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)


Madeleine Grumet Publishes Bitter Milk

Feminist analyses of education and the "feminization of teaching" tend to place great emphasis on a two-pronged question: When and why did teaching become a feminized "semi-profession;" and what has been the impact on the roles of teachers as a result of this feminization? (Nicholson, 1980; Lather, 1987; Grumet, 1988; Acker, 1994) Madeleine Grumet's pivotal text Bitter Milk addresses both of these questions in depth. Throughout Bitter Milk, Grumet notes the pervasive impact of patriarchy on the social construction of teaching. Additionally, she attempts to draw "that knowledge of women's experience of reproduction and nurturance into the epistemological systems and curricular forms that constitute the discourse and practice of public education" (p. 3). In this sense, Grumet not only considers the emergence of the "feminization of teaching" and the limiting effects of patriarchy on teacher's work; she also attempts to reconceptualize women's experiences as positive sites of power and creativity which influence their teaching practices.

Grumet (and others such as Nicholson, 1980; Apple, 1986, and Lather, 1987) notes that the rise in the number of women employed in the teaching profession was related not only to the tremendous need for public school teachers in the late 1800s, but also to a lack of funds to pay that growing body of educational employees. From this standpoint, Grumet develops a substantial critique of the feminization of teaching by showing that its inception was synonymous with the economic exploitation of women workers who filled teaching positions. Due to gendered work relations, it was acceptable in the late 19th century to pay women two-thirds the salary of a male teaching colleague. Turning to the writings of the notable 19th century political figure, Catherine Beecher, we see an argument supporting the hiring of women teachers to be common for its day. In 1853, Beecher wrote:

Women can afford to teach for one half, or even less the salary which men would ask, because the female teacher has only herself; she does not look forward to the duty of supporting a family...nor has she the ambition to amass a fortune. (Cited in Grumet, 1988, p. 39).

In this sense, Beecher joined forces with school administrators who applied an argument of financial constraint to justify hiring women to teach, as well as for paying them less for equal or more work than their male counterparts.

Coupled closely with a devaluation of women's worth was a devaluation of their labor during the rise of the feminization of teaching. Again, Grumet highlights the convergence of women in the field of teaching with a shifting call for universal education of all children in the United States. As a result of this shifting educational priority, the nature of schooling began to be systematized and the school year was considerably extended. Thus, men who were able to teach for a traditional school term of about three months during the winter were unable to continue their teaching role once more time expectations were applied to the job (Apple, 1986). Women, on the other hand, who's work in the private sphere was devalued, were targeted as a prime employee pool for teaching, as they were "available" and not constrained by other "valuable" occupational responsibilities. By the 1920s, women constituted about 80% of all teachers in the United States, and to this day women dominate the profession, especially in the elementary grades (Apple, 1986). In fact, as one moves up in the educational hierarchy, one will find considerably less women teachers (Acker, 1994). In this sense, "high-status" knowledge becomes a masculinized domain--and the school and academy, a functioning body of patriarchy (Lewis and Simon, 1986; Grumet, 1988).

In terms of women teachers' roles and their inherent contradictions--their "bitter milk"--Grumet's work points to the fact that teachers serve as functionaries for the patriarchal order by transmitting the history and culture of that order via the curriculum. Tying this insight to Linda Nicholson's work, we learn that from their inception, schools were never intended for girls. Rather, they were seen as entities to fulfill the goal of socializing boys within the masculine realm of the public sphere (Nicholson, 1980). In this sense, women teachers have been agents of this patriarchal project, thereby enacting proliferation of their own oppression. Or as Grumet puts it, teaching strangely "employs many women, even many mothers, as the very agents who deliver their children to the patriarchy" (1988, p. 32). This notion of "delivery" suggests that teaching is not a profession afforded a great deal of autonomy. Rather, as female teachers came to dominate the profession, their role became defined by the simultaneous acts of transmitting knowledge, carrying out discipline, and providing nurturance and care for young people. Their role was not inherently marked by the power to control the curriculum or institute policy decisions. Instead, teaching was, and is, a devalued semi-profession in many forms.


Acker, S. (1994). Gendered Education: Sociological Reflections on Women, Teaching and Feminism. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Apple, M. (1986). Teachers and Texts: A Political Economy of Class and Gender Relations in Education. New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Grumet, M. (1988). Bitter Milk: Women and Teaching. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Lather, P. (1987). The Absent Presence: Patriarchy, Capitalism, and the Nature of Teacher Work. Teacher Education Quarterly. 14(2): 25-38.

Nicholson, L. (1980). Women and Schooling. Educational Theory, 30(3): 225-234.

Prepared by Alison Kreider (UCLA)

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