5 Female Historical Figures Who Helped Shape Modern Education

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Every day, students around the world are taught by talented and passionate female teachers. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, women made up about 76 percent of public school teachers in the United States during the 2017–2018 school year. 

But education hasn’t always been dominated by female teachers. Men actually held most teaching positions until the 19th century, when industrialization and a changing economy opened up more spaces in the classroom.  

Since then, women in education have made a remarkable impact—both in traditional teaching roles and from positions of institutional power. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting five such women who have helped shape education.  

 

Patsy Mink, Congresswoman and Title IX Coauthor

Patsy Mink originally wanted to go to medical school but was denied because of her gender. Then, after completing law school, she struggled to find work because she was a mother. So instead, Patsy Mink pivoted her ambitions, becoming the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Congress.  

There, she coauthored and advocated for Title IX, the legislation that fights against the very discrimination Patsy faced, ensuring equal treatment for women and men in education. Serving 13 sessions in the House of Representatives, Patsy was also instrumental in helping pass the Women’s Educational Equity Act in 1974, which gave funding to help end discrimination in education programs.  

 

Fanny Jackson Coppin, Advocate for African American Education 

A former enslaved person and one of the first Black women to earn a college degree, Fanny Jackson Coppin dedicated her life to increasing the educational opportunities for African Americans in the post-Civil War United States.  

Fanny was the principal of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia for 40 years, during which time she eliminated all tuition and personally financed housing for students who had moved to the city from the South.  

 

Ella Flagg Young, Education Reformer

Although she would later go on to become the first female superintendent of a major U.S. city, Chicago, Ella Flagg Young didn’t go to school until she was 11; she even taught herself how to read and write. She held roles in nearly every area of education, including teacher, principal, teacher trainer, superintendent, and school board member.  

As a principal and as superintendent, Ella advocated for teachers and students alike. She formed teacher councils and promoted a student-driven learning model, encouraging teachers to build relationships with children to tailor instruction to their specific needs

 

Savitribai Phule, First Female Teacher in India 

Born in 1831, Savitribai Phule was married at the age of nine. She was taught to read and write by her husband, with whom she went on to establish the first school for girls in India.  

Savitribai received significant backlash from conservative communities who were against her mission; she was regularly harassed by groups of men on her way to teach at the school. A social reformer and widely considered one of India’s first feminists, Savitribai and her husband also started the Literacy Mission in India between 1854 and 1855. 

 

Lucy Wheelock, Kindergarten Advocate 

Although kindergarten is common across the U.S. today, its existence was once hotly debated by the education industry. Lucy Wheelock, a kindergarten teacher and president of the International Kindergarten Union, was instrumental in helping establish early childhood education practices

To do so, Lucy coauthored an essential report that helped bridge the gap between educators who had differing ideas of which education and play activities were most appropriate in kindergarten classrooms. Lucy also worked to create free kindergartens in disadvantaged neighborhoods in Boston.  

 

Want to learn more about the evolution of education? Here's a helpful timeline that offers the history of schooling in the United States.  

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