Women and Education

By: Debbie Mauldin Cottrell

Type: Overview Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

Updated: April 1, 2021

The interaction between Texas women and education has a long history that includes a struggle for equal access, a capitalization on professional opportunities and leadership positions as teachers and administrators, and a continuing pattern of utilizing education as a foundation for other avenues of development. The earliest signs of education facilities in Texas date to the area's Spanish period, when missions established for Indians included schools that focused on training in agriculture and industry. These mission schools included training for females, such as Angelina, the leader of East Texas Caddo Indians for whom Angelina County was later named, who was educated by priests at San Juan Bautista around 1700. Nonmission schools were also present in the region by the mid-eighteenth century, but by the time the area was part of Mexico in the 1820s, all signs of formal education-for either sex-had disappeared. The subsequent constitution of the state of Coahuila and Texas required the establishment of primary schools, and in the early 1830s the state made land grants to support local schools. These schools included separate primary instruction for girls, who followed a similar curriculum to that for boys, with an added emphasis on sewing, embroidery, and other domestic skills. During this same time, numerous private schools opened in Texas to provide education for the increasing number of American settlers in the state. Such facilities often afforded girls an opportunity to attend school, usually in a separate female department. Frances Trask Thompson's school in Coles Settlement (later Independence), established in 1834, is recognized as the first boarding school for girls in Texas; it was also the precursor of Independence Academy, Baylor Female College, and Mary Hardin-Baylor University. Lydia Ann McHenry opened a school for girls in Washington County in 1835.

The number of educational facilities grew during the eras of the Republic of Texas and antebellum Texas. As civic leaders, religious groups, and educational associations promoted the establishment of various educational institutions, private academies for girls continued to be organized, a fact that reflected a desire to train young women while remaining committed to the prevailing sentiments against coeducation. Such schools usually had women teachers. The female department of Rutersville College, opened in 1840 near La Grange in Fayette County and operated by the Methodist Church, was a well-known institution of the time. Miss A. E. Madden ran the Female Academy established in San Augustine in 1840. She had taught in the United States before settling in Texas, and in her new school she combined girls' training in literature and grammar with drawing, painting, and needlework. Matagorda Academy, established in 1840, admitted both boys and girls and utilized the services of its founder, Rev. C. S. Ives, and his wife to teach their respective sexes. Though Mirabeau B. Lamar led the Republic of Texas to commit itself to a public school system in 1839, the actual move to put such a system in place was a slow one. Private schools remained the only choice for many Texas children, and smaller numbers of wealthy Texans sent their children to school in the United States. Either of these alternatives usually ensured the segregation and differentiation of male and female training. Many young Texas women in the mid-nineteenth century were taught at home schools run by their mothers. Isolation from other areas and limited resources mandated that many pioneer Texas women teach their children-both boys and girls-at home. This practice reflected an important educational contribution by women in Texas and helped produce reasonably low illiteracy rates among White Texans over the age of twenty by 1850: 12 percent for men and 20 percent for women. However, teacher Melinda Rankin noted in her Texas in 1850 that education in the state still showed many weaknesses, and that, specifically, it lacked a "Female Seminary of high order," which could "elevate the standard of female education, which...has not been made in Texas as prominent an object as its importance demands."

The foundations of modern Texas public schools were laid in 1854, with the establishment of a $2 million school fund by Gov. Elisha M. Pease. Although numerous changes in the state's approach to education came with the constitutions of 1866, 1869, and 1876, the concept of tax-funded public schools had been accepted, if not always enthusiastically, since 1854. For much of this time, schools separated by sex and race were the norm in Texas. Separation often carried other stipulations. In 1871, for example, the Texas Board of Education specified that public schools for girls devote two days a week to needlework. The 1876 constitution marked the first indication of a major step away from consistent separation of males and females in public schools by allowing communities to establish separate or coeducational schools according to present needs and conditions. The first move toward coeducation in higher education in Texas came in 1865, when Baylor University approved the teaching of male and female students together. Subsequent to this, the University of Texas was coeducational from its founding in 1883, in contrast to the state's first major land-grant institution, Texas A&M (1876).

As educational opportunity for women increased in the state, so, too, did their presence in the teaching profession. After the Civil War, a gradual feminization of the educational field took place, as the depletion of male teachers resulting from the war and the general broadening of educational opportunities brought a greater need for teachers. By 1900 Texas women outnumbered men for the first time in teaching positions. Texas women subsequently pushed to attain more professional recognition as teachers, often turning to organizational efforts to help them. In 1916 Annie Webb Blanton, a graduate of the University of Texas with teaching experience in rural and city schools as well as the state normal school in Denton, led a group of women to protest the lack of gender democracy in the Texas State Teachers Association; she was subsequently elected president of this group. In 1929 in Austin she organized the Delta Kappa Gamma Society, a women's professional organization for teachers that grew into an international body with membership exceeding 160,000.

