Listen: Terry Gross Interviews Dana Goldstein about Her New Book “The Teacher Wars”

The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein

If, like me, you missed Terry Gross’s interview a couple of weeks ago with Dana Goldstein, about her new book The Teacher Wars, you should definitely check it out.

The book is a history of the teaching profession, and the interview covers so many fascinating issues. One that I found particularly interesting was the historical relationship between teaching as a women’s profession and the wages teachers earn.

Basically, Goldstein argues that until the early 19th century teachers were predominantly male. And it was the push by the school reform movement of around that time to make schooling universal and compulsory, and the need to make those things affordable, that led to those reformers recruiting women teachers and arguing to the public that they were more suited than men for the job, all in order to lower the average wages teachers earned:

[A]s school reformers began to realize in the 1820s that schooling should be compulsory — that parents should be forced to send their kids to school, and public education should be universal — they had to come up with a way to do this basically in an affordable manner, because raising taxes was just about as unpopular back then as it is now. So what we see is this alliance between politicians and education reformers in the early 19th century to redefine teaching as a female profession.

They do this in a couple ways: First, they argue that women are more moral in a Christian sense than men. They depict men as alcoholic, intemperate, lash-wielding, horrible teachers who are abusive to children. They make this argument that women can do a better job because they’re more naturally suited to spend time with kids, on a biological level. Then they are also quite explicit about the fact that [they] can pay women about 50 percent as much — and this is going to be a great thing for the taxpayer.

I knew in the back of my mind that something like this (at least in broad outline) was true, but hearing the details, and hearing them presented as clearly and forcefully as Goldstein presents them, was really eye-opening.

Beyond adding yet another arrow to the quiver of facts about women’s oppression that we can draw from in making feminist political arguments, it suggests fascinating and perhaps politically powerful connections between the history of women’s rights, the history of labor rights, and the present labor struggles being fought not only by elementary and high school teachers, but also adjunct professors.

A great factoid that I didn’t know before hearing the interview is that Susan B Anthony got her start in social and political activism organizing around wage issues for women teachers! There’s so much more in it too—issues ranging from the racial dimensions of the history of teaching to the founding of teachers unions. I can’t wait to read the book.

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