Women and Public Education


First published by the Daily Times Chronicle, Winchester Edition, for WOmen's History Month, March 2000/

Looking back over 150 years of public education in Winchester, one might expect to see gradual progression towards equity in the opportunities, attitude, and treatment for girls and women.

Actually, one encounters a more complex history of education and women in Winchester.

For example, in its report for the school year 1850-51, the School Committee (J. M. Steele, Charles Goddard, and F. O. Prince) stated that "the object of the high school is threefold. 1st. to give young men a thorough business education. 2nd. To prepare young men for college. 3d. To give young ladies that exact knowledge, that complete mental culture which will fit them to become teachers, and to fill and adorn any station into which they are liable to be called."

While certainly sexist, the School Committee nevertheless exhibited great concern for girls' education, devoting four pages of its report to the subject.

But in 1863, another school committee, composed of five men, set forth the advantages and necessity of a high school by quoting from the 1851 report the first two objects only.

To be sure, much of the 1851 report on girls' education is a disparagement of female seminaries, with which the later committee may have disagreed. However, the appearance of the 1863 report is that high school existed only for boys.

The 1851 committee was quite favorable to female education, though they saw different goals for educated girls than for boys.

"The question of woman's culture lies at the very roots of the tree of liberty. Her influence is great, either for good or evil. It has a moulding, plastic power on all it touches....

"The thing to be desired is that she have the privilege of a complete culture, as woman. That culture which will leave her all the peculiarities of her sex,--that will not trespass upon her feminineness, while it gives her the influence of an enlightened and enlarged soul. This, we contend, females do not have [from seminaries]... Their book education amounts to but little... They do everything artificially....

"We wish to see the real feminine soul under the influence of a complete and appropriate culture.... They should have an instructor whose spiritual culture will bear them upward and onward until their communion with higher things will cause them to look with disdain upon the foolish notions drilled into them by their half-educated female teachers, and, we are compelled to add, too often by their mothers. We wish to see woman more mind-like....

"It is the design of the committee... to make the high school superior for the education of females, to the best young ladies seminaries in the land."

Not until 1874, when women were first allowed on the School Committee, was such particular attention given to girls. While both boys and girls attended school, school committees tended to think (or at least write) in terms of boys.

Chapin School, 1913

For example, take two excerpts from the 1872 report: "And as the mother, the child's first teacher, gives form and character to its opening mental and moral life, so it is, onward to manhood, the living teacher, more than the book, that determines the successful education of the pupil."

"Such a reconstruction of our School course...may relieve it from the charge of withholding from the child what his capacity, his actual thirst for knowledge, and his instincts naturally demand."

The use of exclusively masculine pronouns may have simply been a convention; however, when women joined the committee, feminine nouns and pronouns were no longer overlooked, as in this excerpt from 1876:

"There are now three courses of study in this [high] school, the regular course of four years, arranged for such lads and misses as propose to finish their education, in the main, in the school; the college preparatory course, of four years, designed to fit boys and girls for college; and the English course, of three years, for such as wish to pursue only English branches for that length of time."

Significantly, girls were no longer excluded as candidates for college, either.

A particular interest of the women committee members, however, might look backward to modern minds. While girls were already studying the same academic course as the boys, the women of the school committee wanted to introduce sewing classes for girls. When finally introduced, in the 1880s, industrial education also included carpentry for boys.


As with pupils, so were there sexist attitudes towards school committee members and teachers in the 19th century.

Even in 1851, the School Committee preferred male teachers. "In fact," it wrote, "we do not believe much in female teachers, except for children. This is their province. Here they succeed. To train the intellect and the heart of young ladies they are wholly incompetent and unfit... They are not educated, and hence they cannot educate."

If women were educated better, perhaps that committee would have thought them competent teachers for older students. Still, at the end of the century, although most teachers were still women, men were thought to be preferable for certain positions.

In 1898, the School Committee wrote: "This committee thinks a male principal should be employed in all schools except the primary. A great majority of boys of eight or ten years of age need a man's influence and a man's discipline. Mental discipline and obedience are the most important lessons a child can learn. When a boy or girl has acquired some mental discipline and has learned the lesson of obedience, he or she can study without constant supervision and can pursue some line of independent thought. We believe that men succeed better than women in enforcing a healthy discipline and in developing habits of study and independent thought. We therefore advocate male principals for the grammar and intermediate schools.

"But it is practically impossible to have a male teacher at the head of each school, if we are to have more four-room buildings and many schools, because of the additional expense."

Men were paid better than women. In 1889, for example, the male high school and centre grammar principals were paid $1,800 and $1,500. The female principal at the Wyman grammar school was paid $600. The highest paid woman that year was the first assistant to the high school principal, who received $700.

School Committee

Women had limited opportunity to work for change from within the School Committee during the nineteenth century. First elected to the committee in 1874, they were excluded again in 1888. While several official statements supporting the women members appear in the committee reports, there were objections in the community.

"Have the schools gained?," wrote an anonymous "Observer" to the Winchester Star of May 19, 1882. "I think no one will assert that anything has been gained, as we should have done equally as well if we had had all men.... I suppose that if there is anything a woman dislikes, it is to be bossed by a woman. ...When it comes to women telling male teachers what is what, they probably feel as though a dose of castor oil was being administered, but of course they try not to show it.

"What do scholars think of it? Again we are obliged to find that the majority look on with a feeling of amusement, and pay about as much attention to anything they do or say as they would to a circus, and in about the same spirit....

"I have been told by men who have served on boards where women had a part in the proceedings that many things that ought to have been said, had to be omitted on account of their presence, and much time was wasted on frivolous matters.

"I have heard some say that women had more time and could better attend to visiting schools than men. This fact don't seem to be of any advantage when we come to consider the disadvantage of having them in the schools at all, clothed with any power over the inmates."

Such nineteenth-century attitudes are now a curiosity of history. They do point out, however, that there is material for our own students of women's studies within our own town's history.

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