Feminist Biography and the Historical Narrative

Feminist Biography and the Historical Narrative

Rebecca Montgomery

Writing a biography of a woman can be an alienating task, since it is a good bet that most folks who ask about your research will have never heard of its subject.  In the more than ten years it took me to complete Celeste Parrish and Educational Reform in the Progressive-Era South, I became accustomed to getting blank looks when I answered such questions.  When the book was scheduled for release last December, I decided to say that it is about one of the most important educational reformers that you have never heard of.  It is exactly because Parrish, like most professional women, had been written out of the historical narrative that I remained determined to tell her story despite the regular interference of career demands, interstate moves, and family crises.

parrish book jacketIf Celeste Parrish (1852-1918) had been a man, her life would have been easier.  She knew that to be true, and it made her angry.  Born in Southside Virginia and orphaned during the Civil War, she turned to teaching at the age of sixteen to support herself and her two younger siblings.  The enfranchisement of black men during Reconstruction ensured that all southern states would finally have state-funded public school systems, and the creation of teaching jobs was a Godsend for the many white women who were now forced by the ravages of war to support themselves and their families.  However, Virginia’s institutions of higher education were closed to them, and when the legislature created a female normal school in 1884, it was underfunded and did not offer collegiate-level study.  Female teachers were further disadvantaged by the state’s failure to regulate private schools for women, which labeled themselves colleges even though they offered only grammar- and finishing-school courses of study.

Unlike Virginia’s white male teachers, who had access to three public universities, and black teachers who could attend the coeducational Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, white women had to travel out of state if they wanted to earn a college degree—a luxury few could afford in the postwar South. Driven by a desire for self-improvement and a determination to keep her family from falling further into poverty, Parrish continued to teach while furthering her education wherever and whenever she could.  She was able to cobble together a year’s leave at the University of Michigan with three years of summer school and a one-semester leave at Cornell University to finally earn a bachelor’s degree at the age of forty-three.  For three more summers she enrolled in graduate courses at the University of Chicago, where she worked with John Dewey and other leading progressive intellectuals.

The obstacles Parrish faced as a woman extended beyond the inconvenience and expense of having to attend college out of state.  She shouldered the responsibilities of breadwinner at a young age and repeatedly put the needs of nephews and nieces first when siblings died, but unlike professional men, her familial duties were not acknowledged by promotion and higher pay.  She received academic appointments at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the Georgia State Normal School in Athens, but both institutions had a patriarchal administrative hierarchy that denied women professional authority.  Even though Parrish excelled in her work as professor of psychology and pedagogy and was regionally renowned as a progressive educational reformer, she was fired by both institutions because of her stubborn insistence on being treated as the equal of male colleagues.  To add insult to injury, she was written out of the history of the Georgia State Normal School and her considerable accomplishments there credited to the man responsible for her firing.

One of the unfortunate consequences of the omission of feminists such as Parrish from the historical narrative is that historians have been deprived of their insights.  Although I initially was motivated to tell her story by a desire to give her credit for her many sacrifices and accomplishments, I soon came to respect the value of her gendered perspective for our understanding of southern history.  Parrish was intimately familiar with the personal and social costs of the gendering of opportunity, and she publicly decried the fact that progressive as well as conservative men appeared determined to maintain it.  She knew that denying women access to professional training not only reinforced their subordination to men, but it also lowered the overall level of instruction in public schools.  Furthermore, as she complained to members of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, the lack of opportunity made talented female teachers who left the South for their educations unlikely to return, producing a gendered “brain drain.”  Gender discrimination could also drive female educational reformers from the positions for which they were most fit, as it drove Parrish from her position at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, where she established the first experimental psychology laboratory in the South, and from her position at the Georgia State Normal School, where she was modernizing and standardizing teacher training.  Historians who have explored the limitations of southern progressivism and the reasons why southern educational standards have lagged behind the rest of the nation could have benefited greatly from familiarity with Parrish’s analysis.  It is my fervent hope that they may yet do so.

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