The Women's Liberation Movement and Public Schools

By Julianne Dalcanton | April 7, 2008 5:12 pm

The comments on Sean’s post below brought to mind a conversation I had long ago. I had been a postdoc at the Carnegie Observatories, which was a research foundation funded by donors. We were having a meet-n-greet with the folks who had given money to the institute — showing them the machine shop, the offices, etc. I was sitting down with one of the more elderly donors, who announced, “Women’s lib killed the public school system.”

career girl game

When I picked my jaw off the floor, I encouraged him to expand on his thesis, and found that he wasn’t completely nuts. Back in the day, women of brains, talent, and ambition had two acceptable career options: nursing, and teaching. If I had been born 50 years earlier, I would not have a PhD in astrophysics. Instead, I would probably have grown up to be a school teacher, just like my grandmother. It didn’t have to pay that well, since really, what would have my other options have been? Not law school, not physics, not mechanical engineering, not finance. Today, the brightest women have far more options beyond teaching, and while some still teach, the vast majority of us work in other fields. The salaries in teaching remain low, as for many fields that have been dominated by women, guaranteeing that teaching is not as competitive with other career options available.

To clarify, I don’t 100% buy the premise that the public school system is a disaster. My dad was a public high school teacher, I went to urban public schools, and my daughter is in the public schools. Are there problems and failures? Sure. But I don’t accept that all public schools or schools systems are “bad”. Even if I’m not teaching in one.

  • Brad Holden

    I have heard this before, and I don’t think it explains all of what has happened, or even is the dominate cause (YMMV however).

    If you look, you will find that there is a large stratification of wealth in this country. It is no secret that the wealthiest school districts are in the wealthiest counties/towns.

    Before the explosive growth of the suburbs, kids from a large variety of groups mixed, now, we have school districts that are dominated by groups of students from the same income group and often the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

  • Doug

    Julianne, while I agree that the public schools get more flack than they deserve, you are hardly a suitable counter example. You would have succeeded under (nearly) arbitrarily bad conditions. Grad school even…

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    Women’s lib and the public schools? Doesn’t sound like a half bad idea. Let’s try it.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Julianne

    Brad — I completely agree that this is unlikely to be the dominant factor in the perceived decline in the public school system. I threw it out there because I found it to be an interestingly plausible contributing factor, based on my anecdata.

    Doug — Having come from a stable, 2-parent household that valued education (though we were probably well below the median income level for the first half of my childhood), I was unlikely to wind up as a derelict. However, plenty of people in similar situations assume their kids’ futures will be harmed by sending them to public school, and default to privates.

  • David Nataf

    It’s an interesting idea.

    I know of one high school math teacher who told his class (grade 11) that positive angles go clockwise, rather than counterclockwise, and when some math tutors confronted him about that, he claimed to have read it in a book long ago. When I got to Junior College I thought it was pointless to teach English and French, because those things can’t be taught in class, can only be taught by reading lots of books. The teachers were a lot more skilled there and I changed my mind in a couple months. There were critical comments throughout my essays and I received bad grades for bad work and good grades for good work, rather than a B every single time without fail.

    It was also harder to learn in high school because the other kids were not interested and looked down on it, so it sucked away the pleasure. WWalking out of general history in eighth grade, i recall one kid calling another kid a loser for asking a random question about ancient china.

  • Ian Paul Freeley

    In that (wonderful) picture, I can’t figure out what all of them are supposed to be. Clearly there’s a ballerina, stewardess, teacher and nurse. I’m guessing second from the right is a model, but second from the left is a mystery. Medieval wench at a renaissance fair maybe?

  • Dave

    Your elderly friend may not be completely nuts, but I’d say that he is mostly nuts. Where is the evidence that public schools were better in the past? Or that women’s liberation has removed women from teaching careers? There are more women in the workforce now, and some find teaching to be rewarding despite the low pay.

  • A.

