamics in somewhat more detail. In the process, we shall see how class and gender interacted within the limits set by the economic needs of our social formation.



Some simple and well-known economic facts need to be called to mind at the outset. In the United Kingdom, although women teachers outnumbered their male colleagues, the salaries they were paid were significantly lower. In fact, from 1855 to 1935, there was a remarkably consistent pattern. Women were paid approximately two-thirds of what their male counterparts received.27 Bergen claims, in fact, that one of the major contributing factors in the schools’ increased hiring of women was that they would be paid less.28

In the United States, the salary differential was often even more striking. With the rapid growth of schooling stimulated by large rates of immigration as well as by struggles by a number of groups to win free compulsory education, school committees increased their rate of hiring women, but at salaries that were originally one-half to one-third as much as those given to men.29 But how did it come that there were positions to be filled in the first place? What happened to the people who had been there?

Elementary-school teaching became a women’s occupation in part because men left it. For many men, the “opportunity cost” was too great to stay in teaching. Many male teachers taught part time (e.g., between harvests) or as a stepping-stone to more lucrative or prestigious jobs. Yet with the growth of the middle class in the United States, with the formalization of schools and curricula in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and with the enlarged credentialing and certification requirements for teaching that emerged at this time, men began to look elsewhere.

Strober summarizes these points nicely.

All of these changes tended to make teaching less attractive to men. When teaching was a relatively casual occupation that could be engaged in for fairly short periods of time, it was attractive to men in a variety of circumstances. A farmer could easily combine teaching in the winter with caring for his farm during the rest of the year. A potential minister, politician, shopkeeper or lawyer could teach for a short period of time in order to gain visibility within a community. However, once standards rose for teacher certification and school terms were lengthened and combined into a continuous year, men began to drop out of teaching. In urban areas, where teaching was first formalized, and then, later, in rural areas, most men found the opportunity cost of teaching was simply too great, especially since although annual salaries were higher once standards were raised and the school term lengthened, the average teaching salary remained inadequate to support a family. Men also disliked losing their former classroom autonomy. And at the same time attractive job opportunities were developing for men in business and in other professions.30

Thus, patriarchal familial forms in concert with changes in the social division of labor of capitalism combine here to create some of the conditions out of which a market for a particular kind of teacher emerges.

Faced with these “market conditions,” school boards turned increasingly to women. Partly this was a result of successful struggle by women. More and more women were winning the battle over access to both education and employment outside the home. Yet partly it is the result of capitalism as well. Women were continuing to be recruited to the factories and mills (often, by the way, because they would sometimes be accompanied by children who could also work for incredibly low wages in the mills31). Given the exploitation that existed in the factories and the drudgery of paid and unpaid domestic labor, teaching must have seemed a considerably more pleasant occupation to many single women. Finally, contradictory tendencies occurred at an ideological level. While women struggled to open up the labor market and alter patriarchal relations in the home and work place, some of the arguments used for opening up teaching to women did so at the expense of reproducing ideological elements that had been part of the root causes of patriarchal control in the first place. The relationship between teaching and domesticity was highlighted. “Advocates of women as teachers, such as Catherine Beecher, Mary Lyon, Zilpah Grant, Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, argued that not only were women the ideal teachers of young children (because of their patience and nurturant qualities) but that teaching was ideal preparation for motherhood.“32 These same people were not loath to argue something else. Women were “willing to” teach at lower wages than those needed by men.33 When this is coupled with the existing social interests, economic structures, and patriarchal relations that supported the dominance of an ideology of domesticity in the larger society, we can begin to get a glimpse at the conditions that led to such a situation.

Many men did stay in education, but as Tyack, Strober, and others have demonstrated, those who stayed tended to be found in higher-status and higher-paying jobs. In fact, as school systems became more highly bureaucratized, and with the expansion of management positions that accompanied this in the United States, men were increasingly found in positions of authority. Men stayed in education, but they left the classroom. This lends support to Lanford’s claim that from 1870 to 1970, the greater the formalization of the educational system, the greater the proportion of women teachers.34 It also tends to support my earlier argument that once a set of positions becomes “women’s work,” it is subject to greater pressure for rationalization. Administrative control of teaching, curricula, and so on increases. The job itself becomes different.

