Education

Title

Education

Subject

Education, 2016

Description

Women’s Role in Education

The field of education changed dramatically from the late nineteenth centurty to the 1960s, particularly for women in the Shelby County area. Education's function as a tool for social mobilty and enfranchisment began to be used by women during the Reconstruction period. As they entered the workforce in the late 1800s women demanded an end to wage discrimination, but with the evidence seen here it was not without cultural ideas of white supremacy. Education as a tool for enfranchising women would expand to issues of race and politics during the first half of the twentieth century when there were still segregated schools and crippling gender roles. The changing landscape of education for women is evidenced in the many letters and articles left behind from these eras.

One of the first women involved in education in Memphis was Elizabeth Avery Meriwether. Born to a slaveholding family in the antebellum south, Meriwether’s contributions to gender quality in the field of education were motivated out of her racial identity and societal position and her experiences during the Civil War. Meriwether’s husband, Minor Meriwether was a captain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and eventually became a founding Member of the Ku Klux Klan. During the Union occupation of Memphis, Elizabeth was an open supporter of Confederate forces and was believed by Sherman’s army to be secretly aiding Confederate forces. Meriwether was left vulnerable by her involvement in the war and the absence of her husband and had her property confiscated and was forced out of Memphis in 1862, spending the remaining years of the war as a refugee. Her subsequent involvement in women’s rights and education were motivated in part by this experience as both she and other white confederates tried to rebuild their lives after the war and maintain political and social control during the Reconstruction. She began to advocate for white women’s suffrage in order to offset the new freedmen’s vote as well as the northern republican vote. Her arguments for women’s suffrage/equality were made more palatable to white southern men since they were firmly rooted in racist ideals/”southern respectability.” Meriwether had no qualms about marrying a newfound sense of women’s equality with old antebellum ideals and wrote a series of fictional stories romanticizing the antebellum southern culture. Education during this period of time was not only gendered, but also highly racialized and used with the specific intent of perpetuating both racism and mysogyny by instilling servile values in both groups. Meriwether began to link the transformative power of education to advocate for gender equality in a broader sense and used the tactic of disenfachising black individuals in the realm of politics and education. By bringing greater equality and education to white women, white supremacists could continue to exercise control over the black population in the South.

Elizabeth Meriwether’s interest in women’s rights brought her into the issue of equal wages for women teachers in the Memphis City School system. She published a series of letters in the local Appeal newspaper in 1873. These exchanges were dubbed “The Woman’s Question” and dealt with wage equality for women and the competency of females as teachers. Meriwether’s response to a “Serratus Magnus” (a doctor who wrote a series of responses to Meriwether in opposition to equal pay and women entering the workforce) in the Appeal comically throws Serratus’ grammar mistakes back in his face as she uses this as an example of intellectual equality among the sexes: “If to write the English language correctly and concisely be one of the peculiar rights and prerogatives of the master sex, then, by some pitiable accident, “Serratus M.” has been defrauded of that masculine right.” With Merriwether’s aid the movement for wage equality in Memphis gained traction and in 1873 the issue of wage equality was resolved (across rank and in both black and white schools), although representation on the Board of Education was still lacking women. The decision to equalize for both genders came more out of a financial need to cut expenses than from the genuine belief in wage equality, but nonetheless this advancement resulted in males leaving the occupation (for higher paying jobs) and subsequently led to more women entering the field of education. This advancement represents a cultural shift that was made possible only in the aftermath of the Civil War. Women (for white affluent women specifically) not only had to step up and perform masculine duties in the absence of husbands and fathers during the Civil War, but also were bereft of their protections when they entered the workforce/public sphere in an attempt to help support themselves and their families after the war. Women before the Civil War were regularly employed as teachers, however did not usually stay in the workforce once married; this trend changed after the war and was one of the reasons Meriwether became concerned with the enfranchisement of women as teaching was a respectable profession.

It is interesting to see that the first stirrings of feminism in Memphis were motivated by a confluence of economic issues and racist sentiment. This wave of women entering into the field of education and demanding wage equality was no doubt a large step for women's equality. This new push for social equality thorugh education would be expanded to issues of race during the first half of the twentieth century with the aid of women such as Charl Williams.