    Four years ago I had started as an assistant prof at a private, very expensive university, well known for its teaching, religion, and sports. (I am not there anymore.) The university had started admitting female students only in the 1970’s. A couple of months after I moved there, I found myself having a casual conversation with an old man at the local Borders one day. As it turned out, he was a graduate of that university himself. When he realised what I was doing professionally (I am a woman in science), his response was to the effect of “Where are the good old days… After we admitted women here, we are not as good catholics, and the football team is not as strong. This university is not the same anymore…”.

    To this day, I still have not picked my jaw off the floor.

  • Fermi-Walker Public Transport

    Yes, as others have said, he is mostly nuts. Consider high schooll students. The student population these days is quite different than it was say 40 or 50 years ago. Then, getting a high school diploma was not nearly as important as it is now because there were far more decent jobs that did not require a diploma. I recall reading that in 1950, there were ~10^6 blue collar jobs in New York City which often did not require a high school diploma. By 2000, the number had dropped to ~2×10^5 jobs. These jobs were mostly in manufacturing and were heavily unionized so that there were usually decent benefits.

    Today, if you do not have a high school diploma, the jobs on offer are mostly in services and pay far less than the blue collar jobs in the past. The upshot is that there is more pressure, even for those who are not academically oriented to get the diploma and if possible get some sort of college degree. So in the past the student population, at least those in the high schools were more academically oriented since those which were not, dropped out.

    It would be interesting to compare the the test scores (SAT, ACT, ect.) of those high school students from say 40 years ago and today, where in both cases they have class grades above the median. I think you will find far less disparity. I recall that that there is little difference when one compares the top 40% of US high school student with there counterparts in other OECD countries. The differences become marked when one compares the test achievements of all students.

    As someone pointed out, local taxes largely determines how much schools get and the difference can be about a factor of 2 per student which affects resources, class sizes, ect. I don’t think this situation exists in other first world countries.

  • Ben

    Julianne and I went to one school that was just this side of arbitrarily bad conditions, or bad conditions as they were defined 25+ years ago (you can find much worse schools in large school systems now, but I still regularly shock people by trotting out war stories about our middle school). Actually, I know lots of people who went to that school and succeeded. The problem is that bad schools fail the students who really need the help, and of course they are more often warehoused in bad schools.

    I would turn the old coot’s proposition around and say, the captive women’s workforce in nursing and teaching played a significant role in keeping healthcare and education costs down. Without that captive cheap labor, society has to pay the true costs of healthcare and education, which are both extremely labor-intensive industries, and the US has not found the political will to pay these costs on a national level. I don’t mean that the cure is necessarily nationalized healthcare or education, but that the current approach is skimping on the costs only by leaving many people uninsured and uneducated.

    The problem in many labor-intensive industries is that they cannot keep up with the productivity increases that happen in capital-intensive industries. This makes healthcare, education, and so on look economically inefficient compared to the Michael Dells of the world, but while computers are N times better than they used to be, teachers still can only handle 20-25 kids per class. A good short explanation of this problem (“Baumol’s cost disease”) by James Surowiecki is at

  • TomR

    I a similar thing once from a lawyer–he claimed that the quality of admins has dropped steadily since women had more options.

    But even if this is true (and it seems reasonable), so what? The economist in me screams that this is a gross misallocation of resources–sure, if you force any group of people to work for less than market wages, the industry they work in will benefit, but at the larger cost of the economy loosing the higher wages they would have made in a different field.

    And the justice argument seems to trump anything. Ending slavery probably hurt the plantation economy, but that’s hardly an argument for slavery. You can always benefit some people by harming others–that’s hardly a new idea.

  • Mark B

    What TomR said….

