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Schools at 150: District had first female superintendent in U.S.
Phebe Sudlow served as superintendent of Davenport schools for four years during the late 1870s, before going to Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. (SPECIAL TO THE TIMES)

In 1874, Phebe Sudlow, who had been an outstanding teacher and principal in Davenport for 16 years, was chosen by the Davenport Board of Education to become the first woman superintendent of schools.

In those early days of education, men were always paid more than women in performing basically the same duties.

So when it became time to discuss Sudlow’s salary, she is reported to have told the men of the board of education (women were not allowed on 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.”

The board voted to have Sudlow receive the same salary as her predecessor, W.E. Crosby. She served in her capacity of superintendent for four years. For the first time in school history, there was a woman on equal footing with the men salary-wise.

Sudlow received high praise for her work during her 20 years as a teacher, principal and superintendent before she left Davenport for a position at Iowa State University in Ames.

One school board member had this to say when it was announced she was leaving Davenport for her new job: “Davenport schools are in excellent condition. The teachers, pupils and parents are a working group — working harmoniously together under the superintendent.”

During her term as superintendent, Sudlow was elected in 1877 to serve as president of the Iowa State Teachers Association, becoming the first woman to hold that position.

While giving her presidential address in accepting the position, she stressed the need for kindergartens, the need to protect pupils’ eyes by having seats adjusted so light fell over their shoulders and the need for industrial education. In addition, she suggested manual training and home economics for all students.

As far as women in education, Sudlow said, “As by your courtesy, I occupy a place in your association not before filled by a woman. It is not unfit that I should devote some thought to women as educators.” She expressed willingness on the part of women to be co-workers as leaders in educational planning — an unheard-of  point of view at that time.

At the close of her year as president of the Iowa State Teachers Association, one of her committee members had this to say about Sudlow: “If any member of this association entertained thoughts as to a woman’s capability to do honor to positions of high dignity, he must have changed his opinion of our most worthy president.”

Ill health forced Sudlow’s retirement from Iowa State’s faculty and she returned to Davenport. She, with other women, organized the city’s first library. She, also with other philanthropic women, organized the Ladies Industrial Relief to help working mothers by providing a day nursery.

Later as needs arose, Sudlow helped launch a laundry room where working mothers could use a machine to wash clothes they were scrubbing on washboards at home. The women then carried the damp clothes home when they collected their children at the end of the day.

Sudlow, who has a Davenport middle school named after her, died at her home on Walling Court at the age of 91 on June 8, 1922.

One of her messages to teachers and prospective teachers rings true even today.

The message said: “It is more important for children to find the correct words to clothe their thoughts; and to acquire good habits of speaking than merely to prate verbatim the definitions in a grammar book. Education means not ‘pouring in’ but ‘drawing out’ of what is in a child’s mind.

“Prepare yourselves well. I know you will be more interested in becoming rather than having. Being rather than doing, is the better part, not for self but for service.”

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