chapter  4
11 Pages

Images of Women in Textbooks 1880–1920


Textbooks mirror society. They may distort, they may present only a segment of the whole picture. Nevertheless, they provide one means of judging what a society wishes to pass on to its children. When the attitudes of a society are changing, its textbooks may not reflect the changes for some years, both because of the time it takes to write and publish new books and because authors may hesitate to adopt new attitudes before they have become part of the way of life of the majority. We can see this even today. During the years that blacks have been fighting for recognition of their rightful place in society, textbooks have continued to reflect a society almost totally white, and it is only in recent years that a truer picture has begun to emerge. Accepting the possibility of a time lag in the presentation of new ideas, we looked at geography, physiology, and arithmetic textbooks for school-age students written between 1880 and 1920, and at new editions of older books republished during that period, to find out how far changes in the roles of women in American society were reflected in them. The years between the Civil War and 1920 were exciting ones for women. In politics women struggled successfully for the right to vote. In the work force, by 1920, women made up 20 percent of all workers and were taking on new kinds of jobs.1 With the expansion of higher education after the Civil War, more women had become teachers, doctors, librarians, and social workers. By 1920 a number had earned senior positions in libraries, colleges, school systems, and state and federal agencies. The growing influence of women in society was likewise reflected in changing values. Women led the movement for moral purity to rid society of a double standard of sexual behavior for men and women. Reformers of both sexes worked to suppress vice so that society might progress toward perfection in morality as it had already progressed toward perfection in technology. These reformers aimed to educate men to develop the same restraints on sexual expression that women practiced. During the 1880s moral reformers pressed for state laws to teach children of the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and stimulants. When it became clear that self-restraint could not be enforced through education alone, reformers urged prohibition of liquor sales, another reform that was crowned with success in 1919 with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution.2 In our study of thirty-eight textbooks3 we found extensive evidence of the effectiveness of the reform laws in introducing information about liquor and other drugs into physiology textbooks. Authors saw the threat of alcoholism and drug abuse as men’s problems, endangering the well-being of their wives and families. Only one book, written by husband and wife physicians, spoke specifically of their dangers to women as well as men. Another book, published in 1915 and written only for boys, dealt openly with the need for boys to develop sexual restraint, so that they might enter marriage as healthy as their spouses. It was the only book to mention the dangers of venereal diseases, although they posed at least as serious a social problem at the time as

intemperance. With relation to women’s place in the economy, we found women portrayed as unimportant in the world of work. The space allotted to them was small compared to their real importance in society. Some male authors of geography textbooks never once referred to a woman; work in all the countries they described was carried out by men alone. In some geographies, particularly those published toward the end of the period, women were pictured in factories and on farms. However, only one book, on physiology, told its readers that women could become doctors, architects, or preachers. There was some suggestion in the textbooks written by men that women were losers: They gave incorrect answers, they sold their goods at a loss, their health was crippled by tight-lacing. With relation to women’s political aspirations, we expected to find few citations, since the suffrage movement reached its climax only in the second decade of the twentieth century, but were surprised to discover only one reference to women in political life, and that to a woman’s election to the post of school superintendent. Quite clearly there was a greater consensus in society on the value of moral reform than on the value of women’s rights to equal participation with men in political affairs.