Guiding the Working-Class Girl: Henrietta Rodman's Curriculum for the New Woman, 1913
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Guiding the Working-Class Girl
Henrietta Rodman's Curriculum for the New Woman, 1913

"Every girl and woman should be economically independent. In case of need she should be able to paddle her own canoe. To woman, marriage is an incident, not an objective."1 In 1912 Henrietta Rodman, a New York City high school English teacher, delivered this advice to female graduates. By that time she was becoming nationally-known as a spokesperson for vocational guidance and radical feminism. She began offering similar advice to her students at Wadleigh, Manhattan's all-girls public high school, when she joined the faculty in 1904. Situated in a middle-class neighborhood of Harlem, its student body was principally the children of Jewish and Italian immigrants and a few African Americans, many of whom longed to rise above the limits placed on their socioeconomic class. Despite their aspirations between 32 and 50 percent of students dropped out of school each year.2 Rodman compared schools to a Darwinian process where the strongest survived but the weaker left for unskilled trades.3 Adverse to the classic curriculum as well as to the unconscious churning of students into vocational education, Rodman evinced little faith in the system. "If our young people were not wise enough to empty their heads of most of what we painfully and expensively ram into them, there would be no room for the things they really need to know."4

Rodman had immense faith that her students would be the first generation of feminists to carry out the utopian scenarios imagined by her friend, feminist philosopher, economist, and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her novels What Diantha Did (1910) and Moving the Mountain (1911), and nonfiction work Women and Economics (1898) and The Home: Its Work and Influence (1903).5 Both Rodman and Gilman predicted a future in which women of all classes would spend a greater proportion of their lives in employment and within a greater variety of occupations. They believed that mothers would work outside the home, not simply out of dire necessity but also for intrinsic satisfaction. They would live in apartment houses where the time-consuming [End Page 124] and arduous chores of old-fashioned housewifery would be carried out by trained staff.6 The responsibilities of domesticity, wage earning, childrearing, and citizenship would equally accrue equally to men and women.7

A century after Rodman began her curricular work, the question of preparing girls for work lives that would continue after motherhood still remains a controversial one in the United States. In May 2013 the Pew Research Center in Washington dc released a report, Breadwinner Moms, which while observing an ever-escalating percentage of working mothers nevertheless remarked on a continuing social resistance to the phenomenon. The rate of employment of married mothers with children in wage-earning positions increased from 37 percent in 1969 to 65 percent in 2013. Yet 74 percent of adults feel that working mothers have made raising children harder and families more likely to fracture.8 The notion that the women bear the primary responsibility of childrearing and creating successful family units appeared to remain as unyielding in 2013 as it was in 1913. As a pragmatic optimist Rodman would likely have found a forecast of this nature hard to swallow.

This essay reviews Rodman's endeavors to create a curriculum to guide working-class girls in selecting careers that sustained them as the "new women" of the new century. Rodman's goal was to provide students with practical knowledge through her course of study, which she variously called self-analysis or social studies. Rodman's quandary was how to keep young women from dropping out of school and into dead-end jobs. Her solution was a course of study that appealed to young women's self-interest while stimulating their democratic commitment to social justice and community responsibility.9 In this essay I first examine historians' assessment of the relationship between the concept of the new woman and the high school. Next I look at the influences on Rodman's worldview; her upbringing and early educational and work experiences. The third part considers the context in...