Today in Feminist History: Underpaid and Under-appreciated Women Teachers (July 26, 1909)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

July 26, 1909: Professor John Dewey, eminent American educational reformer, psychologist, and philosopher, today became the first speaker to be featured in a series of lectures at Columbia University on woman suffrage. His topic was: “Some Educational Aspects of Equal Suffrage.”

John Dewey, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.

There are presently 2,000 summer students here, most of them women teachers, so Katherine McKay, president of the Equal Franchise Society, thought a suffrage lecture by this well-known public figure would be a good opportunity to recruit for the cause, as well as get those who already favor suffrage to join her group and become active.

Though advertising of the lecture was done primarily by means of printed cards passed from student to student this morning, the room in Hamilton Hall was already overcrowded with 200 students as the speech’s scheduled starting time of 4:30 p.m. approached. This was supposed to be just a one-time event, but while the students waited for Dewey to arrive, they began circulating a petition asking that this become a lecture series, featuring other suffrage advocates. Their request was quickly approved by a university official, and a speaker for August second secured almost immediately.

Following an enthusiastic ovation from the students upon his arrival, Dewey said that women are just as affected by major national issues as men, and therefore had an equal interest in them, and an equal right to vote for those who make the final decisions on these controversies.

Dewey also noted that women comprise 80 to 90 per cent of schoolteachers, and yet there is not one woman on New York City’s Board of Education, a situation that would change drastically if women were able to vote. He said it is well known that school boards often pay more attention to the male janitors and others who take care of the building than to the women who teach there. That’s because unhappy custodians can unite, and potentially shift enough votes to opponents to throw unsympathetic board members out of office if they don’t like the way things are being run.

Attention was also called to the fact that teachers in general are underpaid, and this in and of itself leads to a lack of respect for the profession. But it’s even worse for women, because it’s traditional to pay them less than men for exactly the same work (a practice Susan B. Anthony herself encountered over 60 years ago, and which, unfortunately, is by no means unique to teaching). Dewey scoffed at the idea that since most teachers are women, boys are becoming “feminized,” but advised those who still have this fear to support granting women the vote, as involvement in public affairs will make women stronger and more courageous.

Dewey stated that current prejudices about women originated is a much more primitive time and place, where conditions were unlike those of today, and concluded that if a group of people were called upon to make a new society along modern lines, anyone who suggested that the right to vote be given or withheld simply on the basis of sex would be widely and mercilessly ridiculed.

Today’s lecture was a huge success, and the students are now looking forward to hearing Maud Nathan, of the Consumers League, give her views next week on why women should have the vote. 


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.