Historical essay
What Women “Want”: Wordsmithing Education Reform Rhetoric

What Women “Want”: Wordsmithing Education Reform Rhetoric

Persuaders and Persuadees

The decentralized nature of public education in America means that any one individual who wants to implement sweeping change needs to use rhetoric and persuasion to convince others their idea is the best one. For most of American history, the persuaders have generally come from one demographic group and directed their powers of persuasion at their peers. Despite the fact that teaching has been dominated by women since the mid-1800s, those making changes and holding power in education have generally been cis-gender men, mostly white.

The principals, superintendents, state-level directors of education, normal college presidents, and traveling school consultants of the 1800s and early 1900s, collectively known “schoolmen,” often formed clubs and fraternal organizations. The Schoolmen’s Club of Philadelphia even had their own official poem, written by an early club president:

[gblockquote source=”“In Reminiscent Mood” by Oscar Gerson”]So let the fine traditions still
The hearts of schoolmen ever fill
In links of brotherhood to bind
All that is worthy, manly, kind.
For distant years we’ll have no fears
While we hold fast our glorious past.
O Loved Club! Remain as then
A home for teachers and for men![/gblockquote]

William Albert Wirt (1874-1938) in 1917. (Bain/Wikimedia Commons)

Because so much of the conversation was literally man to man, it made sense for a forward-thinking schoolman to use masculine touchstones when advocating change. William Wirt, for example, a superintendent in Gary, Indiana, implemented a dramatic new approach to organizing the school day. He set up his campus so large groups of students cycled through different areas of the school property to study academics, work in the school garden, and play outside. Although he mostly called it the “Work-Study-Play Plan” when talking to parents, others began to call it the “Gary System.” He quickly recognized the name didn’t have the desired impact he wanted as people were associating the model with a particular city. In 1924, he wrote to a colleague, “It is not wise for you to continue to use the name ‘Gary System.’ I have urged my friends in Chicago to … talk about the ‘Detroit Platoon Plan’ or the ‘Pittsburgh Platoon Plan’”1 The idea and the language caught on. Within five years, more than 700,000 American students were moving in platoons across their school campuses.2

While Wirt borrowed terms and concepts from the military, some of his peers borrowed liberally from the world of industry when crafting rhetorical arguments. Ellwood Patterson Cubberley, a leading schoolman, spoke about children as “raw goods.” Principals began to recast their role as “executives” and “administrators” and focused on efficacy as a mark of a successful school. Nearly every speaker at the 1920 Seventh Annual Schoolmen’s Week mentioned efficiency and one speaker even combined a military and a business analogy in the same argument. While modern historians are reconsidering the degree to which theories like scientific management actually influenced school operations3, the jargon and vernacular of business was an essential part of many schoolmen’s rhetoric.

Reflecting and Mirroring Language

These “manly” conversations about education closed out the women teachers by design. To a certain extent, the feminization of the profession upset social norms around women’s work, and schoolmen could maintain some semblance of the “natural” order by being the ones to steer the direction of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. As an example, the 1894 National Education Association’s Committee of Ten Report on Secondary School Studies, often seen as a foundational text in American education history, included the thoughts and ideas of 90 educators. They were all men, even those representing girls’ high schools or women’s colleges. A woman’s voice wouldn’t be heard at an NEA meeting until the next century.

Wilson’s Teacher’s college students. (Herbert A. French/Library of Congress)

Often unhappy with proposed changes and eager to be heard, teachers needed rhetorical devices of their own. One communication strategy adopted by women teachers, especially white women teachers, was to mirror the language of schoolmen. We can see echoes of this in newspaper editorials where they wrote, and continue to write, about being “in the trenches” with students or out “on the front lines.” In probably the most dramatic example of reflecting back a schoolman’s language, Margaret Haley, the first woman speaker at an NEA meeting in 1901, laid out the foundations of teacher professionalism. Her speech was recognized as a rhetorical success and was well-received. One of the problems, she said, was that school leaders were “making the teacher an automaton, a mere factory hand, whose duty it is to carry out mechanically and unquestioningly the ideas and orders of those clothed with the authority of position.”4 Not all teachers elected to mirror, though. Some, such as Zitkala-Ša, Jovita Idar, and Marta Peña used rhetoric that reflected their own lived experiences and those of their Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic students.5

As schoolmen attempted to reshape and reform America’s schools, American women of all races were organizing to reshape the country. Teachers marched in suffragists’ parades. They were feminists, Civil Rights activists, participants in the fight for marriage equity, advocates for laws to protect people with disabilities, and members of abortion access networks, including the Jane collective. In many cases, they invented new terms to operationalize the world they wanted for themselves and their children or to directly challenge patriarchal norms. Whereas deliberately disempowered women teachers in previous generations had to echo back the words of schoolmen to get their attention, teachers in the 20th century stopped echoing and found ways to create their own spaces, organized around their own language and after-school activism.

Pro-Choice, but not that kind of choice


The modern era has seen the fall of schoolman as a moniker, the rise of a social media community known as “EduTwitter,” and an obliteration of a number of discourse norms in education. While some things have endured – industry and business remain sources of inspiration – the discourse and rhetorical wall between school leaders, classroom practitioners, and parents has gone from watertight to permeable. Ideas once shared on a stage at a schoolmen’s conference are now shared in 240 character snippets. In effect, the teacher and the superintendent are peers on Twitter. It’s meant Social Studies teachers, teachers of color, English teachers, and others from across the country can connect without leaving their classroom or home. It’s also meant that the language created by women to shape a more just, more equitable world can be picked up and used by those looking to persuade their peers.

