Women's Work?: American Schoolteachers, 1650-1920 / Edition 2

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American schoolteaching is one of few occupations to have undergone a thorough gender shift yet previous explanations have neglected a key feature of the transition: its regional character. By the early 1800s, far higher proportions of women were teaching in the Northeast than in the South, and this regional difference was reproduced as settlers moved West before the Civil War. What explains the creation of these divergent regional arrangements in the East, their recreation in the West, and their eventual disappearance by the next century?

In Women's Work the authors blend newly available quantitative evidence with historical narrative to show that distinctive regional school structures and related cultural patterns account for the initial regional difference, while a growing recognition that women could handle the work after they temporarily replaced men during the Civil War helps explain this widespread shift to female teachers later in the century. Yet despite this shift, a significant gender gap in pay and positions remained. This book offers an original and thought-provoking account of a remarkable historical transition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226660394
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 192
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Joel Perlmann is a senior scholar at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard College and Levy Institute Research Professor at the College. He is the author of Ethnic Differences: Schooling and Social Structure among the Irish, Italians, and Blacks in an American City, 1880-1935.

Robert A. Margo is a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is the author, most recently, of Wages and Labor Markets in the United States, 1820-1860, published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Women's Work?: American Schoolteachers, 1650-1920

By Robert A. Margo

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Robert A. Margo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226660397

ONE New England: The First Two Centuries

The Colonial Institutional Background

On the whole, the standard histories of colonial schooling are limited in scope and out of date; and given the changing interests of historians over the generations, because they are out of date they also contain relatively little material on women pupils or even women teachers. A certain irony marks this historiographical situation. Before the 1960s, American educational historians routinely produced histories of colonial schools (although the gender-related aspects of the topic were never their central focus). Then, in 1960 Bernard Bailyn published a celebrated critique of this earlier literature, arguing that its limited focus on public versus private institutions was misguided, and indeed that its exclusive focus on the school was inappropriate for an era in which education occurred as much (or more) through other institutions as well, such as the family. Bailyn's essay, fascinating in itself, also served as a major stimulus to the study of the colonial family. Yet an unfortunate by-product of Bailyn's essay was that historians tended to turn away from the study of the colonial school as an institution (an outcome Bailyn certainly did not meanto encourage, for his essay stresses the increasing importance of the school over the course of early colonial history).

A second development in American historical thinking also tended to lead historians away from concern with colonial schools. The revisionist movement of the 1960s and 1970s stressed the role that schools played in creating and sustaining the unequal class and race relations of modern America. This revisionist literature was debunking in tone, exposing the falsities in myths of equal opportunity for all American children. Given such a focus, it is hardly surprising that the focus of revisionist history was on urban industrial America rather than on earlier periods. In the face of Bailyn's critique of earlier colonial schools and the revisionist emphasis on modern America, it seemed that only an intellectual slouch would care about the institutional history of colonial schools.

Yet now we find ourselves in the curious situation of needing a better understanding of colonial institutional realities in order to answer the questions of our own time. We rest on a small number of historical studies, most quite old, for most of the discussion in this section; we draw especially from two such works. The first is an unpublished doctoral dissertation about seventeenth-century Massachusetts school law by Geraldine Murphy (completed the same year Bailyn published his critique and written partly under his guidance) that historians have come to recognize over the years as an invaluable repository of information about much more than the law. The other is much older still, a 1914 study of colonial school arrangements in New England drawn by W. H. Small, a school superintendent in Providence, Rhode Island, for whom, as he tells us, "curiosity became a disease"; thanks to that disease, we have an immense collection of citations on all aspects of colonial schooling that interested Small. Our discussion centers on Massachusetts, with but few examples from towns elsewhere in New England. Nevertheless, in other parts of the region the institutional evolution we describe was apparently similar to that of Massachusetts. A fuller treatment might seek to take account of these intraregional differences, but it would not change the direction of the narrative.

Lawrence Cremin summarizes the school arrangements that Massachusetts settlers knew from England: "The principal outcome of the Tudor educational revolution was an unprecedented availability of schooling in early seventeenth-century England, though there was no school system in any latter-day sense. This schooling proceeded on two levels which were clearly distinguishable, both institutionally and in the literature that emerged after 1580: there were the petty schools, which concentrated on reading, but which also offered writing [and] ciphering . . . and there were the grammar schools which stressed the reading, writing and speaking of Latin." Nevertheless, the differences blurred in reality as each institution offered some of what the other taught. Cremin continues, "Most of the petty schools were presided over by a single dame or master; most of the grammar schools were presided over by a master." The Massachusetts Bay Colony, in passing its renowned School Law of 1647, probably envisioned re-creating institutions that divided functions in a similar way. The colony required that towns of fifty families provide for instruction in reading and writing and that towns of one hundred families provide also for a Latin grammar school.

