Prison Cells and Pretty Walls: Gender Coding and American Schools

A few months ago, I was scrolling through Twitter and saw a conversation about redesigning classroom spaces and a phrase caught my attention: “redesign is NOT about being pretty for Pinterest.” As someone interested in the dynamics of gender in education, especially in history, it gave me pause. That the users of the phrase were both white- and male-presenting isn’t surprising, as white men tend to dominate conversations about education reform; it was the contrast between the implication that designing for aesthetics should be avoided and the history of aesthetic-based design in public schools.

As bodies of all genders and races move through school hallways today, it may seem counter-intuitive to think of schools as white, female-coded spaces, but they are – on purpose. For much of the colonial era and the early 1800s, the structure for educating the nascent country’s sons was less a system and more an ad hoc collection of male tutors working in schools and private homes. As the population expanded, especially in the northeast, state education leaders took charge of turning the disparate structure into a cohesive institution. To support a viable system, though, they needed more teachers.

In her study of rhetoric and gendered space in the nineteenth century, Jessica Enoch details the language used to describe school-buildings; they were “unclean,” “unsanitary,” and “unsafe.”1 Floors were debris-strewn and walls were adorned with graffiti, often graphic. Boys’ bodies were broken down through corporal punishment when they failed to please. Reformers, and teachers themselves, spoke of schools in unflattering terms: “We see many a school-house which looks more like a gloomy, dilapidated prison, designed for the detention and punishment of some desperate culprit.”2

In effect, school was an unkempt place where schoolmasters turned boys into men, making it a place that was explicitly coded as masculine and, therefore, off limits to women. A necessary step in expanding the teaching force beyond just white men was to make school a place a woman could enter without risking her reputation.

Screen shot of Pinterest “classroom decorating ideas.” (Pinterest.com)
The transition to a cohesive system coincided with a shift in the rationale for formal education. It was increasingly less about getting the fortunate few sons into university or on the right career path and more about preparing all children on American soil to be good citizens. “All” though, didn’t actually mean “all,” as several Southern states had laws against educating enslaved people, northern schools that educated Black children were often vandalized, and schools located on reservations or the new residential Indian schools focused more on destroying the child’s connections to their language and culture and less on building them up as a citizen.

Focusing on white children of all genders, reformers such as Horace Mann and Catharine Beecher saw a shared school experience as something that could unite the country with a common set of values. When they visited schools, they saw messy, chaotic, and dirty. What they wanted was clean, calm, and fresh. What they had were prisons. What they wanted was something like home.

From Ichabod Crane to The Schoolmarm

Enter the concept of the “pretty” school. Any suburban American who’s attended school on the outskirts of town has seen the idea made manifest. Reformers advocated for schools to be edifices of learning, set apart from the bustle of the main road, surrounded by greenery and light. They made a clear connection between the female space that was the well-appointed parlor and the new common school which was meant to be a haven of calm and domesticity.3 This explicit comparison was made in magazines such as Godey’s Lady Book (1840) where Lydia Sigourney wondered:

Why should not the interior of our school-houses aim at something of the taste of our parlour? Might not the case of flowers enrich the mantle-piece? And the walls display not only the well executed maps, but historical engravings or pictures?4

As communities updated old buildings or built new schools, aesthetics became a primary factor in design. Builders sought out spaces with generous lawns and access to sunlight. Architects advocated for plenty of fresh air, modern flooring, and clean lines. As the space became less prison and more parlor, reformers could entice young women to teach, confident in the knowledge that taking the job would not be an affront to their femininity, but rather, an extension of their natural abilities as caretakers.

“What one school did and how it did it” (1914) (Internet Archive Book Images/Flickr Commons | Public Domain)

The look of schools — inside and out — was only part of the work for creating a profession that was acceptable to unmarried teachers. They were told what to wear, what time to be home, and to leave their job once they got married. Lucy Ellen Moten, a Black teacher, was told she had to give up dancing, playing cards, and going to the theater before she could be hired.5 Corporal punishment became an intervention of last resort and teachers were encouraged to change students’ outlook on learning through love, compassion, and kindness.

Unsurprisingly, as the classroom become more and more acceptable for women, men left. By 1888, 63% of teachers in rural schools were women while the percentage rose to almost 90% in urban areas. Some men left the profession entirely while others shifted to administration. The moniker “schoolmen” emerged to describe the men who lead schools, determined curricula, and told teachers how to teach.6 Even though the overwhelming majority of American students would see a woman leading their class, men were paid more and have held a “near monopoly of the most prestigious positions” in education ever since.7 In 2017, the average American teacher was a 42-year old white woman, a statistic that has held relatively constant for years and one that is very much a realization of Mann and Beecher’s vision.

This sentiment of school as an extension of home continued well into the twentieth century. Teacher magazines devoted hundreds of words to what kind of art should be hung on the classroom wall. In an impassioned piece in 1906, an author in The School Review stressed, “It is the common testimony of physicians that the glaring whitewash [of unpainted walls] intensifies afflictions and injures the eyes.”8 Student and teacher handbooks created by schoolmen to inform appropriate behavior inside schools bore a marked similarity to manners guides regarding dress and comportment.

