A Hundred Years Ago Chicago Schools Had a Female Superintendent!

19-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Monday, July 6, 1914:  Nothing doing

Ella Flagg YoungPhoto caption: Probably the most distinguished and influential superintendent of schools in this country, and especially revered in the West—Mrs. Ella Flagg Young, pictured in the electric runabout in which she goes from school to school. Married teachers are not discriminated against in Chicago, and the records in Mrs. Young’s office show that their efficiency marks are as high as those of unmarried teachers. (Source: Good Housekeeping. January, 1914)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Since Grandma didn’t write much a hundred years ago today, I thought you might enjoy this photo and caption that I found in an 1914 issue of Good Housekeeping.

Until I saw it I didn’t know that there were any female school superintendents back then—though I’m appalled that Chicago Schools considered it necessary to analyze whether married teachers were as efficient as unmarried ones. Thank goodness it turned out that they were.

(An aside: I wonder how they measured teacher effectiveness back then. Hmm. . . . maybe I’ll have to research that for a future post.)

28 thoughts on “A Hundred Years Ago Chicago Schools Had a Female Superintendent!

    1. Maybe. . . but it seems like that would lead to grade inflation. If teachers knew that they were being ranked based upon how high their students grades were, it seems like they’d all give students high grades.

      1. oh right! I guess I’m thinking of those exams done nationally to judge what kids are learning. They’re out of the teachers’ hands. But they probably didn’t do those then?

  1. This is an important woman, if she helped change attitudes about teaching and the efficacy of teachers! It would be very interesting to ehar more about her methods.

    1. @ Maryann,

      Your link, indicating that pregnancy was the motivation behind the rule, is accurate in my experience. I learned rather late in life that my mother, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Oklahoma, hid her marriage until she could finish a school term.

      It is problematic to parse the exact reasoning for the rule, I think, but it seems to me that it was not so much a fear of having to explain where babies come from as it was simply dealing with absences. Consider too, that in those rural days, large families were the order of the day, and that meant serial pregnancies. Large families = farm hands + old-age care.

  2. Three things…
    1. Electric runabout.
    2. Female in a position of authority.
    3. Married teachers do ok.

    Have we come a long way? I say yes and no.

  3. Great photo! And interesting story since once you got married you had to leave the workforce to take care of your husband and children. I suspect that is why they ranked married vs not married. As a married women can you handle a job and take care of your family. Today that feels rather ridiculous. Glad things have changed for the better though unfortunately there is still a lot of discrimination against women in professional jobs. But we are making progress.

  4. I love the photo and the history underneath it. I’ve read that superintendents would arrive at schools unannounced and quiz students orally and in written form. I guess that was one way they judged how effective the teacher was.

    1. That makes sense. I can pictures students trying really hard to impress Dr. Young with their knowledge if she arrived unannounced at their school.

    1. I also was surprised when I came across this photo. It’s nice to know there there were at least a few women in powerful positions a hundred years ago.

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