Thus, it is not that women had not been found in the teaching ranks before; of course they had. What is significant is the increasing numbers of women at particular levels “in unified, bureaucratic, and public schools” with their graded curricula, larger and more formally organized districts, growing administrative hierarchies,35 and, just as crucially, restructuring of the tasks of teachers themselves.

Such sex segregation was not an unusual occurrence in the urban graded school. At the outset, proponents of these school plans had a specific labor force and labor process in mind. “Hiring, promotion and salary schedules were routinized.“36 Rather than leaving it up to teachers, the curriculum was standardized along grade level lines, with both teachers and students divided into these grades. New managerial positions were created—the superintendent and the nonteaching principal, for instance—thereby removing responsibility for managerial concerns from the classroom. Again, women’s supposed nurturing capabilities and “natural” empathic qualities, and the relatively low salaries for which they could be hired, made them ideally suited for teaching in such schools. Even concerns about women teachers’ ability to discipline older students could be solved by having the principal or superintendent handle such issues.37

This sexual division of labor within the school had other impacts. It enhanced the ability of urban school boards to maintain bureaucratic control of their employees and over curriculum and teaching practices. The authors of a recent historical analysis of the relationship between gender division and control demonstrate this rather well. As they argue:

By structuring jobs to take advantage of sex role stereotypes about women’s responsiveness to rules and male authority, and men’s presumed ability to manage women, urban school boards were able to enhance their ability to control curricula, students and personnel. Male managers in nineteenth-century urban schools regulated the core activities of instruction through standardized promotional examinations on the content of the prescribed curriculum and strict supervision to ensure that teachers were following mandated techniques. Rules were highly prescriptive. Normal classes in the high schools of the cities prepared young women to teach in a specified manner; pictures of the normal students in Washington, D.C., for example, show women students performing precisely the same activities prescribed for their future pupils, even to the mid-morning “yawning and stretching” session. Given this purpose of tight control, women were ideal employees. With few alternative occupations and accustomed to patriarchal authority they mostly did what their male superiors ordered. [This, by the way, is questionable.] Difference of gender, provided an important form of social control.38

Given these ideological conditions and these unequal relations of control, why would women ever enter such labor? Was it the stereotypical response that teaching was a temporary way station on the road to marriage for women who loved children? While this may have been partly accurate, it is certainly overstated.

In her collection of teachers’ writings from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Nancy Hoffman makes the point that most women did not enter teaching with a preoccupation with a love of children or with marital plans in mind. Rather, they entered teaching in large part because they needed work. The teachers’ comments document the following:

Women had only a few choices of occupation; and compared with most—laundering, sewing, cleaning, or working in a factory—teaching offered numerous attractions. It was genteel, paid reasonably well, and required little special skill or equipment. In the second half of the century and beyond, it also allowed a woman to travel, to live independently or in the company of other women, and to attain economic security and a modest social status. The issue of marriage, so charged with significance among male educators, emerges in stories of schoolmarms pressured reluctantly into marriage by a family fearful of having an “old maid” on their hands, rather than in teachers’ accounts of their own eagerness or anxiety over marriage. There are also explicit statements, in these accounts, of teachers choosing work and independence over a married life that appeared, to them, to signify domestic servitude or social uselessness. Finally, the accounts of some women tell us that they chose teaching not because they wanted to teach children conventional right from wrong, but in order to foster social, political, or spiritual change: they wanted to persuade the young, move them to collective action for temperance, for racial equality, for conversion to Christianity. What these writings tell us, then, is that from the woman teacher’s perspective, the continuity between mothering and teaching was far less significant than a paycheck and the challenge and satisfaction of work.39

While many teachers in the United States and undoubtedly in the United Kingdom approached their jobs with a sense that did not necessarily mirror the stereotypes of nurturance and preparation for marriage, this did not stop such stereotypes from creating problems. The increase in women teachers did not occur without challenge. Conservative critics expressed concern over the negative effects women teachers might have on their male pupils. Such concerns increased as the proportion of students going on to secondary schools rose. “While recognizing the beneficial effects on primary-level pupils, the continuation of the female teacher-male student relation into higher grades was viewed as potentially harmful.“40 (The longer tradition of single-sex schools in England partially mediated these pressures there.) That this is not simply a historical dynamic is evident from the fact that even today the proportion of male teachers is considerably higher in high schools than in elementary schools.