    I have heard some African Americans who were in school at the time of the Brown decision say that in many ways their segregated schools were better for them — before integration they had teachers from their own communities who cared deeply about their students and improving the lives of all through education, and their fellow students respected each other and were honestly happy for each other’s successes. After integration, the teachers were all white, they were spread around into different white schools so they were the hated minority, and everyone resented their presence. And it created the “Uncle Tom” phenomenon of belittling those who succeeded in the white schools because they seemed to fit in too well.

    Which is not to say that they thought integration was a bad thing, or that on the whole it wasn’t the right thing to do as a matter of justice and equality — but we can acknowledge and deal with the very real negative consequences of doing the right thing without diminishing the fact that it is still the right thing. And we should celebrate the positive consequences and honor those who had to make short term sacrifices to give everyone a better chance and more opportunities.

    If we accept the premise that part of the issue with public schools today is that the most talented potential teachers don’t go into teaching because they have better opportunities elsewhere, then it is a tautology to say that a contributing factor to the poor state of schools was women’s lib. But it was and is still right for women to fight for (and take) more opportunities in every field — and I think that in the medium to long term, it will end up bringing benefits to the education system that outweigh any short term costs by giving us a better educated, wealthier, and motivated population.

  • EmilyAnabel

    I have long thought that the two crises of education and health care are both related to expanded opportunities for women as a function of time. Before greater opportunities for women, there were plentiful supplies of cheap but extremely capable teachers and nurses. With more women in business, law, higher levels of medicine and, yes, science, there are two choices- pay teachers and nurses more to attract people comparable in quality to the historical levels, or have the quality degrade. Primary school and nurses’ salaries have not risen to attract better qualified people (of either gender) and now we are paying the price in terms of a decline in quality (education) perhaps as well as a rise in price (health care.) I know there are other factors, but I think in both cases the effect is significant.

  • Mark B

    I forgot to add — but faced with someone like the guy Julianne met, it’s pretty reasonable to wonder whether someone who announces out of the blue that women’s lib killed education is trying to make a helpful observation about where all the talented teachers have gone, which might lead to some suggestions about how to entice them to teach as an honored and well-paid profession — or whether they are merely wistfully reminiscing about the “good old days” when a woman’s life was controlled by the men around them because there were no other options.

    If it was the latter, I hope _Professor_ Dalcanton kicked his ass.

  • John R Ramsden

    Although some women’s rights were acquired in the face of opposition, such as the right to vote (in the UK – not sure about the US), I think employment rights for women were gained over the course of the 20th century mostly of necessity by the absence of men.

    Before your jaw hits the floor again, I hasten to add that this certainly doesn’t imply they were or are “second best” in any sense, even if they may have been considered so at first by reactionaries.

    An obvious example is women working in factories and farms and driving buses and so on during the two World Wars, while men were away fighting, and then after those wars to take the place of men killed in action.

    But as well as modern gadgets relieving the need for drudgery and domestic service, largely a woman’s traditional role in the home, technology such as computers and the media has given so many more opportunities for highly qualified workers to make a good living that there’s simply more room or a “wider spread” these days in the higher echelons of the labour market.

    If anything, the tables have been turned, and any job involving personal service (in a generic sense, not just a saucy one!) is now relatively speaking usually far more expensive than goods such as cars that were once beyond the reach of almost everyone but are now mostly cheap as chips! On that basis, I find it surprising that teachers are not paid far more than they are.

  • Kim

    I think schools are considerable worse now than they were 50 years ago (when I was in the second grade). I work in academia and am constantly amazed by the college track students who cannot write a clear paragraph or do simple algebra. They have no interest in the world around them, at best getting their ‘news’ from “The Daily Show.” While “The Daily Show” is the best program on TV, it is commentary, not news. An educated person should know the difference.

    Why are schools worse? Many reasons, including as mentioned above, talented women going into more lucrative fields, leaving behind those who aren’t as well prepared and who do not care as much. But the most important one is the parents. And they sabotage education in a mulitude of ways. Some think their children can do no wrong. Others are completely absent from their children’s education, or even worse, actively oppose the schools. And far too many won’t hold their children, or their schools, to high standards.