Nevertheless, as Murphy showed, in responding to this law, most seventeenth-century towns did not faithfully re-create the institutions Cremin describes. In particular, outside a few large centers of population, true Latin grammar schools--if by that we mean schools that focused principally on classical languages--probably were not common at any time. Rather, most towns seem to have responded to the law with a variety of strategies, from outright noncompliance to ways of complying with the letter of the law but compromising on its spirit. Some towns had already begun to use the most important of these strategies during the second half of the seventeenth century, and others typically did so during the first two or three decades of the eighteenth century. The strategy was to hire a Latin master, a schoolteacher with a knowledge of Latin, as the town teacher-- but to arrange for him to spend most of his time teaching English language skills, notably writing, advanced reading skills, and often ciphering. If a demand for teaching Latin arose, the master could meet it.

A more cynical seventeenth-century strategy for compliance was to designate as schoolmaster a man who knew Latin and pay him a small sum with the understanding that he would rarely if ever be asked to teach anyone anything. However, at the close of the seventeenth century, the terms of the colony law were strengthened in a number of ways--chiefly by stiffening the fine, making it impossible to hire a Latinist who was not teaching, and providing a mechanism for scrutiny and reporting of town practices. Consequently, by the early eighteenth century the most glaring subterfuges that had been used for noncompliance with the law became impossible; every town with a hundred families now made some meaningful provision for a Latin master, most commonly by hiring him to teach the English curriculum. In Boston and a handful of other locales, the concentration of population permitted institutional differentiation sufficiently great to permit schools that actually concentrated on the Latin language to flourish at public expense. However, in considering New England towns generally, we should be careful about confusing the terminology for schools (Latin grammar schools) with the actual subject matter that was taught there.

In any case, the arrangements in the countryside created an institution that offered English instruction beyond the level of basic reading skills, that met the minimal demand for classical instruction, and that satisfied the terms of the colony law to "provide for" a Latin teacher. And, as Murphy stressed, the legal requirement that teachers know Latin may well have provided towns with teachers whose mastery of the English curriculum was surer than would otherwise have been the case. The drawback, of course, was that the teacher who knew Latin commanded a relatively high salary, which the town had to raise: by direct taxation of the entire town, by taxing all those with boys of school age (typically ages six to twelve), by charging tuition, by selling some town land, or by some combination of such measures.

All this, one must remember, was a common way to comply with the Massachusetts legislation requiring most towns (those with over one hundred families) to provide Latin grammar instruction. Still other towns in Massachusetts simply did not comply with the law for short or for long stretches of time. They might have hoped to avoid presentment for the penalty, or at least hoped to do so during the course of enough years to make noncompliance cheaper than compliance. It is quite possible that the nature of advanced instruction was not so different in the complying and noncomplying towns. In both cases, the advanced English curriculum was what all boys studied most of the time and what most boys studied all the time. In the noncomplying towns, the school might be called a reading and writing (rather than a Latin grammar) school, and the skill level of the schoolmasters (as measured by their training) might have been lower. Moreover, in the other parts of New England, there may well have been fewer institutions designated as Latin grammar schools, relative to population size, than there were within Massachusetts, whether due to less demanding legislation, weaker enforcement, or lower population density (and lower density resulting, in turn, in fewer towns required to support such an institution). In some cases, the legal provision was reflected in similar but weaker statutes and only the largest towns were likely to have a Latin grammar-school master. Elsewhere, advanced town-supported instruction was probably similar to that in the noncomplying Massachusetts towns. We will return later to the evolution of this institution after 1730.

The town schools we have been describing did not teach rudimentary literacy. Rather, they required that a child have a rudimentary knowledge of reading before enrolling. A child could obtain that rudimentary knowledge at home, but increasingly children obtained it at a dame school. As the name implies, the institution was universally regarded as the province of women. The schooldame provided something between day care and primary instruction in reading. This first schoolteaching function for women, as many have noted, grew out of child-care functions within the home-- first, in the sense that the instruction offered was initially offered in the dame's home, and, second, in the sense that the dame school replaced instruction that families had originally provided for their own children (indeed, the dame may often have taught her own along with other children). This process had been evolving in English society and continued in New England.