The general picture I have painted so far has treated the constitution of teaching as primarily a part of the sexual division of labor over time. While this is crucially important, we need to remember that gender was not the only dynamic at work. Class played a major part—especially in England, but most certainly in the United States as well.41 Class dynamics operated at the level of who became teachers and what their experiences were.

It was not until the end of the nineteenth century and the outset of the twentieth that middle-class girls began to be recruited into teaching in England. In fact, only after 1914 do we see any large influx of middle-class girls entering state-supported elementary-school teaching.42

Class distinctions were very visible. While the concept of femininity idealized for middle-class women centered around an image of the “perfect wife and mother,” the middle-class view of working-class women often entailed a different sense of femininity. The waged labor of working-class women “tarnished” them (though there is some evidence of between-class feminist solidarity). Such waged labor was a departure from bourgeois ideals of domesticity and economic dependence. With the emergence of changes in such bourgeois ideals toward the end of the nineteenth century, middle-class women themselves began to “widen their sphere of action and participate in some of the various economic and social changes that accompanied industrialization,“43 and thereby to participate also in the restructuring of capitalism and the division of labor. Struggles over legal and political rights, over employment and education, became of considerable import. Yet because of a tension between the ideals of domesticity and femininity on the one hand and the struggle to enlarge the middle-class woman’s economic sphere on the other, particular jobs were seen as appropriate for women. Teaching (and often particular kinds of stenographic and secretarial work) was one of the predominant ones.44 In fact, of the white women who worked outside the home in the United States in the mid to late nineteenth century, fully 20 percent were employed at one time or another as teachers.45

This entrance of women, and especially of middle-class women, into paid teaching created important pressures for improvements in the education of women in both the United States and England.46 Equalization of curricular offerings, the right to enter into traditional male enclaves within universities, and so on, were in no small part related to this phenomenon. Yet we need to remember an important social fact here. Even though women were making gains in education and employment, most middle-class women, for example, still found themselves excluded from the professions and other areas of employment.47 Thus, a dynamic operated that cut both ways. In both being limited to and carving out this area of employment, women “held on to it as one of the few arenas in which they could exert any power, even at the expense of further reinforcing stereotypes about women’s sphere.“48

Having said this, we again should not assume that teachers were recruited primarily from middle-class homes in the United States or England. Often quite the opposite was the case. A number of studies demonstrate that working-class backgrounds were not unusual. In fact, one American study completed in 1911 presents data on the average woman teacher’s economic background. She came from a family in which the father’s income was approximately $800 a year, a figure that places the family among skilled workers or farmers rather than the middle class.49

These class differences had an impact not only on an ideological level, but in terms of education and employment within education as well. Girls of different class backgrounds often attended different schools, even those preparing to become teachers. Furthermore, by the end of the nineteenth century in England, class differences created clear distinctions in patterns of where one might teach. While middle-class women teachers were largely found in private secondary and single-sex schools “which catered especially to middle class girls”50 or as governesses, women teachers from working-class backgrounds were found elsewhere. They dominated positions within state supported elementary schools, schools that were largely working class and mixed sex.51 In many ways these were simply different jobs. These class distinctions can hide something of considerable import: Both groups still had low status.52 To be a woman was still to be involved in a social formation that was defined in large part by the structure of patriarchal relations. But again patriarchal forms were often colonized and mediated by class relations.

For example, what was taught to these aspiring teachers had interesting relationships to the social and sexual divisions of labor. Many working-class “pupil teachers” in England were recruited to work in working-class schools. Much of what they were expected to teach centered around domestic skills, such as sewing and needlework, in addition to reading, spelling, and arithmetic. For those working-class pupil teachers who might ultimately sit for an examination to enter one of the teacher training colleges, gender divisions were most pronounced. In Purvis’s comparison of these entrance tests, the different expectations of what men and women were to know and, hence, teach, are more than a little visible. Both men and women were examined in dictation, penmanship, grammar, composition, school management, history, geography, French, German, Latin, and Welsh. Yet only men were tested in algebra, geometry, Euclid, and Greek. Only women took domestic economy and needlework.