Cleveland St. Public School. (NWS State Archive/Flickr Commons | Public Domain)

A generation later, a 1939 summary of rural Michigan teachers’ letters about their classroom showed that 82 of the 140 teachers used their own funds to personalize their classrooms with curtains, sofas, and tables.9 School had become a woman’s space – tranquil and pretty. Safety concerns were seen as limited to weather hazards, fire, and personality clashes.10 The sentiment was that school was an enclave, protected, cared for, and maintained by mostly white women whose lives revolved around their calling as a teacher.

A Return to School as Prison

In 1992, two students were shot and killed by a classmate at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, NY. Not long after, the city would install the first metal detector in a public high school at the entrance of Jefferson. By the end of the decade, New York City Department of Education would hand responsibility for school safety over to the NYC Police Department. While New York was the first to take the step, most large cities would eventually put police officers in charge of school safety.

The decisions that led to police officers in schools were almost universally made by men, again using the language of masculinity to advocate for a desired change. Schools were chaotic and unsafe. They needed clear, strong leadership and discipline. Although not explicitly said, the sentiment was that the female-coded space had been breached by violence and was no longer a safe haven. This time, the solution required men to physically step in.

Much like the early texts about teaching stressed what were seen as acceptable behaviors for white women, American policing has long been associated with white masculinity. In Understanding Police Culture, John Crank describes the sentiment behind American policing as “the paternalism associated with the traditional American male role, intensified through the lens of police culture into a guiding principle of social order and control.”11

The consequences of this mindset carried into schools meant the bodies moving through the halls became potential criminals first and children second. And while there isn’t compelling evidence that uniformed officers and metal detectors make students safer, there is evidence that they lead to students feeling their school is unsafe, or worse, like a prison. It’s difficult, if not impossible, for a child to feel safe and protected in space that views them like a prisoner.

Although there’s a near universal acceptance that school is a female-coded place, staffed mostly by women and pleasing to the eye, a masculine presence at the entry of the schoolhouse has not been likewise accepted. Apple motifs and bulletin boards can be found in nearly every school but metal detectors are only seen at the entrance to some. They are more likely to be found in schools attended by students of color and while some see this as a successful measure to deter school shooters, it’s a stark reminder of how the education system continues to treat children of color.

The solution, or a way forward, isn’t about striving for gender-less schools, any more than it is insisting schools be color-blind. Instead, it’s worth having open conversations about the unintended consequences of replicating spaces designed for white women’s comfort, protected by white men’s idea of safety. How might schools be different if they focused on the comfort and safety of boys and girls of color?

Notes

  1. J. Enoch, “A Woman’s Place is In the School: Rhetorics of Gendered Space in Nineteenth-Century America” College English, 70 no. 3 (2008), 275-295. Return to text.
  2. Cited in Enoch. Return to text.
  3. M. Domosh and J. Seager, Putting Women in Place: Feminist Geographers Make Sense of the World (New York: Guilford Press, 2001). Return to text.
  4. Enoch, “A Woman’s Place is In the School.” Return to text.
  5. N. Hoffman, Woman’s “True” Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching (Harvard Education Press, 2003). Return to text.
  6. P. H. Mattingly, The Classless Profession: American Schoolmen in the Nineteenth Century (NYU Press, 1975). Return to text.
  7. D. Tyack and E. Hansot, “Silence and Policy Talk: Historical Puzzles about Gender and Education Educational Researcher, 17 no. 3 (1988), 33-41. Return to text.
  8. W. Kenyon, “The Interior Decoration of Schools” The School Review, 14 no. 9 (1906), 625-634. Return to text.
  9. L. Cuban, How Teachers Taught: Constancy and change in American classrooms, 1890-1990. Teachers College Press. Return to text.
  10. R. J. Watson and R. S. Watson, The School as a Safe Haven (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002). Return to text.
  11. J. P. Crank, Understanding Police Culture (Routledge, 2014). Return to text.

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4 Comments

Mike (Michael) A Binis

Very astute overview of educational environs here in the almost full circle from prison to parlour and back again. Aesthetics for much more than merely aesthetics!

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Ray Binis

Jennifer, a wonderful, informational, historical article. For us who attended school in the 30’s it brought back memories. It’s time teachers had more input into the educational system because of their daily knowledge in student needs, learning process and in student care. Great job.

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David F

Hmmm…I teach at an all-boys school that is part of the Jesuit tradition and has been in existence since the mid-19th century. The majority of our teachers are male, and now laypeople (until the 1970s, there used to be about 20-30 Jesuits doing much of the teaching; today all of the teachers are laypeople). We’re clearly a male-gendered institution, and the Jesuit tradition since Day 1 in the 1500s focused heavily on cura personalis. I wonder about the back-and-forth mixing from religious to secular schools in terms of what was perceived of as best educational practices and how this fits this narrative.

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