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Women’s Work? American Schoolteachers, 1650-1920

Author(s):Perlmann, Joel
Margo, Robert A.
Reviewer(s):Carter, Susan B.

Published by EH.NET (July 2002)

Joel Perlmann and Robert A. Margo, Women’s Work? American Schoolteachers,

1650-1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. x +188 pp. $32

(hardcover), ISBN: 0-226-66039-7

Reviewed for EH.NET by Susan B. Carter, Department of Economics, University of

California, Riverside.

Women’s Work is an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort by two

well-known scholars. Joel Perlmann, trained as a social historian, is Levy

Institute Research Professor at the Jerome Levy Economics Institute of Bard

College. Robert A. Margo, trained as an economic historian, is professor of

economics at Vanderbilt University and a research associate of the National

Bureau of Economic Research. Together they explain women’s integration into the

teaching profession in the United States over more than two centuries. The tale

stops in 1920 because by that point, in their view, the die had been cast.

Teaching, especially at the elementary school level, had become Women’s

Work. Despite the wrenching social, economic, demographic, and political

upheavals of the subsequent eighty years, women’s predominance in the

elementary school teaching field was one feature of American life that remained


This work is an exemplar of excellence in inter-disciplinary social science

research. The authors note in their preface that: “The issues the book

addresses, and the formulations with which it discusses, would have differed

considerably had either of us tried to carry out the research, or write the

book, alone.” Scholars will be grateful for the collaboration.

The approach of Perlmann and Margo makes use of the regional character of the

feminization process. Feminization advanced first in the Northeast and only

much later in the South. The North-South differential was retained as the

population moved West, finally disappearing in the early-twentieth century,

when teaching was established as Women’s Work nationwide.

Following a Preface and Introduction, the book is organized into five separate

chapters. Chapter One is a survey of schools and the teaching profession in New

England as these institutions evolved over the first two hundred years of

European settlement. Perlmann and Margo argue that the early development of the

two-tier public education system was key in creating the first feminine toehold

in the profession. The upper tier was devoted to Latin instruction, reserved

for boys, and taught in winter by men; the lower tier taught reading and later

writing to young children — girls as well as boys. It was taught in the summer

and from a remarkably early date it was often taught by women. Perlmann and

Margo speculate that women may have predominated among teachers in this lower

tier, summer session, as early as 1750. Economic and cultural forces, including

the thinness of the population, the parsimony of local school boards, the young

age of the students, the availability of an educated female population, and the

“ideals of the revolutionary era” which supported “more basic learning for the

people” all played a part in rationalizing the employment of women. In outlying

hamlets with populations that were too small to warrant the two-tier system,

Latin was downplayed and women were hired as teachers for what was in effect a

one-tier system. “Some women were already teaching in the winter sessions in

1830, well before Horace Mann or other reformers of the common school era began

to call for that change” (p. 27).

Chapter Two contrasts developments in the South of the same period. Here public

primary education was much less well supported than in the North. Families with

adequate resources hired private teachers for their children. The state

supplied vouchers for children whose families were too poor to pay. For a

variety of reasons, the two-tier system does not seem to have developed in the

South and, perhaps as a consequence, women teachers were far less common in

Southern as compared with Northern schools. Perlmann and Margo consider a host

of alternatives to this institutional explanation, including social structure,

demography, and gender wage ratios. None of these alternatives appear to offer

as compelling an explanation for the patterns they observe.

Chapter Three examines women’s involvement in teaching as the population moved

westward over the course of the nineteenth century. The authors choose Illinois

for their detailed assessment because it was settled by migrants from both the

North and the South and displayed a wide range of local arrangements for the

education of the young. They find that differences across counties in economic

conditions, population concentration, fertility rates, and women’s education,

explain only a little more than half of the differential in the use of female

teachers in the northern and southern counties of the state. That leaves

settlers’ state of origin to account for over forty percent.

If these regional institutions are so powerful then how does one account for

the eventual feminization of teaching even in the South and in regions settled

by former Southerners by 1920? That is the subject of Chapter Four, “Explaining

Feminization.” Perlmann and Margo cite four factors. The first is the

experience with women teachers during the Civil War. The departure of male

teachers to either fight or to take other jobs to more directly support the war

effort forced school districts to hire women. Perlman and Margo document

increases of ten percentage points and more in women’s share of teaching

between 1860 and 1870. In many areas, the experience of having female teachers

during the Civil War appears to have permanently changed the attitudes of

school board members, because the female share did not return to the pre-war

level. For Perlmann and Margo, this evidence suggests that the women were doing

a good job:

At the same time, the fact that the shift could be so great and that so much of

the effect was sustained rather than erased after 1865 also suggests that there

was a certain fit between the effect of the wartime shock to the system and the

social and cultural conditions on the eve of the war. Large gains for female

machinists during World War II, after all, were not sustained after 1945 (p.


In a section entitled “Dynamics of Diffusion” the authors neatly summarize

other events that operated to bring women into teaching. Over time, they argue,

even the last bastions of male hegemony were removed. These events were

temporary financial strains, women’s “increasing mastery of the advanced rural

school curriculum,” apparent improvements in pupils’ behavior while in school,

and the sex-typing of school teaching as women’s work.

In Chapter Five, “Labor Market Outcomes in Urban Schools — The Role of

Gender,” the authors switch gears to examine gender differences in the

structure and rewards to teachers in bureaucratic urban schools. They make use

of detailed personnel records to document discrimination against women in both

pay and promotion. They suggest that women’s curtailed geographic mobility may

have allowed local school boards to act as monopsonists, while men’s mobility

caused them to be paid a wage closer to that of a competitive market.

Did it matter that women played such a prominent educational role so early in

American history? Absolutely! The use of female teachers reduced the cost of

human capital development.

Because female teachers were cheaper to hire than male teachers were, the

economic cost of producing human capital was cheaper than it otherwise would

have been, providing a boost to its production and hence to long-term economic

growth. Regions that lagged behind in their exploitation of female teachers in

this sense, such as the South, lagged behind in the production of human capital

and, in consequence, in per capita incomes and economic development (p.


In addition, the lure of teaching raised girls’ incentive to attend school;

mothers who were former teachers probably instilled the importance of education

in their children; and the teaching style of females may have been the source

of a national character that internalized the need for good behavior. It

doesn’t get any better, as long as you don’t think about the low pay.

Susan B. Carter is Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for

Teaching Excellence at the University of California, Riverside. She is author

of numerous articles on American economic history, including “Occupational

Segregation, Teachers’ Wages and American Economic Growth,” Journal of

Economic History 46 (2) (June 1986): 373?83. She is currently

co-editor-in-chief of Historical Statistics of the United States, Millennial

Edition, to be published by Cambridge University Press in three volumes and

in an electronic edition in 2003.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII