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Phebe Sudlow: RSSC-Authored Resources

Links to our available resources on Phebe Sudlow, Iowa's first lady of education

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Biographical Sketch

"Education means not 'pouring out' but 'drawing out' of what is in a child's mind." --Phebe Sudlow

On August 4, 1975, the Iowa Department of Public Instruction named Onalee Baker of the West Central School District in Maynard, Iowa, the first female superintendent in Iowa. Although Mrs. Baker may have been the first woman to hold this position for many decades, barring those serving on an interim basis during World War II, someone else beat Mrs. Baker's record by almost a century. Phebe W. Sudlow was not only the first female superintendent of schools in Iowa, and possibly in the United States, but she holds the same distinction for many of her achievements during her long educational career.

Phebe W. Sudlow was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on July 11, 1831, one of six children born to Richard and Hannah Sudlow. When Phebe was four years old, her parents moved the family to Nelsonville, Ohio. Phebe's first educational experience was in a log schoolhouse, but she was soon attending an academy in Athens, Ohio. In 1846, at the age of fifteen, she began her life's work as a teacher in the same log schoolhouse where she herself was first taught.

In 1855, after her father's death, Phebe went to live with her brother John in Rockford, Illinois. A year or so later, the family moved to Round Grove in Scott County, Iowa. Phebe taught at the local school there, until her teaching methods and successes brought her to the attention of Abram S. Kissell, who was at the time the Superintendent of both the Scott County schools and the Davenport school system. By 1858, Mr. Kissell had moved Phebe to sub-district Number 5, as assistant of the district.

In 1859, Phebe was appointed assistant principal at Grammar School Number 2 and District School Number 3 . Her yearly salary was $350, less than the set wages for a man in the same position. By the next year, at the age of 29, Phebe was principal of both schools—possibly the first woman principal of a public school in the United States—at $400 dollars a year.

During her years in Davenport, Phebe argued with the board of education against gender-based teacher salaries, believing that men and women deserved equal pay for equal positions and experience. Although the board refused to listen at first, Phebe persisted. Eventually, the board did agree to pay all teachers, whether male or female, on the same scale, setting a precedent that had an impact not only on Davenport, but on other Iowa school systems as well.

Phebe joined the Iowa State Teachers Association, which at the time did not allow women to hold full-membership status. Nevertheless, 1862 found Phebe on an ISTA committee that recommended equal membership for female educators. This included the requirement of paying full dues, from which women, because of their lesser status, had been exempt. If everyone paid the same dues, Phebe reasoned, then everyone could legitimately expect the same rights and privileges from the organization.

On April 21, 1869, a convention of school administrators and teachers was held in Des Moines, Iowa, to discuss current educational issues. Mr. Kissell, who was by then the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, ran the meeting, and Phebe, whose name was beginning to be known in educational circles, gave a presentation on the teaching of language, which by all accounts was well received by the largely male audience.

In 1872, Phebe became principal of the Davenport Training School for Teachers, during which time she also held the position of principal of Grammar School Number 8 (present day Harrison School). Her annual salary was by then $1200, which was considered very good for the time.

On June 19, 1874, Phebe made educational history. She was unanimously chosen by the Davenport board of education to be the new Superintendent of Davenport Schools, the first woman in the history of the United States to be hired at this level of school administration. But before she agreed to take the position, Phebe had questions about the terms of employment, which included a salary somewhat less than William Edward Crosby, her male predecessor, had earned. She told the board, "Gentlemen, if you are cutting the salary because of my experience, I have nothing to say; but if you are doing this because I am a woman, I'll have nothing more to do with it." Phebe was immediately hired at the greater salary.

Phebe served as Superintendent for four years, during which she oversaw the construction of a new high school at Pershing and East 6th Streets (this building was later refitted as School Number 9, or Lincoln School, after the present day high school on Main Street was built). Although Davenport citizens may have been skeptical at first to have a woman in charge of the city's schools, they soon found that she was a great asset to the community. As the Citizen's Association of Davenport stated in one of their booklets, "All the public schools of the city are now under the charge of a lady Superintendent, who is fully competent for her responsible duties." During these years, she also collaborated on a book concerning language and composition with Mr. Crosby.

In 1876, Phebe was elected the first female president of the Iowa State Teachers Association, beating out the city superintendent of Clinton, Iowa, and a professor from the State University of Iowa, both highly respected men. In her opening address at the December 1877 conference in Cedar Rapids, Phebe spoke of the importance of kindergartens, industrial and vocational education, proper classroom conditions, and the place of women in the educational system. "I cannot understand," she stated, "why equal attainment, equal culture, and equal strength of purpose and will should not have equal influence whether in man or woman."

As radical as her views were for her time, Phebe's own accomplishments seem to have set the best kind of example. As ISTA stated in a report of the conference, "If any member of this association entertained doubts as to a woman's capability to do honor to positions of high dignity, he must have change his opinion after listening to the able inaugural of our most worthy president." Indeed, before Phebe's speech, it had been the custom for the female members of ISTA to ask male members read their papers or offer opinions on their behalf. After Phebe Sudlow's tenure as president, women were much more vocal in their participation.