The changing face of higher education in Texas in the twentieth century had a direct influence on women. With the foundation of numerous teacher-training institutions in the state between 1900 and 1920, as well as the establishment of the Girls' Industrial College (now Texas Woman's University) in 1902, the opportunity to pursue formal education beyond high school, as well as to attain post-secondary teaching jobs, greatly increased for women. These opportunities were defined, or limited, in several ways. Six of the seven new normal schools admitted only White students, as did the Girls Industrial College. Women in the southern and western parts of the state found access to these institutions more difficult. Furthermore, the opportunity to continue one's education, even at a reasonably affordable state school, almost always necessitated at least middle-class income. Still, the early institutions gave Texas women increased access to education. Texas women used their education, interests, and organizational skills in a variety of classroom endeavors. Often they worked in one-room rural schoolhouses, where they taught a span of ages and subjects and were expected to abide by strict codes of conduct, which could require modest dress, prohibit marriage, and mandate regular church attendance. Urban classrooms presented different opportunities and challenges. Leonor Villegas de Magnon, a teacher in Laredo, taught in the midst of border conflict resulting from the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910. She eventually turned her school into a hospital and helped the wounded from both sides of the fighting.

Creativity to meet pressing social needs marked the efforts of numerous Texas women educators in the twentieth century. Jovita Idar ran a free kindergarten in San Antonio. Jeffie O. A. Conner became the state's first Black home demonstration agent and an administrator for the McLennan County schools. In Fort Worth, Edna Gladney opened the Texas Children's Home and Aid Society (later the Gladney Center) to educate unwed mothers and help find homes for their children. Jovita González de Mireles initiated the state's first bilingual elementary school program in Texas and wrote Spanish-language textbooks with her husband for Corpus Christi schools beginning in 1940. Increased access to higher education slowly allowed women to reach positions of leadership in these institutions. Lucy Ann Kidd-Key taught in and served as president of North Texas Female College in Sherman for twenty-eight years before her death in 1916. The college, which closed in 1935, was well-known for its cultural emphases and its many faculty members recruited from Europe. Mary Elizabeth Branch became the first Black woman college president in Texas, when she became the head of Tillotson College in Austin (now Huston-Tillotson College) in 1930. Lorene Rogers became the first woman named as president of a major state university when she took over leadership of the University of Texas at Austin in 1974; she served as its president until 1979. Mary Evelyn Blagg Huey became the first female president of Texas Woman's University in 1976 and served until 1986.

Access to education also had a momentous impact on women's contributions to society, as Texas women used their intellectual attainments to advance other goals. Frequently, female leaders in club work, politics, and community service held college degrees. The increasingly active women's clubs in the state generally grew out of literary societies. The Texas Federation of Women's Clubs, which began in 1897, quickly targeted education as one of its major interests by making the establishment and development of libraries in the state a priority. Julia B. Ideson, a graduate of the first library science class at the University of Texas in 1903, became the head of the Carnegie Library in Houston and later had the city's downtown library named for her. Emily Dorothy Scarborough brought the first college course in journalism to Baylor University. The roster of well-known Texas women with postsecondary degrees includes early-twentieth-century figures such as Anna Pennybacker (Sam Houston Normal Institute) and Minnie Fisher Cunningham (University of Texas Medical School), as well as more recent leaders such as Sarah T. Hughes (Goucher College) and Ann Richards (Baylor University). Women's education also found a connection to politics in local school districts, where the view of the classroom as a woman's domain, as well as the expected interest mothers were to take in the education of their children, led women to positions of leadership. The Texas Congress of Mothers (later known as the Texas Congress of Parents and Teachers) was formed in 1909 and became a vital organization for Texas women. By the 1920s, Texas women also held increasing numbers of school board seats and school district superintendencies. Dallas and San Antonio both elected women to their school boards before 1915. Annie Blanton's election in 1918 as state superintendent of public instruction represented the first time a Texas woman was elected to statewide office and symbolized, not coincidentally, the important role of education as an avenue for women's increasing political involvement. The first woman elected to the Texas Senate, Margie E. Neal, who served four terms beginning in 1926, consistently supported education-related legislation and introduced the bill that instituted a new State Board of Education.

In the late twentieth century, Texas women continued to maintain a close relationship with educational endeavors. All of the state's public and private institutions of higher education admitted women, and Texas women were earning undergraduate degrees numbers equal to men. Texas Woman's University remained the state's premiere female school. Although it admitted males in some of its programs, it was still recognized as the largest university for women in the United States. Numerous private primary and secondary schools, such as the Hockaday School in Dallas, continued to limit their enrollment to girls. Of the state's 500,000 public school teachers, 78 percent were women in 1994. A burgeoning area of change for females in Texas schools occurred in the field of sports, where federal legislation mandating equal financial support to male and female programs helped increase the quantity and quality of women's and girls' sports. Thus, in a state long marked by educational squabbles and inequities, Texas women have fought for their access to substantial formal training, have forged important roles for themselves as educators in the state, and have used their educational opportunities to enhance their place in a variety of endeavors and as a conduit for improving society. See also EDUCATION, HIGHER EDUCATION, TEACHER EDUCATION, TEXAS EDUCATION AGENCY.

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Wreathy Aiken, Education of Women in Texas (San Antonio: Naylor, 1957). Debbie Mauldin Cottrell, Pioneer Woman Educator: The Progressive Spirit of Annie Webb Blanton (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993). Winnie Ouida Davis, Women Leaders in Texas Education since 1860 (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1936). Frederick Eby, The Development of Education in Texas (New York: Macmillan, 1925). Cecil Eugene Evans, The Story of Texas Schools (Austin: Steck, 1955). Roberta Scott Ferguson, The Education of Women and Girls in Texas before the Civil War (M.A. thesis, University of Texas, 1925).

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Debbie Mauldin Cottrell, “Women and Education,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/women-and-education.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996
April 1, 2021

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: