When the West Virginia governor and legislature agreed last week to boost teacher salaries, it represented a major victory and show of political strength for the educators who had walked out on strike nine days earlier. Much attention since has focused on the fiscal consequences or whether the episode will inspire walkouts in other states.
But the strike also illustrates the ways that political debates still reflect the long-standing dominance of men in American politics and how collective action led by female teachers was able to confront and overcome what my research calls a “legacy of patriarchy.”
In my book manuscript, “Educating the Nation: Gender, Federalism and Women’s Empowerment in the United States,” I define the legacy of patriarchy in the United States as consisting of two features. First, men no longer dominate women as they once did in American society, with women now having more political power. Second, despite this fact, men still retain a dominant position in politics that is perhaps greater than many Americans realize.
Here are four ways the legacy of patriarchy shapes education politics today and helps explain how the West Virginia teachers’ strike unfolded.
1. The importance of women’s votes and voice
First, consider women’s right to vote. Before passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, many American women lacked the right to vote. As I have shown elsewhere, this didn’t mean that women lacked influence in the politics of education. After the Civil War, women became the majority of teachers in every state and worked with civic clubs to lobby legislatures for school reform. In addition, women in many states gained the right to vote in school elections and were elected to county and state superintendent positions. The election of female superintendents in West Virginia and elsewhere helped improve education in rural areas.
In the decades since, women’s electoral power has also increased, especially when it comes to education. In 2016, Jim Justice, then a Democrat (and now a Republican), was elected governor of West Virginia with backing from teachers unions. That may have been central to Justice’s decision last week to support the pay raise that ended the strike.
2. Women’s power in the teaching profession