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Celebrating Women’s History Month: Five Influential Women in Education

In 2020, according to Zippia, over 70% of all elementary school teachers are women. The Atlantic has an in-depth article that covers the history behind the shift to a female-dominated profession, but the point is that women have always had, and always will have, a very important role in education. During Women’s History Month, and in celebration of International Women's Day on March 8th, we wanted to mention some of the courageous and powerful women that have influenced the educational system to great degree. And to all the women currently working in education, we thank you, and hope to see some of you reach new heights in furthering education for future generations of students.

Alice Palmer (1855-1902)

After graduating from college herself, Alice began teaching at a boarding school and soon became a high school principal. Less than five years later she was president of Wellesley College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts. After her time at Wellesley, she became Dean of Women at the University of Chicago.

Her career and constant advocacy for women attending college paved the way for many women to get a college degree. Alice believed that women should obtain college degrees, just like men, so they can support themselves when called to do so. She co-founded the American Association of University Women and was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Alice Palmer is seen as the model “new woman” of the 19th century.

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

About 20 years after Alice Palmer, Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was pursuing a similar passion for women’s rights. Mary started out teaching at her former elementary school in 1896. Within ten years, she had started the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. Mary worked tirelessly, not only educating young women, but fighting for women’s right to vote and other civil rights. She founded or worked for multiple associations designed to support and promote colored women.

Mary McLeod Bethune was the only black woman present at the founding of the United Nations in 1945, was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, was the first woman to receive the National Order of Honor and Merit from Haiti, and has many other accolades and awards. She truly was a hard-working visionary for educating young women.

Maria Montessori (1870-1952)

Also at the turn of the 20th century, Maria Montessori, an Italian educator, physician and scientist, was becoming one of the first women to attend medical school in Italy. She attended all-boy schools when she was younger, graduating at the age of 20 with the hopes of becoming an engineer. However, it was then that she changed her focus to medicine.

Maria endured harassment and hostility because of her gender while studying to become a doctor, but graduated in 1896 as a doctor of medicine. After graduating from the University of Rome, she began doing research, observing children with mental disabilities. Over the next couple years, she studied the work of many great physicians and educators, becoming an expert on educational theory. Maria studied more and more, developing what she called “scientific pedagogy”. In 1906, she was invited to oversee the education of a group of children that did not have disabilities and took the opportunity to apply her methods.

Her teaching method was a success, and additional schools based on her teaching style began opening throughout Italy. By 1909 there was international recognition of the Montessori education style, spreading across five continents. Today there are about 5,000 Montessori schools in the U.S. alone.

Anne Sullivan (1866-1936)

Anne Sullivan is best known as the instructor and lifelong companion of Helen Keller. Anne herself was blind, having lost her sight at a young age to an eye disease. Her childhood was rough and riddled with misfortune. She eventually ended up being admitted to the Perkins School for the Blind where she was the first blind and deaf person to be educated there. She graduated as the valedictorian of her class at the age of 20.

Shortly after, she was hired by Arthur Keller to teach his daughter, Helen, who was also blind and deaf. Anne’s patience and determination to help Helen succeed led to many teaching breakthroughs for deaf and blind children. Because of Anne's success, Helen Keller quickly became a public symbol for the Perkins School for the Blind and she eventually received a degree from Radcliffe College, all thanks to Anne’s persistence in equal education.

Anne Sullivan was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2003.

Michelle Obama (1964-Present)

During her time as U.S. First Lady, Michelle Obama used her national influence to support many young women in education. She spearheaded many initiatives and efforts related to education such as the Reach Higher initiative to encourage high school graduates to attend a four-year university. She heavily promoted education for girls and African-Americans, arts education, healthy school lunches and much more. Her aim was to help adolescent girls attain a quality education that empowers them to reach their full potential.

Although she has since “retired”, she continues to support better educational opportunities for women and people of color through the Obama Foundation and the Girls Opportunity Alliance. She is one of the many strong women in today’s world still fighting to improve the education system, much like the women that came before her, who pioneered new ideas, teaching methods and opportunities for women in education.

Other Notable Women in Education:

Malala Yousafzai: After surviving a close-range gunshot wound to the head, Malala went on to become the youngest person to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize at age seventeen, for advocating human rights and educational access for women.

Sarah Elizabeth Doyle: Sarah was a Rhode Island high school teacher and principal that founded a school of design and became the leader of the Rhode Island Society for the Collegiate Education of Women in the mid-1890s. Her work culminated in 1891 when she led a campaign that helped convince Brown University to admit the first six females ever allowed to enroll as undergraduates.

There are many more women throughout history that have helped progress the state of education and the position women have within it. Without their work, the education system and all the opportunities available to students today would not be possible. If there are any other women in education we missed that you think should be included, please let us know on Facebook or LinkedIn!


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