The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2001, Volume 47, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Reviews

Kyle E. Ciani, Reviews Editor

Country Schoolwomen: Teaching in Rural California, 1850-1950.

By Kathleen Weiler. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998. Photographs, notes, charts, Bibliography, index, xvi + 340 pages. $49.50 hardcover.

Reviewed by Dr. Sandra Cook, Special Coordinator for Enrollment Mangement, San Diego State University, whose scholarly specialization is the history of education.

Kathleen Weiler’s reasons for writing this book were twofold, “an intellectual question, and a personal trouble.”1 The personal trouble was occasioned by the death of her mother in 1985. The author’s mother, who was a teacher in the rural California about which the author writes, seemed to have found a great sense of fulfillment and identity through her profession. This fulfillment and identity seemed to be at odds with the assumptions the author held regarding the subjugation of women teachers to patriarchal and State control. Weiler wanted to understand what teaching meant to these women.

Weiler focused her research on the lives and work of women teachers in rural Kings and Tulare Counties in California from 1850 to 1950. Her book begins, however, with a general exploration and analysis of national historical shifts in teaching in order to provide a context for her more specific study. While teaching may have begun as a man’s profession, by the time the common school movement was underway, women outnumbered men as teachers. While women worked cheaper and had virtually no other options available to them, teaching was seen as socially acceptable because it extended the woman’s limited and proper (and separate) sphere of existence. Teaching was seen as an extension of family and home. Industrialization and urbanization transformed teaching and challenged it as being closer to factory work than as an extension of family and home. Growing administrative control by men, bureaucratization and professionalization of teaching, and the suffrage movement transformed the way teaching was viewed. Concern by male administrators that women lacked the intellectual capacity to prepare boys to develop masculine characteristics brought about the idea of the “women peril.” Many of the author’s assumptions about teaching grew from these changes which took place primarily in urban areas. In rural areas, however, teachers still seemed to possess considerable autonomy.

Weiler cautioned against accepting “universal truths” about teachers and their work citing the tendency of feminist historians to suffer “historical amnesia” when it came to looking beyond the power of hegemonic ideology. Weiler used gender as a category of historical analysis when she investigated the growth of bureaucratic state control over education in California. She found that gender was significant in this history. In order to understand how women worked within the confines of the state regulations, and to compare the visions of teaching of the whole with the visions of the individuals, Weiler narrowed her study to individuals who taught in Tulare and Kings Counties.

Tulare and Kings Counties possessed a rural culture that replicated the gender, racial, and religious structures of the dominant culture of the United States. These white, Protestant values were transmitted by means of the schools. By 1900, the majority of teachers in these schools were women. Despite the underlying assumptions of common schooling and progressive reform that allowed males to control the work of women teachers, Weiler posited that the growing bureaucratization and professionalization of teaching actually provided these rural teachers with new opportunities and possibilities. Weiler organized the paths that these women teachers took into three categories: (1) seekers of power, (2) outsiders, and (3) country schoolmarms. By examining individual teachers’ lives, Weiler was able to show that instead of following strict societal constructs, these teachers constructed their own subjectivities and made meaning of their lives, albeit within the framework of existing discourses.

Before the Second World War, the rural schools came under increased supervision from the county and state. However, in these rural areas, women became rural supervisors and principals which afforded them new opportunities for leadership and higher pay. Teachers in small one- and two-room schools were able to teach with autonomy unheard of in the urban schools. It is clear from the narratives, life stories, and reminiscences Weiler researched that these women believed their work was important and meaningful. They exercised more control over their worklife than might be assumed when only looking at national trends. However, most of this respect, autonomy, and satisfaction was lost after World War Two as women lost the administrative power they had gained, the graded schools became male dominated, and rural schools were consolidated. And while this transformation was recognized by men and women, they did not possess a feminist context from which to view it.

From her exploration of the lives of individual teachers in rural California, Weiler challenged the assumption that the public schools were a patriarchal entity wherein women and their ideas and creativity were subjugated. Rather than dismal work defined by men, these teachers found satisfaction from teaching and leadership and material success through opportunities to become supervisors and principals. They taught as married women when the marriage bar was in effect. They subscribed to Progressive teaching methods as the State touted scientific efficiency. They participated in the suffrage movement when the idea of the “true woman” as a domestic entity dominated.

Weiler also challenged the nostalgia for the “good old days” when schools taught a common cultural literacy. If you were middle class, white, and Protestant, that might be true. Weiler found that for people of color, non-European ethnic groups, or impoverished dust bowl immigrants, there were no “good old days.” The discrimination and lack of even minimal opportunities were a genuine source of subjugation for these groups.

Weiler infused her history with the language of feminism – a language and concept that did not exist in the time frame she studied. And despite the overuse of words like “hegemony” and “discursive,” her points were well made. Her history was told in concentric circles, moving from the national to the local to the individual. If one were to look at the information solely at the aggregate or national level, it is doubtful that the complex and varied permutations that existed by gender, by race, and by geography could possibly have been seen. Yet, this context was as important to understanding Weiler’s paradox as the individual teacher’s diaries, journals, and reminiscences were in helping to resolve it.

1. According to Shulamit Reinharz, Feminist Methods in Social Research (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 260, feminist research often starts with an intellectual question that also may reflect a personal concern.

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