The Social Networks of Rebecca Pennell: An Early Woman College Professor to Have Equal Pay with Her Male Colleagues

By Kolodny, Kelly Ann | Vitae Scholasticae, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Social Networks of Rebecca Pennell: An Early Woman College Professor to Have Equal Pay with Her Male Colleagues

Kolodny, Kelly Ann, Vitae Scholasticae

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were a time of great change in terms of the evolving social, economic, and governmental structures in the United States. Two major wars occurred, the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The economy shifted from a barter market to a cash one. As a result of these and other changes, education received greater emphasis. Americans viewed the ability to read, write, and compute mathematical equations as necessary to take part in modern society. Likewise, the new nation needed an informed citizenry. Education was seen as a means to achieve these ambitions. It was during this time that women, usually elite white women, gained access to a variety of higher educational opportunities. Hundreds of academies and seminaries, coeducational and single-sex, shaped the landscape. (1) In addition, state normal schools opened and flourished. (2)

It was at the first state normal school established in Lexington, Massachusetts in 1839 that Rebecca Pennell began her studies and thereafter launched her professional career in Massachusetts" common schools. (3) According to historians Robert Riegel, Lucile Addison Pollard, and Paul Buchanan, Pennell became one of the first women professors in the United States when she taught at the coeducational Antioch College in Ohio. (4) She also was one of the earliest women faculty members in the United States to earn equal pay with her male colleagues. (5) Before her retirement, Pennell also had a ten-year career at the Mary Institute at Washington University in St. Louis. (6) In addition to the groundwork that Pennell laid in the advancement of women in higher education, she was described as strong and innovative in the area of sciences. (7) This paper explores Pennell's remarkable life experiences and the opportunities and challenges she encountered as she held positions historically denied to most women. The paper suggests that Horace Mann, a notable educator and relative, along with members of his circle, supported Pennell's career; and she was further sustained by a network of women whom she met during her initial studies. This paper considers these various social affiliations in an effort to make sense of and view more broadly Pennell's undertakings and advancement in the education profession.


Rebecca Pennell was born in 1821 in Utica, New York, the daughter of Rebecca Mann Pennell and Calvin Pennell, who married in 1815. (8) She had three siblings--an older brother, Calvin, and two younger sisters, Eliza and Marcia. As a young child, she lived in Deerfield, New York, which was an area of growing commerce. When Pennell was four years old, her father died and her mother moved back to her childhood home in Franklin, Massachusetts. (9)

Rebecca's mother was the sister of the prominent Horace Mann and had a strong relationship with him. She faithfully listened to Mann recite his lessons from a Noah Webster grammar book when he was a child, typically while she undertook her chores. (10) Mann took a particular interest in the education of his nieces and nephew after their father's death, and provided them with financial support. (11) Pennell remembered him as a loving figure during her childhood years, someone she and her siblings fiercely admired, though this also was a time when Mann was busy beginning a law career. Pennell's mother once wrote to Mann, "I do not wish anyone to love you more than my children do." (12)

During Pennell's childhood Mann married his first wife, Charlotte Messer, who was the daughter of the president of Brown University. Messer died two years later at the age of twenty-three. (13) This was a tragic period for Mann, though Pennell recalled that he continued his career which led to his appointment as Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837, leadership in the common school movement, and the development of many normal schools. (14) These events not only shaped Mann's life, but Pennell's as well.

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The Social Networks of Rebecca Pennell: An Early Woman College Professor to Have Equal Pay with Her Male Colleagues


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