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Journal Article: The Historiography of Gender and Progressive Education in the United States

Journal Article » The Historiography of Gender and Progressive Education in the United States




Weiler, Kathleen






This article examines the feminist historiography of the progressive education movement over the past 25 years using the Foucauldian conception of genealogy and the theoretical approach of critical feminism. Gender has largely been ignored as a significant category of historical analysis in the historiography of progressive education in the United States. The defining history of progressive education in the United States is still Lawrence Cremin’s 1961 work, The Transformation of the School. For Cremin, gender is not a significant question. Later historians of the progressive education movement have tended to follow Cremin’s approach and have failed to address the gendered nature of progressive ideas of citizenship and democratic education. Early responses to this historiographic tradition by feminist historians of education influenced by the women’s movement sought to rescue and celebrate the women of the progressive education movement. They followed what might be called the ‘women’s recovery project’. This body of work has made an important contribution in uncovering the contributions of women educators but in many cases these studies have taken an uncritical and even romantic approach to their subjects. Moreover, they have tended to replicate a kind of individualistic biographical history, focusing on the achievements of individual women and ignoring the ways in which male/female binaries have worked to create difference and gendered structures of power. Although there are some significant exceptions to this feminist approach, much feminist history of education has failed to consider this process of difference-making or to challenge an empiricist model of history. This article examines the way historians have examined gender in the progressive education movement by looking at two areas: the role of gender in John Dewey’s life and work and the lives and work of progressive women school leaders. It argues that gender difference, like race and other subject positions, should not be understood as referring to fixed categories and unchanging reality, but as reflecting the work of difference-making. This entails looking not only at how difference is constructed in the institutional practices of the state and the legal system, but also how it is called forth in the scholarly interpretation of the past. The article suggests that historians of education need to go beyond the recovery project of writing the stories of those who have been ‘hidden from history’, in Sheila Rowbotham’s words, to an analysis of the process of gendering – in the educational sites we study and in the writing of history as an intellectual enterprise. [ABSTRACT FROM AUTHOR]
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