These dame schools were not mandated by the school law of 1647. Nevertheless, even during the course of the seventeenth century, some towns did work the dame schools into the pattern of compliance with that law. The law of 1647, it will be recalled, obliged small towns (fifty to one hundred families) to provide for instruction in English reading and writing. Some of the towns soon claimed to be in compliance with the law by simply designating a dame-school mistress as town teacher. Woburn, Chelmsford, Sudbury, Andover, and Haverhill did so in 1679, Groton and Weymouth in the early 1690s. Also, in the early eighteenth century some towns began paying the women who ran the dame schools directly, rather than relying on private payment by parents. In other words, a formerly private institution, a traditional dame school, eventually came to be viewed as a public enterprise. One reason for doing so was to subsidize literacy instruction for the children of the poor (as in Marblehead in 1700, Charlestown in 1712, and Salem in 1729).

An additional reason for the town's support for the dame schools, and for the incorporation of these women into the arrangements for town-supported schooling, had to do with the growth of New England towns and the dispersal of their populations into hamlets at some distance from the town centers. The interests of the families in these hamlets were different from the interests of families in the town center: the hamlets needed their own roads and their own schools. After 1680, the issue of how to provide for the needs of outlying areas became pressing. In the second quarter of the eighteenth century, this pattern began to yield a formal division of many towns into separate school districts that eventually determined aspects of school policy for themselves (an arrangement that was fundamental to American educational development until at least the middle of the nineteenth century).

Typically, a town initially sought to provide only the most basic and inexpensive instruction in the outlying districts and relied on the single schoolmaster (in many Massachusetts towns, as we have seen, a Latinist) to offer instruction in the advanced English curriculum. Payment for the schoolmaster might be divided evenly among all districts; or the outlying sections might be deemed unable to utilize the educational services at the town center and freed from contributing all or part of the costs of the schoolmaster; or, finally, the schoolmaster might spend some time in each of the town's hamlets (teaching a "moving" school). The tendency to delay establishment of more advanced schools in the outlying hamlets must often have been strengthened by the towns' obligation to pay the relatively high salary of the schoolmaster who had been working at the town center (a salary especially high if the schoolmaster was a Latinist). This process of population dispersion and accompanying demands for services in the outlying areas had a profound impact on the institutional arrangements. In the outlying districts women were often supported as the town teachers, where they offered the rudiments of reading and occasionally somewhat more. Thus, Framingham voted in 1713 "to settle school dames in each quarter of the town." Plymouth in 1725 supported a grammar school in the center of the town and permitted the hamlets at "each end of town, which for some years past had a woman's school among them" to deduct the costs of the woman's schools from their contribution to the grammar school. Brookline in 1727 arranged to have two schoolhouses, each with a woman's school operating at the time the master was in the other schoolhouse. Dudley in 1743 supported a schooldame for three months at each end of the town and a schoolmaster for three months in the center of the town. And Westminster in 1766 allowed that "a woman's school be kept seven months in the outskirts of town."

In sum, the nature of compliance with colonial school law, the need to provide elementary instruction for the poor, and the need to provide inexpensive schooling following population dispersal are among the reasons why women who provided instruction in reading moved from having informal, private roles to being town-supported teachers. While the preponderance of women teachers taught only reading, there is no doubt that some colonial women schoolteachers taught writing as well as reading in town schools. In Sudbury in the 1690s a "widow Walker" taught both reading and writing. In 1746 Wenham supported a dame "to teach children and youth to read and write." Other women taught in Boston in 1737 and in Braintree from 1758 to 1760. When schooldames were the only teachers operating in an outlying hamlet, the incentive for the woman teacher to teach more than the rudiments of reading may have increased. Thus the dame school evolved into one tier of a two-tier system of schools supported by the New England towns.

Just when the schools taught by dames came to be associated with the summer season is unclear and is not important to our purposes here, but this feature too can be found quite early. The need for the older boys to work on their families' farms during the summer helps explain why their schooling would be concentrated in winter.


Excerpted from Women's Work?: American Schoolteachers, 1650-1920 by Robert A. Margo Copyright © 2001 by Robert A. Margo. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. New England: The First Two Centuries
2. South versus North
3. Migrations
4. Explaining Feminization
5. Labor Market Outcomes in Urban Schools: The Role of Gender

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