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  • The Transatlantic Kindergarten: Education and Women’s Movements in Germany and the United States by Ann Taylor Allen
  • Elise Leal
The Transatlantic Kindergarten: Education and Women’s Movements in Germany and the United States.
By Ann Taylor Allen.
New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. iv + 304 pp. Cloth $78.

In this deeply researched and elegantly written monograph, Ann Taylor Allen describes how the growth of the kindergarten in Germany and America from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries produced a transnational women’s movement that reshaped early childhood education. As Allen explains in the introduction, most scholarship on kindergartens, along with feminist histories generally, are framed in national terms. Histories of the kindergarten are additionally problematic in that they are often presented as stories of German Sonderweg (special path) or American exceptionalism. Arguing that such nationalistic frameworks obscure “the transnational forces that shape cultural and social history,” Allen’s book charts a different scholarly course by situating the kindergarten within its entangled history of international expansion (2). By focusing on how the movement developed “through dialogues across national borders,” Allen demonstrates the significance of the German–American relationship to kindergartens while also uncovering its feminist [End Page 141] identity (57). She shows how female reformers used the kindergarten’s educational philosophy and gender psychology—particularly the idea purported by founders Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and Friedrich Fröbel that early childhood education was uniquely suited to women—to seek professionalization opportunities and achieve personal autonomy. Kindergartens thereby gave rise to a network of feminist activists dedicated to “the broader movement for women’s rights, educational innovation, and social reform” (2–3).

Although barely 200 pages of text, Allen’s book covers an impressive amount of ground, beginning with an overview of Fröbel’s vision of using kindergartens to inculcate virtue among the poor and expand women’s educational roles. German exiles from the 1848 revolution transmitted this vision to the United States, where middle-class women embraced kindergartens as a form of social activism. Female reformers like Elizabeth Palmer Peabody began conferring with German women who supported Fröbel, such as Baroness Bertha von Marenholtz-Bülow, to learn about kindergarten teaching methods. By the turn of the century, this collaboration evolved into a transatlantic sister-hood of professional kindergarten teachers—called “kindergartners”—who worked to found the institution on a mass scale in response to the problems of urbanization and industrialization. Simultaneously, new debates about child psychology and shifting patterns of professionalization for women produced divergent institutional structures. German female kindergartners resisted integrating into public schools due to male dominance over the teaching profession. Consequently, German kindergartens became part of state welfare systems, while women’s roles were redefined as a form of social work. In contrast, women dominated the teaching profession in the United States, which helped facilitate the kindergarten’s absorption into American public schools. However, the price of integration was loss of formal leadership roles for women, just as German kindergartners feared. These immerging differences placed increasing strain on the German–American relationship and contributed to the ultimate dissolution of this transatlantic collaboration during World War I, a loss that Allen views as “among the most devastating results of the war” (180).

With more than thirty years of expertise in the field, Allen grounds her monograph in extensive primary source research from both German and American archives. She does an excellent job of anchoring discussion of ideological and methodological shifts within the movement to a series of historical actors, creating a compelling narrative that brings the work of female kindergartners and their male supporters to life. Her theme of how kindergartens provided new opportunities for women’s professionalization and self-actualization is one of the greatest strengths of the book and serves to convincingly prove her argument that [End Page 142] the kindergarten was an inherently feminist movement. The question of broader impact, however, received less attention. Throughout the book, Allen asserts that the kindergarten supported “broader campaigns for women’s rights,” and even claims that “this movement laid the foundations for feminism in the twentieth century” (6, 193). While the ideological connection is apparent, it is slightly unclear how kindergartens...


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pp. 141-143
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