In 1878, Phebe was awarded an honorary Master of Arts degree by Cornell College, the only college degree she held. Despite her lack of official academic credits, that same year, she was offered a professorship of English Language and Literature at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, becoming that University's first female professor. She was hired at the full rank and annual salary, $1,700, of her male counterparts. These terms were fully supported by the Iowa Normal Monthly of Dubuque: "Every institution of this kind should have at least one lady in its faculty; and we know of no one more worthy to fill the place than Miss Sudlow."

Davenport was naturally loath to let Phebe go. As one newspaper editor said, "We do not hesitate to affirm that at no period during the past . . . has there been such absolute freedom from complaint, disaffection, jealousies or friction among the teachers as during the years in which Miss Sudlow has been Superintendent. Certainly also, our schools have never given better evidence than now of thoroughly efficient instruction, or of real progress."

Phebe taught at the University until 1881, when ill health forced her resignation at the age of fifty. She returned to Davenport, where she was joint owner of the Fluke & Company Bookstore. In 1888, she accepted the position of principal at School Number 1 for one year, after which she retired from formal education.

Phebe did not, however, retire from the community. In 1889, Phebe helped to found the Club of '89, a ladies' literary society meant to facilitate the exchange of books and ideas, at a time when many housewives could not afford to take a carriage to the Davenport subscription library, where books were available to be 'rented' for a fee. Later, she assisted in the funding and organization of the first free public library in Davenport. For fifteen years, Phebe was president of the Ladies' Industrial Relief Society, which helped working mothers by providing day care and even a washing machine so that personal laundry would not have to be done by hand at the end of a long working day.

Phebe was a member of the Women's Missionary Society and Ladies' Aid Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and taught Sunday school; when construction began on the new St. John's Methodist Episcopal Church (now St. John's United Methodist) on Brady and 14th Streets in 1902, she was the one who prepared the congregational history that was placed in the cornerstone. In what little spare time she had, she designed tombstones

Phebe's services to the community did not go unnoticed, and resolutions were passed in the Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, the Chamber of Commerce, the Women's Club, and the Club of '89, to find some way of publically showing the city's appreciation. On June 14, 1921, three days after Phebe's ninetieth birthday, the Davenport board of education changed the name of East Intermediate School to Phebe W. Sudlow Intermediate School. This honor was deemed a "memorial befitting her superior character, her ennobling influence, and her dignified example."

A short while later, Phebe fell ill. On June 8, 1922, she passed away at her home, 1930 Walling Court, where she had lived with her sister Lucy for twenty-nine years. The Davenport Democrat mourned, "The death of Miss Sudlow will bring sorrow to the entire city . . .although she had not taught school for many years, Miss Sudlow has never been forgotten by grateful Davenporters, who at one time or another in their lives received instruction at her hands . . ."

And, as the Davenport Daily Times said in her obituary, "When asked where she received her education, Miss Sudlow was accustomed to reply, 'All along the way,' and up to her last illness she maintained the attitude of a child."

**It seems odd that a woman who can claim so many firsts, and who touched so many lives, should have a first name so constantly and consistently misspelled. According to her grandniece (and namesake), who claims to have documents with full signatures as proof, 'Phebe' is correct, and 'Phoebe' is not. But her several local obituaries included the 'o', as do almost every one of her biographies, and even recent awards in her honor. Some confusion might be understandable; Miss Sudlow often used the simple (and possibly gender-obscuring) "P.W. Sudlow" for professional correspondence and author credits, so many people apparently chose, and continue to choose, the more familiar spelling. However, the bronze marker at the Sudlow Intermediate School, which was presented on October 1, 1936, by the Hannah Caldwell Chapter of the D.A.R., correctly spells the unusual name of this exceptional woman.

Baker, Mary A. History of Davenport's schools. (Davenport, Iowa: Davenport Community School District), 1978, pp.17-19.
Barnhart, Cornelia Mallett. "Phoebe W. Sudlow." Palimpsest. April 1957, vol.38, no. 4, pp.167-176.
Berry, Mike. "You're 100 years late, fellas." Quad-City Times, August 4, 1975.
Christian, Rebecca. "A few 'firsts' for Phoebe." Iowan. Summer 1989, vol.37, no.4, pp.6-9, 62.
Cordier, Mary Hurlbut. Schoolwomen of the prairies and plains. (Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press), 1992, p.106.
"Death Claims Phoebe W. Sudlow, first woman superintendent of schools in the United States." Davenport Democrat and Leader. June 9, 1922, pp.1, 11.
Hanft, Ethel W. and Manley, Paula J. Outstanding Iowa Women. (Muscatine, Iowa: River Bend Publishing), 1980, pp.117-119.
McCooley, John. "Great-niece wants world to know it's Phebe, not Phoebe." Quad-City Times, June 5, 1991, p.C1.
"Miss Phoebe Sudlow." Davenport Democrat and Leader. June 9, 1922, p.20.
"Phoebe W. Sudlow, noted educator, called in death." Davenport Daily Times. June 9, 1922, p.1.
Svendsen, Marlys. Davenport: A pictorial history, 1836-1986. ([S.L.]: G. Bradley Publishing, Inc.), p. 50.