Charl Williams began her career as a teacher in a one-room school building in Arlington, Tennessee. She was a young woman in her early twenties when Jim Crow education was expanding and gender based wage discrimination was engrained and accepted into society. Williams was extremely passionate about education reform, suffrage, gender and racial equality, and equal pay for women. She was able to channel all of these passions and make an enormous difference in the Tennessee school systems. She later became superintendent of Shelby County Schools and was the first woman vice-chair of the national Democratic Party. She used these positions to revolutionize rural schools by providing more funding, more schools, and equal opportunities for all students. “For Charl Williams,” author Sarah Freeman explains, “eliminating gender discrimination, especially in politics and the workplace, and improving public education were codependent causes.” She campaigned for higher salaries for public schools, which employed mostly women, and for the rights of married women in the workforce.

Charl Williams worked as president for the National Education Association (NEA), and after earning this title she worked very hard to enhance the operations of Shelby County Schools. She operated closely with President Franklin Roosevelt and the first lady on how to improve public school systems in rural areas. She obtained support of federal aid for the equalization of public education for black and white children through her position in this organization. Not only did Williams work for racial equality and fight illiteracy rates, she also spoke openly against women leaving the work force. The social stigma of women remaining purely domestic creatures disheartened her. She argued, that without the services of the nation’s ten million workingwomen, the “wheels of business and industry in this country would cease,” but offered that perhaps women needed “to prove to cynical males that women are indispensable to the welfare of the nation.”

Although Charl Williams was just a small town teacher at one point in her career, the enormous impact she made on schools all over the U.S. was shown in a news paper article from the New York Evening post. Mary Armstrong wrote, “While it is impossible to tell here all that Miss Williams has accomplished for Shelby County since 1914, some idea can be gained from the fact that it is now considered one of the three model counties of the nation.” In the span of 7 short years she raised Southern rural schools to a standard much higher than even schools in the North. Williams added a nine-month school year, ten month’s salary for teachers, and a bonus for summer study. She could be considered one of the more progressive activists during Jim Crow and institutionalized racism and sexism.

Like Charl Williams, Julie Norman Isenberg was an active advocate for women’s education, but during the 1960s. Isenberg was a native Memphian and Smith College graduate and was active in the Smith Alumnae Association. Her intrest in education as a means of enfranchisment for women in society and politics is evidenced in her letters and writings to the Smith College adminstration. Isenberg was involved with the American Alumni Association, which held seminars on public responsibility. The goal of these seminars were to bring about reforms in education as they pertained specifically to the areas of government and civil leadership in primary and seconary education, in order to create a well informed voter-ship of women in the U.S. Isenberg attended the association's Seminar for Public Responsibility in 1960 at Dauphin Island (Isenberg's tution was paid in part by the Smith Alumnae Association). This was stirred to advocate educational chage both at her alma matter and in the general public as well. In 1961, Isenberg wrote an impassioned letter to the President of Smith College advocating for further involvment in the program. It is clear in this letter that Isenberg saw her position as an educated woman as coming with certain responsibilies to the public. Isenberg states that the program "is a new, exciting, far reaching way in which Smith can be responsive to the needs of our country, ‘calling’ its alumnae to grapple personally and responsibly, with the problems of our society at all levels."