The focus on needlework is a key here in another way, for not only does it signify clear gender dynamics at work but it also points again to class barriers. Unlike the “ornamental sewing” that was more common in middle-class households, these working-class girls were examined on “useful sewing.“53 The dominance of utility, efficiency, and cost saving is once more part of the vision of what working-class girls need.54 As Purvis notes, “it would appear then that female elementary teachers were expected to teach those skills which were linked to that form of femininity deemed appropriate for the working classes.”55

But teaching, especially elementary-school teaching, was not all that well paid. Women teachers earned somewhat more than a factory operative but still only the equivalent of a stenographer’s wages in the United States or England.56 What would its appeal then have been for a working-class girl? In England, with its very visible set of class relations and articulate class culture, we find answers similar to, but—given these more visible class relations—still different from those found in the United States. First, the very method by which girls were first trained in the 1870s to become teachers was a system of apprenticeship, a system that was indigenous to working-class culture. This was especially important since it was evident at the time that female pupil teachers were usually the daughters of laborers, artisans, or small tradesman. Second, and this is very much like the American experience, compared with occupations such as domestic service, work in factories, dressmaking, and so on—among the only jobs realistically open to working-class women—teaching had a number of benefits. It did increase status, especially among working-class girls who showed a degree of academic ability. Working conditions, though still nothing to write home about, were clearly better in many ways. They were relatively clean and, though often extremely difficult given overcrowded conditions in schools, had that same potential for job satisfaction that was evident in the earlier quotation from Hoffman and that was frequently missing in other employment. Just as significantly, since teaching was considered to be on the mental side of the mental/manual division of labor, it gave an opportunity—though a limited one—for a certain amount of social mobility.57

There was a price to pay for this mobility and the promise of improved working conditions that accompanied it. Women elementary-school teachers became less connected to their class origins but at the same time class differences in ideals of femininity kept them from being totally acceptable to the upper classes. This contradictory situation is not an abstraction. The fact that it was lived out is made clear in the frequent references by these teachers to their social isolation.58 Such isolation was of course heightened considerably by other living conditions of teachers. The formal and contractual conditions under which teachers were hired were not the most attractive. Women teachers in the United States, for example, could be fired for getting married, or if married, for being pregnant. There were prohibitions about being seen with men, about clothes, about makeup, about politics, about money, about nearly all of one’s public (and private) life.

It would be wrong to trace all of this to economic motives and class dynamics. For decades married women were prohibited from teaching on both sides of the Atlantic. While single women were often young, and hence were paid less, the notion of morality and purity as powerful symbols of a womanly teaching act undoubtedly played a large part. The very fact of the abovementioned array of controls of women’s physicality, dress, living arrangements, and morals speaks to the import of these concerns. Ideologies of patriarchy, with the teacher being shrouded in a domestic and maternal cloak—possibly combined with a more deep-seated male suspicion of female sexuality—are reproduced here.59 It is this very combination of patriarchal relations and economic pressures that continues to hold sway in teaching even to this day.

Let me give one further example. The larger political economy, in combination with patriarchal ideological forms, shows its power once again whenever the question of married women who work appears historically. By the turn of the century hundreds of thousands of married women had begun to work outside the home. Yet during the Depression, it was very common for married women to be fired or to be denied jobs if they had working husbands. The state played a large role here. In England, government policies and reports gave considerable attention to women’s domestic role.60 In the United States, the National Association of Education reported in 1930 - 1931 that of the 1,500 school systems in the country, 77 percent refused to hire married women teachers. Another 63 percent dismissed any women teacher who got married during the time of her employment. This did not occur only at the elementary and secondary levels. Some universities as well asked their married women faculty to resign. Lest we see this as something that affected only women in teaching, the federal government itself required in 1932 that if a married couple worked for the government, one must be let go. This law was applied almost invariably to women only.61

The very fact that these figures seem so shocking to us now speaks eloquently to the sacrifices made and the struggles that women engaged in for decades to alter these oppressive relations. These struggles have been over the control of one’s labor and over the control of one’s very life. Given the past conditions I have just pointed to, these historically significant struggles have actually brought no small measure of success. It is to these activities that I shall briefly turn in the concluding section.


Women teachers were not passive in the face of the class and gender conditions I described in the previous sections of this article. In fact, one of the major but lesser known stories is the relationship between socialist and feminist activity and the growth of local teachers’ organizations and unions in England and the United States.