  • The AstroDyke

    Since my parents were both teachers, it took years for me to realize that while my dad had other options and chose the profession, teaching was the only occupation open to my college-educated mother in the 1960s-1970s.

    Also took me years to do the math to realize that the Caltech Alumna I know are the *first* women Caltech allowed in.

    It’s not as ancient history as we like to pretend.

  • Kaleberg

    Don’t put down The Daily Show as a source of news. People who got their news from them were much more likely to know that Sadam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11 and didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. The newspapers and television news got that, among other things, wrong.

    While the school system has been perennially maligned, it did take a hit when women started getting alternate careers. A lot more people remember truly amazing teachers, teachers who today would be working as lawyers, executives, doctors and in other careers. I’m no romantic about the school system. My mother was a teacher in NYC and I grew up with Up The Down Staircase. Education has always been one of those magical professions where we haven’t put in the resources to understand it. (This sometimes happens. Women have been getting pregnant for years, but we only figured out their most fertile times five or ten years ago.)

    We forget that it was illegal to teach a black slave to read. We forget that it was illegal to hire another company’s workers for higher wages. We forget that there was a Supreme Court decision barring women from being lawyers. People rail about taxes, but the tax on a black slave used to be 100%, of everything. The tax on women, particularly women of skill, was far higher than anything that modern tax protesters like to whine about.

  • andy.s

    OK, career option #1 is a ballerina, #3 is a stewardess or a WAC, I’m guessing, #4 is a teacher, #6 is a nurse.

    So what are #2 and #5? 5 is probably a model; is 2 some kind of Renaissance nobility? I was unaware that was a career option in the 1950’s.

    Also, it’s nice to see that the young blonde girl in the inset picture has other hair colors and styles open to her, too. Freedom of choice is what this country is all about.

  • Dave

    Sorry Kim, but I don’t think that your comments support your case that public schools were better 50 years ago. The fraction of college bound students has more than doubled in the past 50 years (I think). So, if the public school quality was the same 50 years ago, we still expect a larger fraction of unprepared college students today.

    Also, 50 years ago was only 7 months after Sputnik, and the post-Sputnik boost to science education did not have a chance to kick in. So, I think that, as far as science is concerned, it is quite likely that public schools were worse 50 years ago.

    On the other hand, I think that you are absolutely right about the effect of the parents. I suspect that this is actually far more important than the quality of the schools in predicting the future success of students.

  • Julianne

    To those wondering about the game, clicking on the “other options” text in the post takes you to the source. It’s pretty funny.

  • Mike

    I think the observation of this post gets to the heart of why oppression exists at all: because it benefits the ones who are not oppressed. When the oppression takes the form of limited opportunities, the benefit is cheap labor.

  • Julianne

    Exactly Mike (and others upthread). While we focus more on the “losers”, Injustice usually has a clear winner as well (see Zuska’s discussion of “privilige”). When injustices are corrected, some of the winners become losers, and thus exists the inertia against righting wrongs. Change is hard, even if it’s the right thing to do.

  • Kea

    There are a lot of crazy people out there. As someone wrote into my local paper the other day, it says in 1 Corinthians: Let your women keep silence in the churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. This guy was quite serious, in fact choking, because we just got a new bishop – a woman. Heh, give me shame and an eternity in hell anyday.

  • Haelfix

    I still think the primary issue with schooling K 1-12, really exists somewhere between K5-K10. Those 4 or 5 years are more or less pathetic relative to the rest of the world, and where the US lags everyone else. There is no good reason for that gap to be there, or why the standards suddenly crawl to a standstill.

  • Peter Shor

    Googling gives the profession of #2 as an actress.

  • John

    Here is a good read. It is *slightly* off-topic, but certainly related to education and women.

