How to raise female dragon slayers

In this article, originally published in the March 1975 Kappan, the superintendent of a large suburban district explores the cutting edge where curriculum and culture clash.

The schools are being asked to deal with the feminist issue: to change that system which trains our boys to be dragon slayers and our girls to be persons who wait for princes. This is not a simple matter of curriculum or personnel policies or administrative procedures. All are important but only in the context of the concerns of the wider society. In an effort to understand some of the difficulties of the struggle, I have been spending time in exploration out on the cutting edge where curriculum and culture clash.

There have been no great waves of female revolt in the New Rochelle school system. The problems that have been brought to the attention of the Board of Education have been peripheral.

The teachers union conducted a referendum on the desirability of a parental leave clause to apply equally to mother and father, adoptive or natural. A group of junior high and high school students appeared before the board to request that the girls’ coaches be paid the same rate as the boys’ coaches. The petitioners were male and female, black and white. The discussion with the board illumined a complex of historical reasons for the present inequality embedded in union contracts as well as board regulations.

Provoked by fathers taking diaper leave and militant girl track stars, I looked at our schools for evidences of sexism, beginning with personnel. Our school system, which has been first in many areas, has pioneered in female tokenism. Among 14 principals, we have two women. Of four presidents of the Board of Education who have held office since I became superintendent, two have been women. We have female department heads, including those of the three secondary social studies departments. We have a female purchasing agent. (For a time I considered instituting a “Sisterhood Week” in our schools so that we could display our tokens and perhaps have assembly programs about how women were “given” the vote.)

The basic problem seemed to be that these women are not affecting the curriculum, the area I next considered. Male and female teachers alike patriotically present to our students a vision of our fatherland, symbolized by George Washington and Uncle Sam, discovered by a male Italian or an equally virile Viking. We proceed through the glorious tale of the Founding Fathers to Millard Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln and Grover Cleveland and the men of the Roosevelt and Kennedy families. Women occasionally appear, saving men’s lives, sewing flags for them, guiding or following them across a continent. Women in U.S. history are of terrifying virtue and much given to good works: Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Harriet Tubman, a bowdlerized Mollie Pitcher.

Teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, students, and parents must be exposed to and engaged in continuing debates about the issues and implications of the new feminism. We have to change the way boys and girls are taught at home and at school.

The men of the curriculum are often angry, throwing tea around, ranting about being crucified on a cross of gold. Their anger is presented as an admirable trait. Angry suffragettes are humorous. Carrie Nation is made a figure of fun. The temperance movement and the work of the WCTU are ignored or presented as a joke without discussion of the social horrors of alcoholism in nineteenth-century America or the role played by the distillers and brewers in financing opposition to female suffrage. The entire curriculum is equally pervaded with male superiority. Probably the most sexist textbook is that used for the health curriculum in our secondary schools. Girls are ignored for most of the book. Masculine pronouns are used unless the reference is specifically female. The illustrations depict only men in the world of work or play outside the home. Women are shown only in home-related or child-caring activities. Even the section on “The Female Reproductive System” closes with this glorious statement: “The baby is normally delivered head first. It is received by the doctor, who makes sure that the baby begins to breathe. He then ties and cuts the umbilical cord.”

Examples of male orientation exist in almost all curriculum areas and all school activities. In spite of complaints, most vocational courses are still sex segregated. Guidance counselors still tend to steer their male and female clients in separate streams.

New Rochelle schools follow typical nationwide practice and·are also typical in their long-range effects on the lives of their students. The girls often achieve higher marks while attending the public schools but in the end the boys do better than girls. They get most of the professional training, the bulk of the Ph.D.s and the M.D.s. On the other hand, their educational failures are more serious than those of girls. On any given day, there are about half a million people in prison in this country. Only 80,000 of them are female.

This pattern can be traced back at least to kindergarten. All through school boys make up a majority of the behavior problems. Most dropouts are boys. Most of those suspended are boys. Most of those who cannot learn are boys. We diagnose the symptoms differently from year to year. Sometimes we say they suffer from dyslexia. Some years it’s minimal brain damage. This year it’s called learning disabilities. Whatever we call the problem, it seems to be associated with maleness.
Girls do not misbehave in school as much as boys. Not as many of them end up in jail. Neither do as many of them achieve success in graduate school or on the job.