Even while they worked internally to alter the frequently awful conditions they faced in urban schools on both sides of the Atlantic—such as crowded, unsanitary buildings; unfavorable teacher/student ratios; and an impersonal bureaucracy that especially in the United States was daily attempting to transform, rationalize, and control their work—a good deal of the unified action teachers took was concerned with their economic well-being. For example, grade-school teachers in Chicago worked long and hard for adequate pensions. Out of this experience, the Chicago Federation of Teachers (CFT), headed by Catherine Goggin and Margaret Haley, was born in 1897. It soon led a successful fight for salary increases and succeeded in organizing more than half of the city’s teachers in less than three years. Still an organization made up primarily of elementary-school teachers, it was quite militant on economic matters. And while the women leaders and rank-and-file teachers were not necessarily as radical as some other leftist unions in cities such as Chicago, they still actively supported women’s issues, municipal ownership of all utilities, popular elections and recalls, and labor solidarity. They did this in the face of middle-class resentment of unions. There was a constant struggle between the school board and the CFT, with the school board voting in 1905 to condemn the teachers for affiliating with the Chicago Federation of Labor. Such an affiliation was, according to the board, “absolutely unjustifiable and intolerable in a school system of a democracy.”62

While these teachers were never totally successful in either their economic demands or organizing plans,63 they did succeed in forcing school boards to take elementary-school teachers—women—seriously as a force to be reckoned with. In the process, they partially challenged the economic and ideological relations surrounding women’s work.

For many others in England and the United States, the conditions under which they labored had a radicalizing effect. Thus, many of the leaders of feminist groups were originally teachers who traced their growing awareness of the importance of the conflict over patriarchal domination to the experience they had as teachers. Their resentment over salary differentials, over interference in their decisions, over the very ways they were so tightly controlled often led in large part to their growing interest in feminist ideas.64

These examples offer us a glimpse of politicized activities. But a large portion of the teachers in London or New York, Birmingham or Chicago, Liverpool or Boston, struggled in “cultural” ways. They developed practices that gave them greater control of the curriculum; they fought to have a much greater say in what they taught, how they were to teach it, and how and by whom their work was to be evaluated. These everyday efforts still go on as teachers continue to defend themselves against external encroachments from the state or from capital.

The history of elementary-school teaching (and curriculum in part) is the history of these political/economic and cultural struggles. It is the history of a gendered work force who, in the face of attempts to restructure their jobs, fought back consciously and unconsciously. Sometimes these very battles reinforced the existing definitions of women’s work. Sometimes, perhaps more so in England, they led to cutting ties to class background. Sometimes they supported class-specific ideals of work and professionalism. Just as often, however, these efforts empowered women by either radicalizing some of them, or by giving them much more say in the actual control of what they taught and how they taught it, or by demonstrating that patriarchal forms could be partially fractured in equalizing both salaries and hiring and firing conditions.

What ultimately shapes how curricula and teaching are controlled at the level of classroom practice is, hence, an ongoing process. It involves a complex interplay among the ideological and material structures of control of gendered labor from bureaucratic management, the forms of resistance and self-organization of teachers, and then employer counterpressures,65 which once again produce a response from teachers. I have shown one moment in this process. As teaching changes from a predominantly male to a predominantly female occupation, the constitution of the job itself changes as well. It entails significantly greater controls over teaching and curriculum at the level of teacher education and in the classroom. It is structured around a different set of class and gender dynamics. Finally, women are active, not passive, figures in attempting to create positions for women as teachers based on their own positions in the social and sexual divisions of labor. These efforts may have had contradictory results, but they were part of a much larger movement—one that is still so necessary today—to challenge aspects of patriarchal relations in both the home and the work place.

Yet, as I have also argued, the transformation of teaching led to the job’s becoming a breeding ground for further struggles. Many women were politicized. Some created unions. Others fought “silently” everyday on their jobs to expand or retain control of teaching and curriculum. In a time when capital and the state are once more searching for ways to rationalize and control the day-to-day work of teachers, these overt and covert efforts from the past are of more than historical interest. For elementary-school teaching is still gendered labor.66 It is not too odd to end by saying that the past is still ahead of us.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 86 Number 3, 1985, p. 455-473
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 940, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 9:20:50 AM

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