National Women’s History Month: Female Leaders in Education

Female Leaders in Education, Margaret Bancroft, Mary McLeod Bethune, Marie Clay, & Maria Montessori

March is National Women’s History Month, and we want to highlight some of the outstanding female leaders in Education. Women were not routinely part of the educational system until the 19th century. It wasn’t until the Education Act of 1870 that elementary education became compulsory for both boys and girls in England. Women were also not part of secondary education or college until much later. Equal protection in any federally funded education program or activity was guaranteed in the United States in 1972 with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Throughout the years, many women have been instrumental in helping to advance the ideals of education. Jim Yong Kim, World Bank Group President, observed: “Expanding women’s ability to make decisions and take advantage of opportunities is critical to improving their lives, as well as the world we all share.”

In celebration of National Women’s History Month, we honor these great female leaders in education.

Margaret Bancroft

Margaret Bancroft was a pioneer in special education. At the age of 29, she opened the first private boarding school in New Jersey for children with disabilities. Originally opened as The Haddonfield School for the Mentally Deficient and Peculiarly Backward in 1883, it was renamed the Bancroft Training School in 1904. Bancroft was unusually insightful for the time. She believed that children with special needs should have specialized programs that could be adapted to their unique physical and mental needs. At the Bancroft Training School, students were given proper nutrition, personal hygiene, exercise, daily prayers, sensory and artistic development and lessons designed for their individual mental ages. Teachers were trained how to individually tailor instruction, and students were able to enjoy recreational activities and trips. A female leader in education, Bancroft’s ideas laid the foundation for what would become the field of special education.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was one of 17 children born to former slaves in the post-Civil War south. The odds were against her getting an education in the late 1800s.  With the help of various benefactors, she ended up attending school, and eventually college. Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls near Daytona Beach with just five students in 1904, and expanded to 250 students within two years. The school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in Jacksonville, and became the Bethune-Cookman College in 1923—one of the only colleges open to black students at the time. Bethune was an outspoken advocate for education of African-American students. She founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York in 1935. In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed her as Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. Despite many controversies that surrounded her because of her outspokenness on unpopular topics at the time, Bethune’s desire to promote education was a driving force throughout her lifetime.

Marie Clay

Marie Clay was a highly acclaimed educator from New Zealand, and did revolutionary work in literacy acquisition for children. More than three decades ago, she introduced a method of reading acquisition, known as Reading Recovery, for first graders. The program offers students one-on-one tutoring sessions for a focused short-term period to raise students from low achieving readers to average readers. During that time, the child is surrounded by a language-rich environment, and encouraged to choose books that appeal to the child’s own interests. Clay’s program was first introduced in the United States in 1984. Even though Clay passed away in 2007, her program continues around the world, and specifically in the U.S., through the Reading Recovery Council of North America.

Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori was born into a family that encouraged her to become an educated woman. She was the only female in an all-male school, and went on to get a degree in physics and mathematics before becoming one of the first female medical doctors in Italy in 1896. She devoted her practice to children, and became fascinated with the way children learn. In 1899, she was appointed counselor to the newly formed National League for the Protection of Retarded Children, and began studying education for children with special needs, particularly among the poorest populations in Rome. She set forth a theory that classrooms should be more child-friendly and that children should have more autonomy, encouraging their natural desire to learn in a less structured environment. In 1907, she opened Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) under the direction of the Italian government, where she had a chance to test her educational theories. Montessori developed a program in which children didn’t learn by rote. Instead, she developed exercises that prepared students to learn: looking becomes reading; touching becomes writing. Thus was born the Montessori educational approach that is still widely practiced today, especially in the PK-6 grades. Montessori was nominated for three Nobel Peace Prizes before she passed away in 1952 at the age of 81.

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