Success and failure seem to be inextricably intertwined. From birth we teach boys that aggressiveness which will enable them to end up on either the Supreme Court or Death Row. We teach them not to cry, to stand up for themselves; not to be sissies, to be football players. We are training them to be our politicians, our policemen, our soldiers, our muggers, our gangsters.

We are teaching our girls to take their places in the supporting cast. They will be nurses, not doctors; legislative assistants, not senators; meter maids, not sheriffs; prostitutes, not pimps; the ladies’ auxiliary of the Masons or the Black Spades. They are objects and symbols, not human beings. Their fate is to find fulfillment as dependent ego boosters.

Before attempting to modify the schools, I felt the need for considerable exploration of the goals of education for all our students. I thought I should start by going out and testing the winds of societal change.

An invitation to speak to a women’s group provided the opportunity. Most of the audience were old enough that they no longer had children in the public schools, Much of my speech dealt in truisms: statistics about the preponderance of females in the classrooms and males in administration, a recounting of some of my curriculum discoveries. What surprised me was the depth of the response. These women were excited by recognition of their deepest concerns.

That was a group of educated, sophisticated, affluent women, accustomed to taking an active part in community affairs. Our school district serves a varied population. Many of our girls are being brought up to value husband-hunting skills above SAT scores, but as I talked to other groups I found that women of all ethnic origins and all economic levels want a new kind of education for their daughters. They assume that their daughters will be employed outside the home — and hope that they will have jobs they like and for which they receive a fair wage.

I was becoming a well-known male feminist and was invited to serve on a panel at a conference organized by the National Organization for Women on “Women and the Schools.” The title of the workshop, “Influencing Educational Decision Makers,” distressed me in that it implied a rather Dubarry-like role for twentieth-century women. The tone of the discussion distressed me more. Most of the participants were in school as students or teachers or were parents obviously involved in school issues — and most of them didn’t know how the system worked. They constantly asked the questions: “Who should I talk to?” “Who is in charge of . . .?” I realized that all those years in school don’t teach students to understand the structure within which they are functioning. I realized also that even the women who are most anxious for change are still caught in a web of tradition and attitude woven in a different time and a different place. As women described their attempts at influencing the schools, one after another told a story of failure. As a superintendent of schools who has been the victim of many well-organized female pressure groups, I could only conclude that these women know how to use power but are more comfortable talking about failure than about success.

I had discovered a constituency for change outside the schools. What of the feeling inside? To test that, I invited a representative from the Woman’s Action Alliance to present “Dick and Jane as Victims,” a slide show about sexism in basal readers, to a regular meeting of our principals and central administrative staff. Again the emotionalism of the reaction was fascinating. The few women present were moved by the public recognition of the problem. They were not pressing for solutions. For the moment, male recognition of the situation was a revolution in itself. But that male recognition was limited. One young intern was so threatened that he lectured a female administrator for an hour on the duty of the school system to teach women, especially black women, their duty to stay home with their children. Many of the principals were able to dismiss the whole experience by saying that the content of the readers doesn’t matter. After all, girls read better than boys anyway, went the argument, so the readers must be effective — conveniently forgetting that those girls seem also to have learned the other lessons taught by Dick and Jane. They have learned to be passive, to wait on the sidelines. They are not picketing the medical schools or running international oil cartels.

Involvement in these discussions inside and outside the school system made me realize that exploration of the issues is still the chief priority. We are dealing with attitudes, beliefs, and behavior patterns rooted in religion, economics, tradition, and the deepest layers of personal experience. The women’s movement has advanced slowly and falteringly. The percentage of women represented in the professions is not very different from what it was 50 years ago, partly because economic pressure has rarely been exerted to hire women at good salaries in a nation with a chronic unemployment problem. During the thirties, Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn purveyed their visions of glamorous career women to audiences of out-of-work waitresses. During World War II, we provided day care for the children of Rosie the Riveter, but when the men came home and needed jobs we reimpregnated Rosie and settled her in Levittown.

The schools alone cannot prepare women for a different role. Schools reflect traditional community attitudes. Rarely are they change agents. Our schools produce what society needs. The public education system began in the United States, as it did in Europe, when an industrialized society required a supply of mildly literate factory workers. Today we produce male and female students programmed to function in a society where white men are in control. The three branches of government, the criminal justice system, the professions, the military forces, business, labor, industry, the churches, and the synagogues are all run by men. Frances Perkins never had a successor. If she were alive today, Emma Goldman would turn in her grave to hear George Meany say as his acknowledgment of the feminist issue: “Our members have wives.” Rose Mary Woods has joined Della Street and Mannix’s assistant, Peggy, in the long line of loyal secretaries in television mystery shows.

