In 1817, nineteen-year-old Abigail Powers was a school teacher in Sempronius, a small town in central New York. She also ran a lending library, not yet a common thing even in larger cities. Among her students was eighteen-year-old Millard Fillmore, who later became a lawyer. A few years later, after Abigail had opened a school for girls in Lisle, New York, she and Fillmore were married. He went on to become the 13th president, and Abigail Powers Fillmore became the first First Lady to continue in a career after her marriage.
During Women’s History Month it seems fitting to reflect on the changing status of women as educators since the establishment of public education in the early United States. Abigail lived in an era when few people considered education beyond the basics to be a valuable thing for girls, yet teaching was becoming a fairly common occupation for unmarried women. Women and children were working in factories and mills, sometimes as indentured workers. But social standards were evolving, and the role of women as teachers—even college professors—grew considerably throughout the 1800s.
In their book Women’s Work? American Schoolteachers 1650–1920, historians Joel Perlmann and Robert A. Margo look at the numbers of women teachers as well as the factors that made teaching a respectable profession. They found that by 1860 between 61 and 76 percent of schoolteachers were women, with northern urban regions having the highest percentage. The view of women as nurturers, and of teaching being an extension of nurturing, may have driven some of this; so too may have the increasing changes in available work as the Industrial Revolution spread. Most of these female teachers were under 20 and unmarried, and few continued teaching after marriage. Pure economics surely had a role as well; female teachers were often paid less than half the rate of their male counterparts.
While women teachers were common, dozens stand out as people who created change in how children are educated, and how women are viewed as educators. This list gives a quick look at a handful of these trailblazers:
Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825–1907) graduated from Oberlin College in 1856. She went on to become the first black woman college professor and also served as a teacher and principal in black schools in Ohio and North Carolina.
- Margaret Bancroft (1854–1912) founded the Haddonfield School for the Mentally Deficient and Peculiarly Backward in 1883. There she and other teachers developed new approaches to teaching developmentally disabled students, supporting their emotional growth as well as their education. Renamed as the Bancroft Training School, she has left a legacy now known as Bancroft, which specializes in neuro-rehab, autism, and special education.
- Marie Clay (1926–2007) was an innovator in ways to build literacy in children and developed the Reading Recovery intervention program. From its start in Clay’s New Zealand homeland, it spread around the world and led to significant changes in how at-risk readers are helped to advance their skills in the shortest time possible.
- Maria Montessori (1870–1952) was the first woman doctor in Italy, and her work in a mental health institution triggered her desire to find new ways to train and nurture children through individualized instruction. With her background in medicine, education, and anthropology, she opened a childcare program in 1907 as she formalized her theories of how children learn naturally. Her program is now well established in over 100 countries.
Abigail Powers Fillmore was not the last First Lady to have been a teacher before moving to the White House. Looking ahead, perhaps one day a woman educator will assume the presidency. And, just as the Industrial Revolution influenced the role of women as teachers, female students in today’s tech revolution will have the opportunity to become trailblazers in education through new teaching technologies and methods yet to be discovered.
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Making the Grade: First Ladies and Education, a compilation of stories from the 2007 exhibit assembled by The National First Ladies Organization
Women’s Work? American Schoolteachers 1650–1920 by Joel Perlmann and Robert A. Margo