Women in Education Research Paper Starter

Women in Education

This article provides a brief overview of some of the influential women in the history of education in the U.S. It discusses their selflessness, their passions for improving educational opportunities for others, as well as the significant contributions they made to the field of education and in related movements. Equity in the academy with regard to gender equality is also discussed.

Keywords Academy; Discrimination; Educational opportunity; Equity; Gender equality; Male privilege; Public education; Salary gap; Seminary; Women educators


Education has always been considered the ticket to upward mobility in the United States, promoting economic benefits such as higher earnings and increased national productivity, and noneconomic benefits like intellectual values, problem solving, and increased civic participation (Lewis, 2003). Historically, both men and women have desired these benefits. However, in many cases reaping the benefits has been more challenging for women than for men.

Women have historically been excluded from educational opportunities in the United States. During the colonial period, Americans dismissed the notion of women attaining an education and no significant education was offered to girls by the colonial schools. Some girls were taught to read, but they could not enroll in academies, colleges, or Latin grammar schools (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004; Solomon, 1985). Despite the exclusivity, many women traveled the arduous road to pursue their education, open the doors for other women, and continued to make significant contributions to the education field.

Margarethe Meyer Schurz

Margarethe Meyer Schurz (1833-1876) is best known as the founder of the first American kindergarten. Born in Hamburg, Germany, to an affluent family, and educated in the arts and education, Schurz developed a passion for children and their kindergarten education (Johnson et al., 2004; Heuer, 1998).

When Schurz was a teenager, she was exposed to the teachings of Friedrich Froebel, German kindergarten founder and advocate. Kindergarten is a German term, literally translated as "children's garden." Margarethe Meyer Schurz became enthusiastic about the idea of a "garden for a crop called children." When she got married and moved to the United States, she brought the ideas and principles she learned from Froebel along with her (Heuer, 1998).

In 1856, Schurz and her husband settled in Watertown, Wisconsin, where she began to share Froebel's philosophy while caring for her daughter and four other children in her neighborhood. She taught them how to play games, sing songs, and perform in group activities that focused their energies and simultaneously prepped them for further schooling. Impressed with the results of Schurz's work, other parents asked her to work with their children as well. This led to the opening of the first kindergarten in the United States (Heuer, 1998).

Though small in its beginnings, with a total of five students, the idea spread quickly, due in part to speaking engagements her husband had been asked to give. Margarethe's husband, Carl Schurz, was a prominent activist and politician who was often called to do speaking engagements across the country. Margarethe traveled with him and used these opportunities to talk about the benefits of kindergartens. Soon, her work captured an audience, and kindergarten became a key component of American education. Kindergarten study was also accepted as a course of study for the preparation of elementary teachers (Heuer, 1998).

Ella Flagg Young

Ella Flagg Young (1845-1918) was a female educator willing to tread new waters. A child of working-class parents, Young overcame a number of obstacles at an early age. She taught herself to read and write at age nine, and when she turned ten, her mother allowed her to attend school (Johnson et al., 2004).

A born teacher, Ella Flagg Young took teacher education courses and found a public school teacher to help her create her own practicum opportunity to use in her own classroom upon graduation. After graduation, she worked in the Chicago public school system in various positions over 53 years. Her first role was to teach in a lower class Chicago high school as a math teacher. She then became the head of the practice-teaching classrooms, next a principal in Chicago's largest public school, and later the first female superintendent of the Chicago public schools (1909-1915), a major city school system. Flagg enjoyed many "firsts," as each of these achievements was considered extraordinary for a female during this time period (Johnson, et al., 2004).

Young was passionate about improving democracy and education and wasn't afraid of a challenge. She was also the first female president of the male-dominated National Education Association (NEA) in 1910, a decade prior to suffrage for women (Johnson et al., 2004). A true leader in education and women's suffrage, Ella Flagg Young is one to remember.

Anne Sullivan Macy

Born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, to poor, illiterate Irish immigrants, Anne Sullivan Macy (1866-1936) is best known as Helen Keller's teacher and a strong educator and advocate for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB). Her accomplishments however, are often overshadowed by Helen Keller's story (American Foundation for the Blind, 2007).

