WINCHESTER – Should the town ever have a women’s hall of fame, among the first names to go on should be the first women members of the School Committee, elected and serving as town officials decades prior to the 19th Amendment, whose centennial is being celebrated this year.
By its Acts of 1874, Massachusetts prohibited deeming a person ineligible to serve on a School Committee by reason of sex. Women were also allowed to vote for that one board. In Winchester, three women were immediately elected. At the end of the first year, the chairman bore “testimony of the excellence of the work done by the lady members.” But, though some were supportive, others were outright scornful.
After 1887, when the size of the board was reduced from six to three (reportedly in expectation of hiring a new superintendent of schools), women again disappeared from the committee and did not return until the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
In 1882, one anonymous, dismissive citizen wrote to The Winchester Star, “I think no one will assert that anything has been gained, as we should have done equally as well if we had had all men,” adding that neither male nor female teachers like being bossed by a woman, that the students “pay about as much attention to anything they do or say as they would to a circus, and in about the same spirit,” and that men on the committee said “that many things that ought to have been said had to be omitted on account of their presence, and much time was wasted on frivolous matters.”
Just who were these women being so insulted?
Ann Bent (Ware) Winsor (1830-1907), one of the pioneering first women elected to the School Committee, was a community leader and part of a family committed to education.
As soon as the Winsors arrived in Winchester in 1864, Dr. Frederick Winsor began four years of service on the School Committee. Ann Winsor created a private school for girls in a building behind their house, located in the center. She herself taught, assisted by her daughter Mary. This may have lasted a short time (they moved their house to Vine Street within a decade) but apparently led the way for her children.
Daughter Mary Winsor founded and was principal of the Winsor School for Girls in Brookline, still going today and named one of the top 10 prep schools in America by Forbes in 2010. Annie Winsor Allen became an educator and founded the Roger Ascham School in White Plains, NY.
Elizabeth Winsor Pearson co-founded the Nursery Training School in Boston (later the Eliot-Pearson School at Tufts University). Frederick Winsor Jr. founded and was headmaster (1901-1938) of the Middlesex School in Concord.
Mother of these education-minded children, Ann Winsor served on the School Committee from 1874 to 1879. Two years later, she became the first president of The Fortnightly (one of the first women’s clubs in the state), serving as such until leaving town in 1889. The club offered women opportunities to improve the schools without actually holding public office as it organized classes and lectures on education (among other subjects) and promoted educational initiatives in the schools, such as kindergarten.
Elizabeth Patten Pressey (1827-1911) was a teacher. She trained at Mount Holyoke and first taught high school in Newton Center and Manchester N.H. Along with her brother Dana, she was a teacher at the Chester Academy in N.H. in 1856 and 1857. According to a history of Chester, both were “dignified and commanded great respect.” Among her students was a young girl who opened an acquaintance with her widowed father, a resident of South Woburn who was active in Winchester’s incorporation.
Once married, according to the custom of the times, Patten’s teaching career ended. (Discrimination against married female teachers in the U.S. was not terminated until 1964 with the passing of the Civil Rights Act.) Still she was able to render service to education as a Sunday School superintendent and, from 1874 until 1880, as the longest serving of the women members of the School Committee.
After leaving that committee, she also was active in The Fortnightly, becoming a director. In 1882-1883, while she was chairwoman of its Education Committee, the club held programs on “The Industrial Education of Girls” and “Is it expedient to open the higher institutions of learning to women?”
Taking part in the Fortnightly’s program on industrial education of girls was Mary Swift Lamson (1822-1909), a trustee of the State Industrial School for Girls and a member of the School Committee from 1874 to 1876.
In July of 1839, Lamson and two other young women braved a thunderstorm to enroll in the first class of the first state normal school in America, established in Lexington. After graduating, she taught at the Perkins Institute for the Blind. Among the more remarkable students at the school was Laura Dewey Bridgman, the first deaf and blind person to learn verbal language.
For three years, Lamson was Bridgman’s special instructor, helping to develop a finger talk. Later, Bridgman taught Anne Sullivan, who taught Helen Keller. It was Lamson who first told Keller (in 1890) that another deaf and blind girl had learned to speak, which sparked Keller’s resolve to learn to talk.
Marrying in 1846, Lamson’s professional teaching career ended. However, she became a trustee of the State Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster and remained actively involved with education. She was elected to the Winchester School Committee in 1874 but, following her husband’s sudden death in 1876, the committee accepted her resignation “with regret.”
Lamson lived in Winchester from late 1870 through 1880. During those years, having remained in continual contact with her former student, Lamson wrote her “Life and Education of Laura Dewey Bridgman, The Deaf, Dumb, and Blind Girl,” published in 1878.
After she left Winchester for Cambridge, Lamson co-founded the Boston YWCA and served as its vice-president.
It is difficult to imagine any of these women, seriously dedicated to education, to have wasted School Committee time on frivolous matters or being incapable of discussing school issues. Of course, they were deeply interested in the education of girls, probably more so than their male colleagues.
Last of the first
Five more women served on the School Committee in the 19th century, including more teachers, another graduate of Mount Holyoke, a librarian, and a woman whose husband (Robert Metcalf) would later become Winchester’s first full-time superintendent of schools.
The annual reports never speak disrespectfully of the women members. They do reveal that, although women (notably Pressey) did serve as secretary, none was ever chairman.
Industrial School for Girls
Since the women of the School Committee were interested in industrial schools for girls, it may be mentioned that a noteworthy example of this type of school began life in Winchester, organized and run by women during the era when they could not help run town schools by participating on school boards.
Established in 1853, the Industrial School for Girls was begun to provide a place where disadvantaged girls could be properly cared for, receive an education, and be trained to become upright, self-supported women as domestic servants or other probable occupation.
Though the school was managed by a group of mostly Boston women, one Winchester resident, Caroline Curtis, was on the board, and another, Mary Ann Sharon, was the matron.
The school was originally located in a large house left vacant by the Rev. Mr. Steele of the Congregational Church on Highland Avenue near Wolcott Terrace (since demolished). 21 girls aged 8 to 15 were living there in 1855.
The facility proving inconvenient after several years, the school was moved to Dorchester in 1858. In 1941, it merged with the New England Home for Little Wanderers.