The First Woman Superintendent

Phebe Sudlow had taught in public schools for 12 years. Because she was a good teacher, the city school superintendent asked her to come to Davenport. So in 1858 Phebe Sudlow left a rural school in Scott County near Davenport and began teaching in the city. In only three years she was appointed principal. The Civil War had just begun. Many men—including teachers—were leaving to join the army, and women were hired to fill the jobs they left when they went to war. In fact, from the Civil War on, female teachers would always outnumber male teachers.

Phebe Demands Equal Pay

Before Phebe Sudlow accepted the job of principal, she told the board of education that she expected to receive the same salary that would be given to a man. She refused to consider working for less. The board had to think it over. female teachers had always been paid much less than men, but the board had never hired a woman to be principal before! Finally, the school board agreed to her request. Still, female teachers continued to receive less money than men.

Phebe Proves a Point

Miss Sudlow next became the principal of the Training School for Teachers. Then in 1874 she was chosen Davenport Superintendent of Schools. This made her the first woman superintendent of public schools in the United States.

Phebe Sudlow proved that a woman could do a good job as a teacher, principal or superintendent. Although she continued to work very hard for equal salaries for teachers, she did not live to see her hope come true. This did not happen until the 1960s.

Phebe Made History

Phebe Sudlow was a pioneer for women in the education field. In the late 1800s she had been a member of a charitable women’s group known as the Ladies' Industrial Relief Society in Davenport. The group operated an “industrial school” for poor people in the city. There students learned sewing and cooking skills that would help them find good jobs. She was the first female professor at the University of Iowa when she became an English professor in 1878. The people of Davenport knew her as their school superintendent. But she was known around the country for being the first woman superintendent of schools in the United States. History remembers Phebe for being a pioneer and trendsetter for educational causes.

Adapted from original article in The Goldfinch 2, No. 4. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines, Iowa

 

 


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