Recent struggles have indicated the difficulties of revolution. The efforts of minority ethnic groups to achieve full inclusion in the educational mainstream, in spite of sacrifice and suffering, of lives lost and ruined, have achieved negligible gains. That, again, is not basically the fault of the schools. School attendance patterns depend upon residential patterns, although educators can be faulted for not at least discussing with students the moral and social implications involved in buying a house. Even in the areas of direct educational responsibility, the picture is gloomy. Blacks, native Americans, and Chicanos are included in the textbooks, but the traditional story told by those textbooks has changed very little. The books still present a picture of a country dedicated to freedom and justice for all, with a few unfortunate evils rapidly being righted. The schools are still firmly under the control of the white majority. Even in cities where minority students predominate, the school systems are run by administrators from the majority group.

If women are to change the bias of the schools, they will have to confront the basic issues. A female superintendent here and there, a semester of women’s studies, or a girl in the automotive repair shop will not be indications of profound change.

Superficial compliance with Health, Education, and Welfare guidelines will not bring about lasting change. Educational innovation that reflects true community needs and concerns will. If we are going to urge her to become a brain surgeon, we are going to have to influence the medical schools to admit her and her father to take out the second mortgage to finance her. Teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, students, and parents must be exposed to and engaged in continuing debates about the issues and implications of the new feminism. We have to change the way boys and girls are taught at home and at school.

The history textbooks must be rewritten — not just adorned with a picture of Susan B. Anthony. Most written history is political and military history, areas from which women have been excluded at most times in most places. To deal adequately with the role of women, the emphasis of history has to be on the total functioning of society. Any attempt to see history more clearly and see it whole must include all women. A recent television special on the history of women in the United States was remarkable for its omission of native American women. Apparently their lives were unaffected by our advance from sea to shining sea.

The demands of women must be seen in relationship to those of other groups. A hundred years ago, the women’s movement split away from the abolitionists over the Fourteenth Amendment. The debate between Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth is still painfully relevant in its detailing of the conflict over whether rights for black men or for all women should have priority.

During a conference on sexism in the Minneapolis schools last year, the battle lines were drawn over whether more jobs for women would mean fewer jobs for men from minority groups. The nineteenth century proved, of course, that the United States was not ready to treat black men or any women as the equals of white men. In the twentieth century, the debate about who deserves the jobs is being conducted in a rapidly shrinking educational job market. There are not enough positions open in classrooms or administration to satisfy any group, and a declining birthrate will ensure the continuation of that circumstance.

Undoubtedly, the pressure for sexual equality within the schools will increase in New Rochelle as well as in other districts across the country. As we make the necessary changes, I hope that we will remember some of the lessons learned during our attempts to achieve racial equality. The schools cannot bear the full burden. We are seeing in West Virginia and in Boston the difficulties of changing the schools without community support.

New Rochelle has gone through the painful process of development from a school system that had to be forcibly desegregated by court order to a system that most of the time devotes its energies to trying to educate all students. That process involved years of confrontation, confusion, and debate inside and outside the schools.

We have barely begun to deal with the feminist issues, but they will necessitate the same kind of wide-ranging discussion and exploration.

I plan to do more of what I have been doing: talking and listening and encouraging other administrators and teachers to go out into the community to do the same. We need to invite more outside speakers into the school system to talk to staff and students. We need to look at those aspects of the school system that indicate sex discrimination: the money spent on the football team, the preponderance of boys in learning disabilities and special education classes, the number of women teaching in the lower grades, and that social studies curriculum. We need a long-range survey to find out what happens to our male and female graduates after they leave high school — and their levels of satisfaction with their lives. All of these are issues to be discussed with our staff and with the community.

The present situation was not created by the schools — and the schools alone cannot provide the solutions. But we can help the debate along — and provide an arena for the contest.

Citation: Spillane, R. (1975). How to raise female dragon slayers. Phi Delta Kappan, 56 (7), 483-485.

ROBERT R. SPILLANE was superintendent of the New Rochelle, N.Y., schools.

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