Celebrating Women Educators

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Women Educators

Looking back throughout history, there have been many women educators who have made significant contribution to the field. The nineteenth century saw major advances in educational opportunities for women and girls, from the common school movement in the early part of the century to multiple opportunities in higher education at the century’s close. In the 1800s, women began to play central roles in education – as teachers.

The selection below is only a handful of amazing women educators that reached stellar achievements in a variety of education sectors:

Emma {Hart} Willard was an American women’s rights activist who dedicated her life to education. At the age of 23, Emma Hart Willard opened the doors of her home in Middlebury, Vermont, to girls seeking a rich educational experience comparable with their brothers.

She pioneered girls’ education, taking it from focusing on “the charms of youth and beauty” to intellectually stimulating and rigorous courses in mathematics, geography, history, science, and philosophy.

She worked in several schools and founded the first school for women’s higher education, the Troy Female Seminary in Troy, New York. With the success of her school, Willard was able to travel across the country and abroad, to promote education for women.

The seminary was renamed the Emma Willard School in 1895 in her honor. More than 200 years later, this school continues to carry on this mission.

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Maria Montessori was an Italian educator and physician best known for developing the Montessori method of education, a student-friendly method, which is being used in several public and private schools around the world.

In 1890 Montessori enrolled at the University of Rome to study physics, mathematics and natural sciences, receiving her diploma two years later. She was a dedicated student, and on 10 July 1896 became one of the first female doctors in Italy, and with this distinction also became known across the country.

In 1897 Montessori’s work with the asylum children began to receive more prominence. The 28-year-old Montessori was asked to address the National Medical Congress in Turin, where she advocated the controversial theory that the lack of adequate provision for children with mental and emotional disorders was a cause of their delinquency.

In 1899 Montessori visited Bicêtre Hospital in Paris where Séguin had further developed Itard’s technique of sensorial education in his schools for children with disabilities. Montessori was so keen to understand his work properly that she translated his book Traitement moral, hygiène et education des idiotes (1846) into Italian.

Montessori grasped the opportunity of working with typical children and, bringing some of the educational materials she had developed at the Orthophrenic School, she established her first Casa dei Bambini or ‘Children’s House’, which opened on 6 January 1907. A small opening ceremony was organized, but few had any expectations for the project, the founding Montessori School.

Montessori felt differently,

“I had a strange feeling which made me announce emphatically that here was the opening of an undertaking of which the whole world would one day speak.”

In 1949 she received the first of three nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2020, she was nominated by Time magazine as one of their Top 100 Women of the year.

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Johanna ‘Anne’ Mansfield Sullivan Macy, better known as Anne Sullivan was a well known Irish-American teacher and a mentor to Helen Keller. Her parents immigrated to the United States from Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s. She went through a tough time as a child because her mother was suffering from frail health and her father was an alcoholic.

After the death of her mother and abandonment by her father at the age of 8, she and her brother Jimmie were sent to state almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. When her brother passed away, she was than moved to the Perkins School for the Blind, Boston in 1880.

She graduated from Perkins as a valedictorian of her class. She told her fellow students: “Duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it; for every obstacle we overcome, every success we achieve tends to bring man closer to God.”

After graduation at the tender age of 20, she moved to Tuscumbia, Alabama to live with the Keller family to tutor their deaf, blind and mute daughter, Helen Keller thanks to the reference Perkins director, Michael Anagnos. She stayed with Helen for the next 39 years tutoring her, accompanying her to the university, helping her to understand her lectures, tutorials, etc.

Sullivan and Keller started working for the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) as advocates, counselors and fundraisers.

While working with Helen Keller on her autobiography, Sullivan met John A. Macy, a Harvard University instructor. Macy helped edit the manuscript, and he fell in love with Sullivan. After refusing several marriage proposals from him, she finally accepted at the age of 39. The two were married in 1905. Around 1913 or 1914, Sullivan’s marriage broke up. Macy went to Europe, but the two never divorced.

Sullivan began to experience health problems, and Polly Thomson became Keller’s secretary. The three women eventually took up residence in Forest Hills, New York. She died in comma at the age of 70, while holding hands with her companion of life, Helen Keller.

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Uta Thyra Hagen (12 June 1919 – 14 January 2004) was a German-American actress and theatre practitioner. She originated the role of Martha in the 1962 Broadway premiere of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, who called her “a profoundly truthful actress.” Because Hagen was on the Hollywood blacklist, in part because of her association with Paul Robeson, her film opportunities dwindled and she focused her career on New York theatre.

She later became a highly influential acting teacher at New York’s Herbert Berghof Studio and authored best-selling acting texts, Respect for Acting, with Haskel Frankel, and A Challenge for the Actor. Her most substantial contributions to theatre pedagogy were a series of “object exercises” that built on the work of Konstantin Stanislavski and Yevgeny Vakhtangov.

