The Schoolmarm's Profession


The westward expansion had a profound impact on the teaching profession. Prior to the 1840s and 1850s, the educational profession was dominated by men. According to beliefs of the day, a woman's place was in the home, and besides, there was no way a woman could be expected to maintain discipline in a classroom full of unruly students. However, by mid-century, rising immigration, ballooning birth rates, and rapid territorial expansion had caused a crisis in education. There were simply not enough qualified educators to go around.

In 1847 Catharine Beecher founded the Board of National Popular Education to Send Women West. In her book THE DUTY OF AMERICAN WOMEN TO THEIR COUNTRY, Beecher wrote, "It is woman who is to come in at this emergency and meet the demand; woman, whom experience and testing has shown to be the best, as well as the cheapest, guardian and mentor of childhood, in the school as well as in the nursery." Women certainly were the cheapest choice. The average female teacher in the latter half of the 19th century received a yearly salary of $54.50. Her male counterpart received $71.40. This may have perpetuated a trend that continues to this day.

Hundreds of women rose to the challenge in the 1850s, despite the lower wages. They set off by the thousands to teach in the West. By 1853, historian J.L. McConley noted that "a competent number of women have been found willing to give up the comforts of home for the benefit of the barbarous West." Then again after the Civil War many soldiers returning were amazed to find their teaching positions filled by women.

The West lured female teachers for two main reasons. First, teaching in the west could provide economic independence and stability. Many young women were tired of being financially dependent on their fathers or some other male counter part. Secondly, moving West gave women the hope of marriage, as single men heavily outnumbered single women on the frontier. As one Montana schoolteacher put it, "I decided to go and teach school in the West. Certainly, a schoolmarm in the West would not have to work any harder than we did at home. Besides, there were plenty of eager men in the West in those days."

Many frontier schoolmarms did, in fact, find husbands in the West. This led to a large turnover among teachers, since in those days married women were not permitted to teach. It was thought to be more appropriate to stay at home and raise her own babies. By the 1870s, over 25% of all educated American-born white women had taught at some time during their lives.

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