A Look Back: How Kappan has addressed sex and gender over the decades 


In celebration of our 100th volume, we are revisiting our past coverage of this year’s themes. 


This issue of Kappan is far from the first to address the topic of “Sex, gender, and schooling.” The topic has graced our pages since at least as early as March 1938, when we published the introduction of a booklet titled Teaching: A Man’s Job, which argued that greater numbers of men should enter the teaching force. It’s not that men are superior teachers, the booklet contended, but that many women approach teaching “as a temporary occupation between school and marriage” (p. 217). Because ”our forms of social organization do not encourage . . . devotion to a career” among women, men “are likely, in the great majority of cases, to bring to their work a more professional attitude and a more potent desire to secure professional recognition and advancement than women usually bring to it” (p. 216).  

Nearly 50 years later, Sari Knopp Biklen contributed an article — “‘I have always worked’: Elementary schoolteaching as a career” (March 1986) — that reads like a direct response to the 1938 booklet. “When women choose to bear and nurture children,” wrote Biklen, “they are not necessarily signifying a lack of career commitment” (p. 508). Many women who stop teaching for a time continue to see themselves as teachers, and many return to the classroom.  

These competing perspectives, separated by half a century, typify the way in which Kappan’s coverage of sex and gender has evolved. In the magazine’s early decades, male perspectives held sway (not surprising for an organization that was all-male until 1974), permeating discussions about the nature of the teaching profession and the needs of students. For example, an April 1959 article titled “Let’s give BOYS a break” worried that boys were falling behind girls academically and suggested that because boys mature less quickly than girls, they should be a bit older when they start school. If girls begin 1st grade at age six, say, then boys should begin at age six-and-a-half — that should allow them to “catch up.”  

Boys and girls, back and forth 

Kappan didn’t entirely ignore girls in the early decades, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, as women were finally beginning to be accepted into local PDK chapters, that we began to see articles that specifically addressed girls’ needs. The magazine’s October 1973 issue, titled “Education and the feminist movement,” finally made it clear that this was no longer your grandfather’s Kappan. Not only did that issue take on topics such as women’s changing aspirations, sexism and stereotyping in school curricula, and the lack of women in administrative positions, but of the 14 articles published that month, 13 were authored by women, a fact that Robert Simpson noted in a January 1974 letter to the editor titled “A chauvinist afterthought on the feminist issue.” Simpson suggested that the choice of authors amounted to a form of affirmative action, but he didn’t have a problem with that. His comments on the issue were generally positive, noting that it offered a lot of food for thought. 

In subsequent years, the challenges girls faced in schools continued to receive growing amounts of attention from Kappan’s authors. For example, in his March 1975 article “How to raise female dragon slayers,” Robert Spillane — a self-described feminist — decried the ways in which schools tend to marginalize their female students: 

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. (p. 484) 

Front Matter

Kappan went on to publish numerous pieces along these lines, exploring the ways in which schools were reproducing the sexist assumptions and values present in society at large. At least one writer objected, however, arguing that Kappan and other publications had become too one-sided in their support for feminism. In his December 1981 article, “Threading through the feminist minefield,” Frank Zepezauer described his own research into a number of education journals, which had led him to a sobering conclusion:  

During the 1970s a teacher consulting a professional journal would not have heard what the opposition to feminism had said, would not even have learned that opponents to feminism existed . . . That fact disturbed me, and it disturbed the editors of those journals when I told them about it. With regard to the questions raised by feminists, they appeared to have disregarded their own policy of opening debate to all sides of an issue. (p. 268) 

In that same issue, Kappan published a response by David and Myra Sadker: 

Zepezauer states that his reason for writing this Kappan article is that he was unable to find any articles in the professional journals that criticize feminism and equal opportunity for women. At first, this might seem to be a rational reason. After all, aren’t there two sides to every story? But wait a minute. Let’s think this through further. What is the other side of this issue? Is it that equity is not a good idea? That hormonal differences make sex bias socially acceptable? That discrimination against women is to be encouraged? Professional journals have not printed articles such as “The Advantages of Anti-Semitism” or “Speaking Up for Racism.” Is the absence of these articles also indicative of the left-leaning bias of professional journals? (p. 273) 

Five years later, in March 1986, Kappan devoted an entire issue to “Women in education,” which began with a guest editorial by Charol Shakeshaft about the many ways in which schools tend to disadvantage girls. In subsequent years, though, as researchers and popular writers began to highlight the academic difficulties that boys were experiencing in school, Kappan did begin to devote more coverage to the challenges facing boys as well as girls. For example, the December 2009 article “Reaching boys: An international study of effective teaching practices” by Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley was followed in September 2014 with “Reaching girls” by Charlotte Jacobs, Peter Kuriloff, Shannon Andrus, and Amanda Cox. (Jacobs, Kuriloff, and Andrus build on those findings in the current issue.) 

