XI: Education

Gender and Sexuality

            Gender and sexuality in midwestern schools have enjoyed a dynamic history marked by cycles of polarization, de-polarization, and re-polarization. People commonly regard polarization, or the division of an issue into opposites, as natural when discussing gender and sexuality. For example, many believe that “opposite” sexes exist, and that homosexuality stands in opposition to heterosexuality. Similarly, people think of sex as biological, and gender as the social organization of biology into the polar opposites of masculinity and femininity. Even the words describing sexual desire have a dynamic history, as seen in the shifts from “sexual preference,” to “sexual orientation,” to the now preferred term, “sexuality.”

            As the history of midwestern schools reveals, social forces have created an environment in which gender and sexuality are anything but static or purely oppositional. Like the rest of the U.S., immigration was one of the social forces that structured gender and sexuality and forcibly replaced indigenous American Indian institutions. But unlike the rest of the U.S., the insular German, Dutch, Scandinavian, and Polish ethnic communities in rural areas, which typically taught schoolchildren in their native language, as well as the lesser influence of the ethnic enclaves in large urban areas, preserved indigenous institutions and national heritage. Some of the heritage preserved included conservative northern and northwestern European Protestant and Catholic attitudes towards gender and sexuality. Even these attitudes, however, are marked by de-polarization and re-polarization as the rural and urban ethnic enclaves responded to pressures to assimilate and as national tensions about sex and gender rumbled through the nation’s heartland.
            As common schooling began in the mid-1800s, Midwestern schools enrolled female and male students together, bypassing traditions of single-sex schooling in eastern states and ushering in a period of gender de-polarization. New England women’s seminaries produced hundreds of teachers who traveled to the Midwest, eager to establish common schools, recruit students, and otherwise enjoy a level of independence unmatched by previous generations. These women teachers demonstrated skill and toughness in demanding circumstances, although they commanded only one-third to one-half the wages of male teachers. Consequently, communities throughout the region enthusiastically hired women teachers.
            Gender in Midwestern schools became re-polarized as more women taught, and men abandoned the profession. The few men who remained in schoolwork entered the emerging realm of administration. Schoolwork became so gender polarized by 1910 that men held nearly every school superintendency while women accounted for around eighty percent of teachers. Although most women teachers nationwide were single, divorced, or widowed, many rural Midwestern schools retained women teachers after they married, preferring instructional continuity and professional experience. If communities tolerated married women teachers, though, they required male superintendents to be married, a persistent pattern today.
            As the nineteenth century women’s movement gathered strength, women began winning elected county superintendencies, signaling a period of gender de-polarization. In 1869, Julia Addington, an Iowa teacher, became the first woman elected county superintendent in the nation. By 1930, women held the majority of county superintendencies in six midwestern states. They occasionally held state superintendencies, and, as in the case of Ella Flagg Young of Chicago, superintendencies of large urban school systems.
            After World War II, however, midwestern schools experienced sharp gender re-polarization. The proportion of women superintendents dropped steeply. Married women displaced single women teachers. Largely male administrative organizations trivialized the contributions of women educators by publishing articles on the important role of the administrator’s wife. Meanwhile, communities enlisted school administrators into campaigns to rid schools of homosexual teachers in a backlash movement following the 1948 publication of Indiana University researcher, Alfred Kinsey’s landmark volume, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Gender re-polarization also appeared at the student level, revealing post-WWII anxieties about gender and sexuality. Schools pushed females into home economics courses where they learned household and marriage skills. They steered males into manual training programs, science and math courses, and athletics.

            In the 1950s, worries about youth sexuality led schools to institute family life courses. These courses taught young people to adhere to narrowly defined gender roles, abstain from sex, and plan their life around marriage and heterosexual families. These courses supplanted the earlier social hygiene courses in high schools, and typically were taught in sex-segregated classrooms. Four decades earlier, Ella Flagg Young had instituted the nation’s first such social hygiene/sex education courses in Chicago.

             The 1960s and 1970s sexual revolution prompted a new examination of sex education in Midwestern public schools. Concerns about teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and the supposed moral decline of youth reached an all-time high. During this time, a majority of parents surveyed favored sex education in public schools. However, like in the South, grassroots activism by politically savvy white evangelical Protestants resulted in many Midwestern school districts only authorizing programs that focused on pre-marital abstinence and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. 
            The baby boom generation came of sexual age in the 1970s, stimulating community attempts to control their sexuality and challenges to gender norms. Contraction of the traditional Midwestern economy that had been based on heavy industries such as steel and auto manufacturing further fueled the expansion of New Right policies of moral traditionalism into public schools; Midwestern state legislatures responded to the pressures of the New Right and revised acts authorizing sex education. Many, for example, forbade the distribution of birth control in public schools, and allowed parents to withdraw their children from sex education programs. Additionally, schools instituted dress codes to control gender expression of students. Some schools suspended or even expelled boys with long hair.
            After the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, a grassroots gay and lesbian liberation movement emerged. Lesbian and gay teachers began resisting job discrimination by “coming out,” organizing lesbian and gay teachers groups, or bringing lawsuits against districts that dismissed lesbian and gay teachers. In response, singer Anita Bryant and California Senator John Briggs led a national backlash movement to prevent the employment of homosexual teachers. During a protracted battle in which an Iowan activist threw a pie in Bryant’s face, California and some municipalities across the country eventually offered legal protection for lesbian and gay schoolworkers. To this day, however, most do not.
            The 1991 publication of a federal report on high suicide rates among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth shifted national attention from teachers to students. Federal guidelines were issued to prevent harassment of LGBT students. However, in 2000 a Wisconsin study of students, parents, and teachers revealed continuing harassment of LGBT students. Citing this study, Senators Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and Wellstone (D-Minnesota) co-sponsored a bill to study implementation of federal anti-harassment guidelines. Meanwhile, students around the Midwest have resisted victimization by starting gay-straight alliances at their schools, establishing LGBT history curricula, and organizing gay-straight proms, efforts for which increasing numbers are receiving recognition and even scholarships to colleges and universities.
            Currently, gender and sexual polarization/de-polarization seem to co-exist. Although gay-straight alliances are proliferating in high schools across the Midwest, LGBT teachers have job protection in relatively few states. Minnesota and Wisconsin account for two of only fourteen states (and the District of Columbia) that currently ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. As women students fill increasing proportions of previously male disciplines in midwestern universities such as medicine, business, and law, momentum builds for single-sex schooling. Gender and sexuality, then, remain central to the social organization of schooling in the Midwest.
Sine Anahita,
Iowa State University
Jackie M. Blount
Iowa State University
Jackie Blount, Destined to Rule the Schools (1998); John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters, 2d ed.(1997); Karen M. Harbeck, Gay and Lesbian Educators (1997); Jeffrey P. Moran, Teaching Sex (2000).