Anne Macy faced a number of challenges in her early years. She was known to have a bad temper, by age seven she was blind due to untreated trachoma, and she had no formal schooling during her adolescent years until age 14. In addition, Macy's mother was ill with tuberculosis and died when Anne was eight. To add to this, her father was an alcoholic who later abandoned her and her younger brother (American Foundation for the Blind, 2007).

According to the American Foundation for the Blind (2007), Anne Macy's life changed significantly for the good in 1880 when she enrolled in the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. She quickly learned to read, write, and use the manual alphabet to communicate with a friend who was deaf and blind. Learning to use the manual alphabet was the key to the future success she enjoyed. While Macy was a student at Perkins, her sight improved significantly after several successful eye surgeries. In 1886 she completed her degree at Perkins and was the valedictorian of her class. Shortly thereafter, Macy met the family of Helen Keller and was asked to come to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to work with Helen, who was blind, deaf, and mute. Macy agreed and began her lifelong role as Helen Keller's teacher in 1887.

Anne Macy managed to connect with Helen Keller, who was then a rebellious and angry child. For thirteen years, Macy was Helen's educator. She used everything she had learned from the Perkins School for the Blind, and modified it to shape a smooth method of teaching for Helen. She taught Helen by signing words into Helen's hand, as a way to help her understand that everything had a name. In 1900, Helen Keller was admitted into Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Macy served as her interpreter for each class until graduation. Anne Macy took an initially unruly but bright child, and transformed her into an educated person. She did such an outstanding job that Mark Twain gave her the name "Miracle Worker" (American Foundation for the Blind, 2007).

Anne Sullivan Macy experienced great success with Helen Keller and began to receive public attention for her work. In various letters, she shared her success with the director of the Perkins School for the Blind, who later published them in the institution's annual reports. She also shared her work with Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and also an educator of the deaf. Bell in turn publicized Macy's work through a New York newspaper and gained additional exposure (American Foundation for the Blind).

Because of their educational successes, many people wanted to meet Anne Sullivan Macy and Helen Keller. In 1888 for example, Macy went to Washington, D.C., along with Helen, her mother, and Alexander Bell, to meet with President Grover Cleveland to share what she they had learned (American Foundation for the Blind).

After Macy completed her assignment as Helen Keller's educator, she traveled throughout the United States with two friends, Helen and Polly Thomson, giving lectures about teaching the deaf and blind. In 1924, Anne Macy continued to work with Helen Keller as a partner, at the American Foundation for the Blind. For that year, the two served as advocates, counselors, and fundraisers for the foundation.

Women in the Academy

After World War II, women were encouraged to reduce their participation in the labor force and colleges, which had burgeoned during the war years. However, soon they began to return to the scene. By 1960, more women were working and studying in college than ever before (Eisenmann, 2002). However, prior to this time, women had been given few formal education opportunities, with unequal access to various fields of study (Johnson et al., 2004). They often experienced marginalization and were not considered serious students (Thelin, 2004). Despite significantly limited opportunities, some women chose to take a step toward improving education for women.

Emma Willard

One woman who worked toward opening the doors for other women was Emma Willard (1787-1870). Willard was known as a pioneer and champion for the education of females during a period when very few educational opportunities existed for them. At this time, wealthy parents either hired private tutors or sent their daughters to a seminary for girls. Families with lower incomes taught their daughters to read and write at home, provided that another family member had the skills to do so (Johnson, Musial, Hall, Gollnick, & Dupuis, 2004).

Emma Willard was one of seventeen children born to a poor family. She was first taught by her father, a farmer and college-educated Revolutionary War captain. At fifteen, she attended the district schools and for a short period of time, she enrolled in a local academy. Eager to learn, Willard continued to seek education, including studying the mathematics and philosophy textbooks of her nephew, who attended Middlebury College at the time (Solomon, 1985).

Emma Willard realized the limitations of her educational background and was motivated to make other educational opportunities available to women. She was the first to publicly declare that advanced education for women should not depend solely on the individual and chance circumstances. Emma Willard's greatest accomplishment came in 1821, with the establishment of Troy Seminary, one of the first seminaries for women in Troy, New York. With no endowment, the school opened to offer an educational program comparable to the boys' school. Owned and run by the...

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