Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Margaret Haley becomes the first woman and first teacher to speak at the NEA

In 1901, at the National Education Association (NEA) meeting in Detroit, Margaret Haley (1861-1939) became the first woman to speak from the floor at a general meeting of the Association, and the first school teacher who dared to speak at all in the NEA. This was especially significant considering grade teachers (who were primarily women) were contributing approximately 90% of the Association's revenue.

Haley, a charismatic and articulate teacher, social reformer, and labor advocate, was one of the main leaders of the Chicago Teachers Federation (CTF), the most prominent and militant teachers' union in the country, and the precursor of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Because at that time collective bargaining was still undeveloped, the CTF relied heavily on the courts, organized political campaigns, and worked with political allies to elect judges and liberal school board members (Herrick, 1971). At the beginning of the century the CTF was so powerful that its membership surpassed the entire national membership of the NEA. Under the guidance of Haley, the CTF fought for higher salaries, pensions, and tenure. It also opposed administrative centralization of power, and the tendency to conceive of schools as factories and children as future factory workers.

At that time, the NEA was formally the representative body of the teaching profession, but its leaders were primarily university professors and administrators, public school superintendents and principals--all male. In her memoirs, Haley pointed out that the NEA

    "did not fairly represent its great body of membership, the grade teachers of the public schools. Its directorship was self-perpetuating and undemocratic. Its officers were allied and aligned with the powers that were fighting democracy in the public schools. Nevertheless, by virtue of their own self-constituted authority, the high officers of the Association managed to convey the idea that they and they only could speak for and to educators of the nation" (p 128).
Haley had no intentions to talk at the Detroit meeting in 1901, because in previous NEA conventions discussions from the floor had not been allowed. However, fate played a role, and on that day history changed. After a series of long and boring speeches made by four male speakers, the chair of the session thought that at that point the only way to awake the audience was to open the subject to the floor for discussion. In her autobiography, Haley recalls the moment by saying that when she made the decision to lift her voice she had no expectations of fame. What moved her was
    "the feeling of the right of my sex to equal representation in an organization where we bore the heavier burden of responsibility and obligation. I had been listening to the speakers with the thought running through my head, "are these men fools or are they knaves? Do they know the facts or are they simply uninformed? Are they consciously boosting big business?" The facts in regard to the inadequacy of revenue for school purposes had been written on my consciousness so indelibly by the tax fight, which we had just won in the Illinois Supreme Court, that the announcement of the discussion swung me up to my feet" (p. 132).
In her intervention, Haley challenged the feeling of self-complacency and lack of criticism of the previous speakers, and argued that classroom teachers--through low salaries and larger classes--were the ones paying the price for educational expansion. She never spoke before in a hall of that size, but her words made an impact, and as soon as she finished the audience applauded and cheered her. Encouraged by the response, she added some facts about tax subsidies to corporations.

One of the previous speakers, Dr. William Harris, US Commissioner of Education, reacted immediately, pointing at Haley: "Pay no attention to what that teacher down there has said. I take it that she is a grade teacher, just out of her classroom at the end of the school year, worn out, tired, and hysterical." Then, Haley responded:
    "I plead guilty to one charge made against me by Dr. Harris. I am a grade teacher, but I am not just out of the schoolroom. I have been out for two years, working on this tax question as it affects the railroads and public utility corporations. I know what I am talking about. I have the facts. Dr. Harris, you either do not know or you have not stated the facts. This is no time or place to continue this discussion, but I am ready to meet you at any time or any place that you name, here today or later, to continue this discussion on the issues you have raised." Haley added, "If it be morbid to go into the courts and get an opinion, which I have little doubt will be sustained by the higher courts, ordering the taxing officers to assess property of five public utility corporations, amounting to two hundred million dollars, that for years have escaped taxation; and if it be hysterical to go before the people and tell them these facts, then we in Chicago plead guilty to your charge of being morbid and hysterical. But I think this audience will be glad that there is one morbid place in the United States and that they will hope with me that such hysteria will become contagious (p. 134)."
Three years later, in 1904, Margaret Haley spoke at the NEA convention in St. Louis, on "Why Teachers Should Organize". That speech brought to light many issues which would be debated among teachers' unions for the rest of the century.


Haley, Margaret (1982). Battleground: the autobiography of Margaret Haley (edited by Robert L. Reid). Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Herrick, M.J. (1971). The Chicago Schools: A Social and Political History. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Daniel Schugurensky, 1999

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