Oral Education and Women in the Classroom
The story of the suppression of sign language is known in the folklore of the American Deaf community, but few hearing people are aware of it. In the decades following the Civil War, educational reformers waged a campaign to eliminate manualism the use of sign language in the classroom—and replace it with oralism, the exclusive use of lipreading and speech. Most residential schools had used the manual (signing) method from their beginnings: teachers conducted their classes in sign language, fingerspelling, and written English. Schools began to offer lessons in speech and lipreading in the 1860s and 1870s, moving toward what they termed a combined method. This was neither sufficient nor the crux of the issue for the advocates of oralism, however, who opposed any use of sign language at all, for any purpose.
Photo: Young girl feeling sound through a drum.
Oralists charged that the use of sign language encouraged deaf people to socialize principally with other deaf people and to avoid the hard work of learning to communicate in spoken English. They thought that sign language marked deaf people as different from hearing people—it set them apart, discouraged assimilation, and invited discrimination. They worried also that it encouraged deaf people to marry one another and that this was causing a significant increase in the prevalence of deafness.
A fierce debate ensued between supporters of the combined method and advocates of pure oralism. In the end, the oralists largely succeeded in their campaign to eliminate sign language from the classroom. By 1920, 80 percent of deaf students were taught without sign language, and the teaching corps at residential schools went from being 40 percent deaf to less than 15 percent. In most schools, deaf students continued to use sign language outside of the classroom in spite of efforts to forbid or discourage its use. Outside of the schools, sign language remained for the great majority of deaf people the dominant means of communication.
Women teachers became critical to oral education. Following the Civil War, teaching came to be a predominantly female occupation for economic and cultural reasons. During and after the war, there were fewer male teachers—and as younger children began to attend school, many people simply believed that women made better teachers for very young students. Gradually, women gained access to formal education and better qualifications for teaching jobs. At the time, women also had fewer opportunities to earn a living, and they could generally be hired for half the salary of men. Laura Redden, the Missouri School for the Deaf graduate who wrote under the pen name of Howard Glyndon, wrote, “In glancing at the teacher’s salaries…we noted…the great discrepancy between salaries of the teachers with regard to sex…In the name of all that is just and equitable, why is this so?
Women were seen to be better suited to providing oral training, which required painstaking, repetitive work in close contact with student. The president of the New York Institution estimated in 1868 that with oral methods more than double the number of teachers will be required. At the Clarke Institution, the President Franklin B. Sanborn remarked that the gentlemen… “who manage the pecuniary affairs of this Institution are only too glad to commit the management of these children and the incessant task of their education tto the patient hands, the active tongues, and the conscientious fidelity of women.”