Teaching as a Gendered Experience

By Griffin, Glenda | Journal of Teacher Education, January-February 1997 | Go to article overview

Teaching as a Gendered Experience


Griffin, Glenda, Journal of Teacher Education


In this article, I explore teaching as a gendered experience. I first reflect on the history of teaching and the circumstances surrounding the entry of females into teaching; I then discuss the gendered experience--the absence of voice, choice of teaching as a career, lack of autonomy and control, low status and salary, blurring of boundaries of home and school, teacher isolation, evaluation, and career advancement. Finally, I suggest some ideas for female teacher empowerment.

An Historical Look

The feminization of teaching in America began during the Industrial Era, from the late 1700s until about 1860. Grumet (1988) describes the Industrial Era as a time when capital and I labor shifted from agriculture to industry. Wages of skilled laborers and managerial employees increased more rapidly than those of unskilled workers. A highly differentiated, sharper class system began to emerge. The common school emerged, a school favoring culture homogenization and creating the work ethos to equip children to compete for the new wealth of the industrial society (Grumet, 1988). Men left homes--no longer centers of economic productivity--to go to places of work; children left homes to attend common schools where they learned the rules, laws, language, and the order of their fathers, the principal, and the employer.

Some women sought employment in the common schools. Underpaid, unmarried, and ill-prepared for the chaos and harsh discipline of urban schools and the isolation of rural schools, young women sought those jobs. Teaching welcomed women at this time. Society expected them to work without complaint for little pay while teaching, disciplining, supervising lunches, bandaging cuts, and being constantly on duty. Tyack and Hansot (1990) indicate that as far back as colonial times, teaching welcomed women because they accepted less pay than men. Norton (1926) reports that in the 1820s, male teachers' average salary was $15.44 per month (including board); female teachers' was $5.38. Walsh (1995) notes: They were a captive labor force, politically powerless, without opportunities for work in other fields, without suffrage, without even the right to own property (p. 48).

Women were not prepared for the patriarchal systems of the schools. The nurturing aspect of mothering was separate from the business of teaching. Both the historical traditions of schooling and the traditions of ethical discourse have despised the family, defining the standards for public conduct and the political action in terms explicitly designed to oppose the relations, expectations, promise, and constraints of intimacy (Grumet, 1988, p. 168).

Control was key to teachers' survival; principals expected teachers to control students and accept control by superiors. In 1867, visitors to Boston's Emerson School noted its exemplary order: Every pupil appears to be in anxious waiting for the word of the teacher, and when issued it is promptly obeyed by the class. The movements and utterances of the class are as nearly simultaneous and similar as they can be (Tyack, 1974, p. 54).

Women teachers during this time were encouraged to exhibit passivity and self-abnegation. Bennett (1971) quotes from the 1795 Strictures on Female Education, which noted: Their virtues, exercised in solitude and springing purely from the heart, make no noise, and court no observation. Lavished chiefly on their children and their friends, they blaze not on the world, nor are they thought of dignity or consequence enough to embellish the recording page... Many are the statesmen they have raised by their secret magic, into fame; and whenever they are tempted to repine at the appearance of weakness and inferiority it becomes them to remember that their greatest strength lies in their `weakness,' their commands in their tears (pp. 99-100).

Many teachers did not work well under these conditions and fled teaching. A few operated well in this rigid, ordered, objective world; some had gone into teaching to escape the closed, physical, limited lives of herded domesticity (Lawrence, 1915). …

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