She was elected to the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1981. She twice won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play and received a Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1999.

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Mary Mason Lyon was an American pioneer in women’s education. The daughter of a farming family in Buckland, Massachusetts, Lyon had a hardscrabble childhood. Her father died when she was five, and the entire family pitched in to help run the farm. Lyon was thirteen when her mother remarried and moved away; she stayed behind in Buckland in order to keep the house for her brother Aaron, who took over the farm.

She attended various district schools intermittently and, in 1814, began teaching in them as well. Lyon’s modest beginnings fostered her lifelong commitment to extending educational opportunities to girls from middling and poor backgrounds.

Lyon was eventually able to attend two secondary schools, Sanderson Academy in Ashfield and Byfield Seminary in eastern Massachusetts. At Byfield, she was befriended by the headmaster, Rev. Joseph Emerson, and his assistant, Zilpah Polly Grant. She also soaked up Byfield’s ethos of rigorous academic education infused with Christian commitment. Lyon then taught at several academies, including Sanderson, a small school of her own in Buckland, Adams Female Academy (run by Grant), and the Ipswich Female Seminary (also run by Grant).

Lyon’s attendance at the then novel, popular, lectures in laboratory botany by Amos Eaton influenced her involvement in the female seminary movement.

In 1834, Laban Wheaton and his daughter-in-law, Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton, called upon Mary Lyon for assistance in establishing the Wheaton Female Seminary (now Wheaton College) in Norton, Massachusetts.

Miss Lyon created the first curriculum with the goal that it be equal in quality to those of men’s colleges. She also provided the first principal, Eunice Caldwell. Wheaton Female Seminary opened on 22 April 1835, with 50 students and three teachers. Lyon and Caldwell left Wheaton, along with eight Wheaton students, to open Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Lyon’s vision fused intellectual challenge and moral purpose. She valued socioeconomic diversity and endeavored to make the seminary affordable for students of modest means. Lyon’s energetic, compassionate and engaging personality earned the affection of faculty, students, alumnae, and supporters. While her own background was relatively narrow, her aspirations for her students were to give them the self-confidence that they could achieve whatever they set out to do.

In 1905, Lyon was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in New York.

In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.

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Mary Ann Shad was an American-Canadian anti-slavery activist, journalist, publisher, teacher, and lawyer. She was the first black woman publisher in North America and the first woman publisher in Canada. She was also the first black woman to attend law school in the US.

Mary Shadd edited The Provincial Freeman, established in 1853, published weekly in southern Ontario, it advocated equality, integration and self-education for black people in Canada and the United States.

After the Civil War, she taught in black schools in Wilmington. She then returned to Washington, D.C., with her daughter, and taught for fifteen years in the public schools. She then attended Howard University School of Law and graduated at the age of 60 in 1883, becoming only the second black woman in the United States to earn a law degree.

During the Civil War, at the behest of the abolitionist Martin Delany, she served as a recruiting officer to enlist black volunteers for the Union Army in the state of Indiana.

After the Civil War, she taught in black schools in Wilmington. She then returned to Washington, D.C., with her daughter, and taught for fifteen years in the public schools. She then attended Howard University School of Law and graduated at the age of 60 in 1883, becoming only the second black woman in the United States to earn a law degree.

In 1985 Mary Shadd Public School was opened in Scarborough Ontario Canada, in the town of Malvern, and was later enlarged in 1992. Both the school motto “Free to be the best of me” and school anthem “We’re on the right track, Mary Shadd” are tributes to Shadd, after whom the school was named.

In 1994, Shadd was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada.

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The handful described above does not touch the surface of the multitude of women educators that have changed history; especially in the education of women and girls. Many gains in women’s education can be attributed to special interventions such as the elimination of school fees, scholarships, community schools for girls and the training of women teachers. Such targeted efforts have translated into higher girls’ school enrollments in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Yemen, Morocco, Uganda and Brazil.

Education escalated as a global priority during the 1990s, featured at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and the 2000 Millennium Summit.

How Women Fought For The Right To Be Educated Throughout History

In ancient times only some Women were allowed to attend school in medieval times; attending at a convent was the first and easiest choices for women of that time. Finally, by the 19th century, women achieved higher education in university acceptance and inclusion, that the the pioneers that lived before them.

Girls’ Education in 21st Century: Every day, girls face barriers to education caused by poverty, cultural norms and practices, poor infrastructure, violence and fragility.

Girls’ education is a strategic development priority for the World Bank. Advances in girls’ education worldwide have been a success story in development.

According to UNESCO, 96 girls were enrolled in primary school for every 100 boys in 2008, up from 84 girls per 100 boys in 1995. The ratio for secondary school is close behind, at 95 girls to 100 boys in 2008.

Onward and upward may all future women go!


The Historical Role of Women in Education – PDF

HARVARD EDUCATION REVIEW: The History of Women in Education

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