  • tmoney

    This has occurred in other minority groups such as African Americans as well. There was a time when university’s had a policy against hiring African American professors, so what occurred is often post docs would end up teaching in High Schools providing an excellent education, by extremely overqualified teachers. Currently teachers don’t even have to major in the field they teach, and even I with a degree in Biology and physics cant go teach in a highschool without a teachers certificate. I think what is needed is more competition in schools, just as universities compete so should k-12 schools. And the only way to do that would be through privatization, attaching the money to the students not the school, and allowing parents to decide what school to enroll their children, forcing schools to compete requiring better qualified and more effective teachers in their perspective subjects.

  • Neil B.

    Any woman who can do the job should find no barriers to doing whatever isn’t clearly limited by gender-interaction issues (play football alongside men) etc. However, the entry of women into the workforce in large numbers surely depressed wages, due to flood of labor supply. Now, the combined income of a couple who both work is hardly more (CPI adjusted) that what a given man could make decades ago. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, it is the dilution of available money to pay labor across the larger supply to a large extent. Yes, “more productivity” but now much of that is soaked up in competitive games and the empowered upper brackets.

  • Catherine Johnson

    On the subject of teacher pay, it varies considerably state to state. The New York state school board association has just released a study showing that teacher pay in New York is equivalent to that of other professions. In my own affluent suburban town, teachers earn far more than many tenured college professors.

    It’s high time someone took a good, hard look at the test scores of black and Hispanic students in these “high performing” public school districts.

    In my own district, last year, every single black and Hispanic student in the 8th grade failed the state tests in math and English. Every single one.

    Why do the white students pass?

    Parents and tutors are doing a vast amount of teaching.

  • Catherine Johnson

    But the most important [reason the schools are worse] is the parents.

    Yes, indeed.

    Parent involvement!

    Try Googling that phrase.

    Then try Googling Siegfried Engelmannn and Direct Instruction: “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

  • Catherine Johnson

    I suspect that this is actually far more important than the quality of the schools in predicting the future success of students.



    That is the case because parents and tutors have assumed responsibility for making sure their students are learning the content being “discovered” in class.

  • Sean M.

    If the old donor’s theory were true, then why is public education in Canada working just fine? The same for European countries which are even more succesful in treating women fairly.

    Does anyone have data on the decline of US public education? Literacy rates for the last 100 years, and so on? I expect the decline exists, but its not my country so I’ve never looked into it

  • ts

    I wonder if the U.S. even has a drive or need to care about providing better quality public school education system. Having been educated in both domestic and oversea public schools, I feel the current system may be serving well enough; the pace is just slower in general compared to other industrialized countries.

    What constantly shocks me in the U.S. is that the gross visible disparities in the living standards between haves and have-nots, and the quality of public education that kids receive reflects their parents’ living standards (perhaps because the school funding comes from local taxes as a comment above mentioned).

    If the value of public education is mostly in maintaining some sort of “universal” standards, it is odd that kids need to be given advantage or punished depending on where they are born. We know, however, that’s basically how the U.S. is structured. Haves in this country do benefit from having less educated population around, and the social momentum is to keep things that way.

    Low salaries in public education make it a rather unattractive career option in the U.S. for many domestic talents. If things come down to money and how that flows in society (as is often the case), then maybe the U.S. can start hiring cheap(er) English-speaking educators from third-world countries with very well educated populations, maybe like India. It’s been happening in private education industry, such as in online tutoring. Many sectors in the U.S., from the sweat-shop type to the highly technical, already depend on foreign labor, so why not public education?

    That seems very American way of solving the “problem”… for now…

  • PENolan

    Jonathan Kozol writes compellingly about the purposeful socio-economic inequities in America’s public schools as well as the curriculum deficiencies that lead to an inability to recognize connections. If high school students graduated with the ability to question and critically analyze what they heard from the government, no one would ever go to war. High Stakes Testing is one example of this trend which some argue can be traced back to our founding fathers.


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