Gendered Expectations

Since the development of public education in America, there has been a division between what boys and girls learn in school. In the one-room schoolhouses, boys and girls were taught together – reading, writing, mathematics; the basics for everyone. Classical education was the focus of male students at higher levels of education, particularly secondary school and college, while girls were able to focus on the sciences after leaving the schoolhouse.

After the Civil War, women’s education changed along with their roles in society. As women joined a broader workforce – primarily outside of the home – their education changed to prepare them for their new occupational roles. However, even as they were given more opportunities in both school and society as a whole, American secondary schools became the guardians of the general sexual division of labor in society, particularly within vocational education.  The new vocationalism in women’s education made female schooling responsive to the division of labor in American life, distinguishing women’s skills and education from men’s and between different classes of women, since middle-class women were the primary beneficiaries of these changes.

These divisions in education and labor are only recently starting to diminish, some would even argue that they are still a part of everyday life in America. Nevertheless, they were still prevalent in the 1960s when Connersville began planning their vocational education programs. While it was clear that there were industrial and business influences on the makeup of the vocational education courses, the social influences on education were less obvious.


Cosmetology courses, unlike the clerical and secretarial courses that could potentially be taken by either boys or girls (but were filled with ladies), were only offered to women. The courses prepared girls for the State Board of Beauty Culture examination and for their future jobs as beauticians. While the women had cosmetology and clerical classes, the men had courses in auto-body, agri-mechanics, and electrical systems. These courses gave boys the experience of working with cars and taught them a variety of skills — from metal refinishing and frame work to the mechanical parts of cars and farm machinery. The vocational school also offered courses in electronics, appliance repair, drafting and building trades, and welding.

As one of the first students in the technical school, Pam Taylor – a 1970 graduate – would spend half a day in each school, splitting her time between her regular, academic classes and her vocational work in secretarial courses. The secretarial training gave students mock offices that each set up to their own taste where they would learn shorthand dictation and typing. Although courses were offered to any students who were interested, Pam recalled only females being in her secretarial classes while shop courses were filled entirely with male students.

Open for Business Sep 18 1969 (gender).pngDon Brown graduated nearly ten years after Pam did, in 1981, but there had only been a few changes to the makeup of the classes. Don, who had taken a woodshop class in seventh grade and loved the drafting aspect, wanted to become a drafter. He was accepted to the two year drafting and building trades course at the technical school, so he split his time between the two buildings like Pam before him.

However, Don remembered at least a few girls in his drafting class – one in each year of the program. Since the program was small, both the first and second year drafting students were in the same classroom. The teacher would introduce a concept to one half of the class, leave them to work, and then work with the other half while the first worked independently. Drafting was at least becoming inclusive to both genders – even if at a slow rate – but other courses continued to remain divided.

welding_1971Cosmetology was entirely female and Don recalled auto-body, agri-mechanics, electronics, and welding being all male classes as well. There was overlap between the different types of courses at the technical school: drafters and building trades would develop a concept, which they would then take to the shop – including electronics, auto-body, welding, and construction – to build the project. The predominately female courses, however, were left alone and worked independently of the other programs.

Although graduates reflected on the gender makeup of their courses, yearbooks and images from the vocational school can tell a story of their own.

There is a concept in the history of education called the “hidden curriculum,” which refers to the socialization that takes place in school but is not written into the formal curriculum. The hidden curriculum is composed of three distinct functions: 1) the concept of socialization essential to social life – reproducing the connections to civil society that transform the children into social being able to live and work together, form social institutions, and agreed upon meanings; 2) a sense of control wherein education in general and the everyday meanings of the curriculum in particular were seen as essential to the preserving of the existing social privilege, interests, and knowledge of some elements of the population at the expense of the less powerful groups; and 3) the direct production of ideological belief systems.

Photographs, including those in yearbooks, the school newspaper, or others, present their own historical record of certain elements of the hidden curriculum – including societal expectations of gender that manifest in education.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The distinct representation of males in technical classes and women in clerical and cosmetology courses in yearbook photos throughout a few of the earliest years of the vocational program (1971-1973) demonstrate how school continued to function as the guardian of the general sexual division of labor in society.

For more information about ladies and science, see Kim Tolley, “Science for Ladies, Classics for Gentlemen: A Comparative Analysis of Scientific Subjects in the Curricula of Boys’ and Girls’ Secondary Schools in the United States, 1794-1850” History of Education Quarterly vol. 36, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 129-153.
For an in-depth study of women’s schooling and labor during this period, see John L. Rury, Education and Women’s Work: Female Schooling and the Division of Labor in Urban America, 1870-1930 (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991).