It’s difficult to define what the phrase “school choice” means precisely as there is no neutral definition to cite and its meaning is deeply tied to the reader’s perspective.6 It’s fair to say, though, that it refers to the idea that parents should be able to enroll their child in any education setting of their choosing and that financial mechanisms should be in place to facilitate that choice. Keywords associated with the phrase include charter schools, vouchers, and market-based solutions, which harken back to schoolmen of yore. Recently, school choice advocates have begun making implied and explicit connections on social media between their professional and personal interest in school choice and the term “pro-choice”; a term explicitly created by women to define those who stood against the male-led “pro-life” movement.

These tweets speak to the gendered nature of the tension between schoolmen and the mostly women teaching corps that existed in 1919 and remains unresolved in 2019. The men who want school choice are advocating masculine, market based solutions and are now using abortion for rhetorical coverage. This co-opting began several months ago and was made stark given the recent action of delegates at the NEA representative assembly, where members voted to pass the following item: “[T]he NEA will include an assertion of our defense of a person’s right to control their own body, especially for women, youth, and sexually marginalized people. The NEA vigorously opposes all attacks on the right to choose and stands on the fundamental right to abortion under Roe v. Wade.”

Rhetoric for the sake of rhetoric

There is no multi-state movement to limit parents’ constitutionally protected right to educate their children as they see fit. There are no crowds outside private schools screaming and chanting at parents walking through the doors and no mandatory three-day waiting period before a parent can apply for a voucher where they’re available. No charter school president has been murdered for doing their job. There are important and hard questions to ask about school district boundaries and institutional racism and ableism in public education. However, self-identified “school choice advocates,” by co-opting the language that emerged from the fight for bodily autonomy and reproductive justice, are signaling they’re willing to use people’s lived experiences in service to a rhetorical point. Whereas schoolmen of the 19th century borrowed language from masculine domains as a means of persuading their fellow schoolmen to try their particular approach, these modern schoolmen are using language crafted by women against those same women. It’s difficult to fathom how that approach to rhetoric is meant to lead to a more just, equitable system of education in this country.

Missouri provides a striking example of how the pro-choice/school choice comparision falls down. Parents in the state are not required to enroll their children in public schools. In fact, Missouri has some of the loosest regulations in the country: “There is no required registration … parents may notify the superintendent of their local public school of their intent to begin homeschooling, but there is no law or regulation requiring them to do so.” In effect, no one is interfering with parents’ ability to choose between public, private, or religious schools or homeschooling. Meanwhile, the last abortion clinic in the state of Missouri is on shaky ground, meaning the rights protected by the Roe v. Wade decision could no longer apply to Missourians who can get pregnant.

There isn’t a lot of evidence of how members of the military felt about Wirt’s naming conventions, but we do know most captains of industry were chuffed by schoolmen echoing their language. The flattening of discourse in education, though, means women no longer need to wait for the right moment to speak to be heard. We can make it plain how we feel about them using abortion as a rhetorical point; put simply, the language isn’t theirs and they don’t have permission to borrow it.


  1. Cohen, Ronald D. Children of the mill: Schooling and society in Gary, Indiana. Routledge, 2014. Return to text.
  2. Callahan, Raymond. Education and the cult of efficiency. University of Chicago Press, 1964. Return to text.
  3. Fallace, T., & Fantozzi, V. Was there really a social efficiency doctrine? The uses and abuses of an idea in educational history. Educational Researcher, 42(3), 142-150, 2013 and Berman, B. Business efficiency, American schooling, and the public school superintendency: a reconsideration of the Callahan thesis. History of Education Quarterly, 23(3), 297-321, 1983. Return to text.
  4. Hoffman, Nancy. Woman’s “true” Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching. Feminist Press, Cambridge, MA, 1981. Return to text.
  5. Enoch, Jessica. Refiguring Rhetorical Education: Women Teaching African American, Native American, and Chicano/a Students, 1865-1911, Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. Return to text.
  6. A 1995 National Center for Education Statistics report described “school choice” as a “popular education reform strategy” and generally speaking, the term is associated with education reform, which is often associated with Republican or conservative positions. However, progressive educators, including union leaders, were early advocates of the idea of choice and the idea was featured in Democratic national party platforms. In theory, the choice movement also includes unschoolers, alt schoolers, libertarians, and private religious education but many advocates disavow vouchers and implied government oversight. A complete survey of the history of “school choice” has yet to be written but Ashley Rogers Berner’s No one way to school: Pluralism and American public education (2017) combined with Diane Ravitch’s The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education (2016) can give a reader a good sense of the movement, key players, impact, and outcomes. Basically, there is no way to de-politicize the concept of “school choice” and no matter how it’s framed, someone is likely to be unhappy with the word choice. Return to text.

Featured image caption: Teacher and her students in Prairie Farms, AL, 1939. (Courtesy Marion Wolcott/Library of Congress)

Jennifer is president and founder of Schoolmarm Advisors and provides editorial and developmental feedback to educational authors and publishers as well as support with understanding the historical context around modern education topics and issues.