It is very interesting to see how Smith's administration handeld Isengberg's push for involvment in education reform and is a good representation of social expecations of women in both politics and education at the time. While Smith's adminstration did authorize to send another member of the Alumnae Association to the seminar the following year in 1961, they were very reluctant to link the Smith name directly to the American Alumni Association's education reform movement. Nell Richmond, wife of Smith's president and head of the Alumnae Asssociation, wrote Isenberg back regarding Isenberg's letter to her husband. In her letter Richmond is careful to offer support for the general idea of education reform but states, "...to a woman, we felt that it is not the place of the Alumnae Association to recommend that Smith clubs as such take up the betterment of local education as a club activity." Richmond goes on to state, "we cannot begin to have political overtones." This sentiment expressed by Richmond demonstrates that there was still reluctance on the part of women to be involved directly in the public/political spehere. Education reform that stressed classes in government and instilled a sense of civic responsiblity would inevitably lead to greater numbers of women entering into the political field or at the very least supporting political figures who supported women's issues. Isenberg received yet another letter from Smith College written by Gerneral Secretary Katherine Cowen. In her letter, Cowen reiterated what Richmond had said about the Smith Alumnae Association becoming involved directly with the American Alumni Association; however, she did more to help preserve the image of Smith as a progressive instituion. Cowen quotes Sophia Smith's will (founder of the college) and states that the goal of Smith College is to "furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now…for young men." Cowen's reiteration of the college's mission statement (and later list of classes Sophia wanted to be available to women at Smith) gives a fuller picture of the conflicting nature of women's education during this time. Educations, and subsequently professional and social roles, were still highly gendered in spite of progressive rhetoric and strides women had made in the public realm. Isenberg's insistance that a woman's education was not just for her own personal benefit, but that it demanded a certain level of leadership in public was not unique to her. Isenberg recived a letter from fellow Smith Alumnae Mary Louise Reilley after an article Isenberg published in the Smith Quartely (a publication by the Smith Alumnae Association) about her expirences at thr American Alumni Association's Seminar for Public Responsibilty. Reilley who was a former educator shared her concerns about the state of education, "...as an active worker in the League of Women Voters...I tremble for my country at the ignorance, apathy and irresponsibility of the majority of our so-called educated citizens." The sentiments expressed by both Isenberg and Reilley reflect that this was a time in which women were beginning to view their privlige as educated women as giving them certain responsibillites to involve themselves personally with the political realm. This entrance of more women into politics, provided by education that was less gendered, was no doubt the reason why the Smith administration was reluctant to link its name to the education refroms Isenberg was advocating for.

Education's use as a tool for social reform changed dramatically from the racist and provinical view of Elizabeth Avery Merriwether to Charl Williams’ attempt at desegregation in the early 1900s and Isenberg's educational reform agenda in the 1960s. Each woman addressed above had a very different way of advocating change, but nonetheless fought for women’s equality in education. The diverse time frames give an interesting view into how cultural ideas of racism, sexism, and equality change over time, but also prove that in a world of gender discrimination there are always voices attempting to be heard.

Kathleen Christine Berkeley, “Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, ‘An Advocate for Her Sex’: Feminism and Conservativism in the Post-civil War South” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 43, no. 4 (Tennessee Historical Society, 1984): 390–407.
Ibid., 396 – 397.
Kathleen Christine Berkeley, “Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, ‘An Advocate for Her Sex’: Feminism and Conservativism in the Post-civil War South” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 43, no. 4 (Tennessee Historical Society, 1984): 397.
Ibid., 405.
Ibid.
Ibid.
Teresa A. Meade and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks Blackwell, A Companion to Gender History (Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 133-137.
Ibid., 133.
Kathleen Christine Berkely, “The Ladies Want to Bring About Reform in the Public Schools: Public Education and Women’s Rights in the Post-Civil War South” History of Education Quarterly 24, no. 1 (History of Education Society: Wiley, 1984): 51.
The Memphis Daily Appeal, “The Woman’s Question.” March 26th, 1873. From Library of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/memphisdailyappeal (accessed April 23rd, 2016).
Kathleen Christine Berkely, “The Ladies Want to Bring About Reform in the Public Schools: Public Education and Women’s Rights in the Post-Civil War South” History of Education Quarterly 24, no. 1 (History of Education Society: Wiley, 1984): 45-53.
Ibid., 53.
Ibid., 50-54.
Kathleen Christine Berkeley, “Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, ‘An Advocate for Her Sex’: Feminism and Conservativism in the Post-civil War South” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 43, no. 4 (Tennessee Historical Society, 1984): 402.
Sarah Wilkerson Freeman, Tennessee Women: Their Lives and Times (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009), 164.
Ibid.,166.
Ibid.
Ibid., 179.
Mary Gilpin Armstrong, “The Story of Charl O. Williams” The Journal of Education 95, no. 6 (Trustees of Boston University), 146.
Ibid., 146.
Julie Isenberg. Julie Isenberg to Thomas Mendenhall June 11th, 1961. Letter. From University of Memphis Library.
Nell Richmond. Nell Richmond to Julie Isenberg June 15th, 1961. Letter. University of Memphis Library.
Katherine Cowen. Katherine Cowen to Julie Isenberg June 19th, 1961. Letter. University of Memphis Library.
Mary Louise Reilly. Mary Reilly to Julie Isenberg November 24th, 1960. Postcard. University of Memphis Library.



