In the early 1800s girls in Iowa and most states were denied an education because in general, people believed girls and women were inferior to boys and men. They didn't believe that women should participate in many aspects of society. Women couldn't vote. They had few job opportunities other than working in homes. Laws were written that restricted their ownership of property. By the mid-19th century, however, this thinking was changing. People began to see a specific value of education to females. With an education, married women could become better wives and mothers and single women could teach school or find employment in a few other occupations.
It was a common belief that since women raised children, they would be good teachers too. The teaching profession seemed to fit into their "womanly duties." So, as men left teaching for higher paying work in factories or farming, teaching jobs opened up for women.
By 1880 teaching was the second most popular employment for Iowa women. Two-thirds of public school teachers were women. Many women wanted to escape what one girl called the "drudgery'' of farm work. Others wanted to earn money to help support a family's income, or to pay for a brother's or sister's education. But women teachers were paid less than men teachers.
Riding Horseback to School
What was life like for teachers? Take a look at Alice Money Lawrence who lived on a farm near Albion. When she was 14 years old, Alice made $1.50 a week for taking care of sheep. She used the money to pay for tuition at the Albion Seminary where she received a teaching certificate in 1866.
Alice's first teaching job was at a school in Grundy County, 16 miles from her home. She rode 45 minutes on horseback each way to school. Twelve students of all ages were in her class, but five left school when harvest began. Older farm boys usually helped with the fall harvest and spring planting. Because so many rural kids had to help with farm chores during these times, there were two school terms: "winter" and "summer." They each were about four months long between the harvest and planting seasons.
In 1868 Alice taught at another school. Teachers often moved from school to school. She instructed 40 students in a one-room Vienna Township schoolhouse. Students learned reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling and geography. They had to memorize many facts. Students in 19th century schools did not have colorful textbooks, magazines, maps or computers. Students brought whatever books they had from home. The only supplies found in most classrooms were slates (chalkboards) and the blackboard in the front of the room.
Like other teachers, Alice "boarded" with a family. She paid for rent and food. She disliked these living arrangements because the house was dirty and her hostess could not cook well. Alice spent long hours alone at the schoolhouse reading and writing letters.
Despite its difficulties, teaching was rewarding for Alice. In the late 1860s, she wrote to her sister Sarah in Ohio:
You ask if I like teaching. Oh, yes, the teaching part but not the discipline. I had to keep all my scholars but one in at recess today, and I had to whip one boy—the first punishment of that kind that has been necessary. Then it is so hard not to like some children better than others, and there are so many little disputes to settle. But I do like teaching.
In 1869 Alice ended her teaching career. She married a doctor the following year. For many women like Alice, teaching was not a lifetime career. They taught only until they married.
Teaching Opens More Doors for Women
Other women did pursue lifelong careers in education as teachers, principals and school superintendents. In fact, the first woman superintendent was Phebe Sudlow in Davenport, Iowa. Some women teachers went on to careers at colleges. Education and teaching had helped to open once-forbidden doors to careers outside teaching such as business, law and medicine.
- Deborah Gore, Ed., “Slates and Blackboards,” The Goldfinch 8, no. 2 (November 1986): 10-11.
Being a teacher in the 1800s was very different from today. What was it like to be a teacher back then?
Reading Tip: Reflecting When you are finished reading the article, think about what you would tell others about it.