Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly GPQ 8 (Spring 1988): 102-119. Copyright 1988 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska—Lincoln.


The ideal schoolteacher of the mid-1800s was characterized by Catherine Beecher as an educated, unmarried lady who was "already qualified intellectually to teach, and possessed of missionary zeal and benevolence," she was ready to go "to the most ignorant portions of our land to raise up schools, to instruct in morals and piety, and to teach the domestic arts and virtues. I This description, as applied to the school women of Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas from the mid-1850s to the early 1900s, omits their unique characteristics and contributions. This article seeks to redefine the prairie schoolwomen as western women, both single and married, who were at home with the frugal rural life-style of the farms and ranches; who were fired by the idealistic belief that universal public education could lead to selfbetterment and to social reforms for themselves, for children, and for the community at large. The majority of the prairie schoolwomen assumed not the role of "missionary" in teaching the children but rather were accepted members of the community and of the extended family relationships common to the oneroom schoolhouse.