Bibliography


Secondary Sources

Berkeley, Kathleen Christine. 1984. “Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, "an Advocate for Her Sex": Feminism and Conservativism in the Post-civil War South”. Tennessee Historical Quarterly 43(4). Tennessee Historical Society: 390–407. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42626482.\

Berkley, Kathleen Christine. 1984. “The Ladies Want to Bring About Reform in the Public Schools: Public Education and Women’s Rights in the Post-Civil War South”. History of Education Quarterly 24(1). [History of Education Society, Wiley]: 45-58.

Blackwell Companions to History: A Companion to Gender History Edited by Teresa A. Meade and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks Blackwell Publishing 2004.

Helper-Ferris, Laura, Beverly G. Bond, and Sarah Wilkerson Freeman. Tennessee Women: Their Lives and Times. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed April 15, 2016).

Primary Sources

Armstrong, Mary Gilpin. 1922. “The Story of Charl O. Williams”. The Journal of Education 95(6) (2366). Trustees of Boston University: 146. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42806057. Accessed April 24th, 2016.

Cowen, Katherine. Katherine Cowen to Julie Isenberg June 19th, 1961. Letter. University of Memphis McWherter Library. Box 1 Folder 11.

The Memphis Daily Appeal, “The Woman’s Question.” March 26th, 1873. From Library of Congress. http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/memphisdailyappeal (accessed April 23rd, 2016).

Reilly, Mary Louise. Mary Reilly to Julie Isenberg November 24th, 1960. Postcard. University of Memphis McWherter Library. Box 1 Folder 11.

Richmond, Nell. Nell Richmond to Julie Isenberg June 15th, 1961. Letter. University of Memphis McWherter Library. Box 1 Folder 11.


Isenberg, Julie. Julie Isenberg to Thomas Mendenhall June 11th, 1961. Letter. University of Memphis McWherter Library. Box 1 Folder 11.

Creator

Cara O' Connell, Denise Wakemen

Publisher

The University of Memphis Libraries

Contributor

Cara O’Connel, Denise Wakeman, Micah Marshall

Items in the Education Collection

Letter from Julie Isenberg to Thomas C. Mendenhall
In this letter Julie Isenberg wrote to the president of Smith College in regards to Smith’s participation in the American Alumni Association Seminar for Public Responsibility. The main goal of the American Alumni Association’s seminar was to…

Postcard from Mary Louise Reilly to Julie Isenberg
This document is a letter written by Mary Louise Reilly, a Smith College alum, to Julie Isenberg in regards to an article Isenberg published in the Smith Quarterly (a publication for and put together by alumnae). In this postcard Mary Louise Reilly…

Letter from Mrs. Nell Richmond to Julie Isenberg
This letter is written by Nell Richmond, wife of the president of Smith College and head of the Alumnae Association, in response to Isenberg's intrest in expanding the Alumnae Association's involvement in education reform at local levels. Richmond…

Letter from Katherine Cowen to Julie Isenberg
A response letter from Katherine Cowen, General Secretary of the Smith Alumnae Assocation, to Julie Isenberg about Julie’s intrest in school reform and her desire to get the Alumnae Association involved. Isenberg wanted the Smith Alumnae…

The Story of Charl O. Williams
This article gives a biographical account of Charl William’s life, beginning in her childhood and gives an overview of her involvement in Shelby County schools. Gilpin sang Williams' praises and demonstrated that Williams brought the standard of…

"The Woman's Question", Elizabeth Avery Merriwether in the Memphis Appeal
This document is a part of a series of letters in which readers of the Appeal wrote in with their opinions about “ The Woman’s Question”, in which the discussion ranged from wage equality (which was the issue that sparked the public debate),…