Talking about sex 

Sex education has also been a frequent topic in Kappan, and a review of articles going back as far as 1942 shows that while the vocabulary has changed, many of the concerns and questions about the best way to educate young people about sex have remained the same.  

For instance, John MacDougall’s January 1942 article, “Delusions in sex education,” could easily be read as a critique of today’s abstinence-only programs. “The use of fear as a fence flanking the straight and narrow path is no new device,” MacDougall wrote. “The strange thing is that, while fear has been ruled out as a proper motivating factor in other fields of education, it has been retained here where it is most likely to do irremedial harm” (p. 229). Instead of trying to frighten students into abstinence, MacDougall advocated teaching them “higher moral standards” (p. 230) — what those standards might be, however, he never clearly explained.  

Over the decades, Kappan authors have wrestled many times with the question of how teachers should address families’ different moral standards when teaching sex education. Ira Reiss, for example, in December 1968 (“Sex education in the public schools: Problem or solution?”), argued that schools ought to teach students to make informed decisions about sex without pushing them toward particular choices. In March 1993, Mary M. Krueger (“Everyone is an exception: Assumptions to avoid in the sex education classroom”) advocated sensitivity and awareness of the diversity of beliefs and practices within their communities and among their students. And Perry Glanzer, in September 2011 (“Disestablishing sex: The case for released-time sex education”), recommended that schools stay out of it altogether, letting parents rely on community groups and faith-based organizations to provide sex education that aligns with their values. 


In the 1980s and 1990s, especially, a number of Kappan authors advocated setting aside moral questions in favor of a more careful and scientific discussion of students’ sexual behavior and the effects of sex education. In November 1995, for example, Linda Berne and Barbara Huberman noted that a lot of the earlier debate about these topics was flawed: 

Results from credible research are taken out of context, misinterpreted, or partially reported. Both sides of the debate may even cite the same study as the basis for opposing recommendations. In other cases, older data or outlying findings are presented as conclusive, while many newer studies that consistently show differing results are ignored. Some researchers with philosophical and financial connections to ideological factions have circulated studies that have not been subjected to peer review. Indeed, many of these studies have serious methodological flaws that invalidate their conclusions. (p. 230) 

Their article, “Sexuality education: Sorting fact from fiction,” went on to examine the arguments put forth by those who oppose comprehensive sex education. Those arguments, they concluded, do not hold up to scrutiny. 

LGBTQ+ teachers and students 

Although articles about sex education have often mentioned sexual orientation as something to be addressed as part of the curriculum, Kappan did not devote a full article to LGBTQ+ issues until October 1977, when it published a pair of articles about gay teachers. In that case, the magazine took a “both sides” approach, featuring “A homosexual teacher’s argument and plea” by an anonymous teacher and “Should gays teach school?” by Max Rafferty, who railed against the employment of gay teachers, whom he described as “sex perverts” who would undoubtedly negatively influence their students. Such fears and stereotypes are false, countered the anonymous teacher, adding that schools “need to fight to keep those teachers who, regardless of sexual preference, daily challenge their fortunate students to learn, to create, explore, and to make decisions” (p. 94). 

Front Matter

Kappan then remained relatively silent on LGBTQ+ issues for the next few decades, only bringing them up in the context of broader discussions about sex education. But when articles about LGBTQ+ students and educators finally began to appear in the magazine, the “both sides” approach had disappeared — rather, authors uniformly called upon schools to give queer students and teachers their full respect and support. For instance, in the October 2011 article “LGBT students want educators to speak up for them,” Abe Louise Young included students’ own words about how they are treated in school and how teachers can help them.  

Further, a February 2013 issue on “Sex and schools” included multiple articles on the needs of LGBTQ+ students. Graciela Slesaranky-Poe expanded the conversation about gender in her article, “Adults set the tone for welcoming all students,” which described her own process of questioning gender binaries as she watched her son grow up wearing dresses and playing princess games. And a September 2016 article by Alberto Arenas, Kristin Gunckel, and William Smith (“Seven reasons for accommodating transgender students at school”) offered the magazine’s most comprehensive treatment of transgender students before this issue.   

Reflecting the time 

Sex, sexuality, and gender have proven to be perennial topics of interest to Kappan’s readers and writers, appearing with some regularity in our pages over the last several decades. Of course, our authors’ perspectives have reflected the particular eras in which they lived, as evident in their attitudes and their vocabulary. (Many of the terms they have used would raise eyebrows today, even if their ideas would not.) However, one of the most remarkable things about Kappan’s history with these topics is how little the central questions have changed. Whether they were writing in 1942, 1987, or 2008, our authors have given serious thought to the ways in which their own identities, moral standards, school policies, and beliefs related to sex and gender might affect their work and their students’ learning — those questions that remain equally potent today.  


Citation: Preston, T. (2018). A look back: How Kappan has addressed sex and gender over the decades. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 5-7. 

TERESA PRESTON (tpreston@pdkintl.org) is managing editor of Phi Delta Kappan.

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