Kim Tolley: (Nearly) Equal Pay for Women in the Antebellum South

Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845, by Kim TolleyWe welcome to the blog a guest post by Kim Tolley, author of Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845. Susan Nye Hutchison (1790-1867) was one of many teachers to venture south across the Mason-Dixon line in the Second Great Awakening. From 1815 to 1841, she kept journals about her career, family life, and encounters with slavery. Drawing on these journals and hundreds of other documents, Tolley uses Hutchison’s life to explore the significance of education in transforming American society in the early national period. Tolley examines the roles of ambitious, educated women like Hutchison who became teachers for economic, spiritual, and professional reasons.

In a previous post, Tolley asked the question: What if there had never been a Confederate battle flag? In the following post, as debates about the gender wage gap continue to make headlines today, Tolley addresses a common myth about the wage gap of the antebellum era and how it differed from that of the twenty-first century.


Equal pay and greater opportunities for women in the workplace are hot topics today. The most recent U.S. Census statistics show that among full-time, year-round workers, the average female earns 78 cents to the average male’s dollar. Several presidential candidates have made the wage gap a key issue in the 2016 campaign.

Modern commentators often assume that earnings inequality has persisted throughout history and improved only recently, but this isn’t the case. During the antebellum era, women who established their own schools in the South could often earn as much as men. With access to education, a free woman could start out as a teaching assistant and eventually move up in position to become a teacher, head of a female department, and even the principal of an all-female school. Census data indicates that though a significant wage gap existed in northern schools, the gap was much smaller in southern schools, where women’s wages were typically 85-100 percent of men’s. And if a woman had enough ambition to open and operate her own school, that gap could disappear.

Susan Nye Hutchison’s story illustrates this kind of career trajectory. Starting in 1815 she taught for thirty years in North Carolina and Georgia, both as a single and a married woman. She became a very successful educational entrepreneur during her last dozen years in North Carolina, founding several schools and eventually helming all-female academies in Salisbury and Charlotte. Nor is her case particularly exceptional. Over the years, she educated hundreds of young southern women, and some of them went on to become teachers and heads of their own schools.

Teachers like Hutchison have been nearly invisible in histories of the South,largely because few of their letters and diaries have survived in modern archives. To make matters worse, some historians have presented a dismal portrait of women’s teaching in the antebellum South, claiming that wealthy parents viewed teaching as an unfit occupation for a lady. But the majority of southerners did not disdain teaching as a way for their daughters to earn a living. The typical white southern woman was neither a plantation mistress nor a southern belle. Wealthy families capable of leaving their daughters a fortune or marrying them off to rich suitors represented only a small fraction of the population.

Teaching in antebellum academies provided women access to a middle-class career path. Unlike the teaching of very small children, which had long been viewed as “women’s work,” women’s teaching of adolescents brought them into new territory. Southern female teachers gained access to the kinds of wages previously available only to men, and at the same time they also began to face competition with men for leadership positions in female schools.

There were limits to how far a woman could go. During the 1840s, as the major Protestant denominations began to compete with one another to recruit converts and establish distinctive academies and colleges, church leaders sought men to take charge of all-female schools. Male ministers competed with women for these positions and in schools with denominational affiliations, women lost out. When Susan Nye Hutchison eventually left Salisbury Female Academy in 1845, the board of trustees hired a Presbyterian minister to replace her.

Will Americans succeed in closing the wage gap in the twenty-first century? In Hutchison’s era, women took one step forward and one step back: their earnings rose to match those of men in education, but fell in subsequent generations because of discriminatory hiring practices. Whether this kind of pattern repeats in the future or fades into history will depend on the outcome of political debates in the present.

Kim Tolley is professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur University and author of The Science Education of American Girls. Her book Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845 is now available.