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Whitehead, Lillian de Lissa, Women Teachers, and Teacher Education in the Twentieth Century: A Transnational History.

Lillian de Lissa, Women's Teacher and Teacher Education in the Twentieth Century: A Transnational History is much more than an engaging and informative biography of a leader in early childhood education. Published in 2016, the book is in turn an institutional history, an examination of the progressive education movement, an analysis of women's changing roles in the first half of the twentieth century, and the life story of a pioneer in the gendered world of teacher training. Author Kay Whitehead, a professor of History of Education at Flinders University in Australia, has written extensively about the lives of women educators in Australia, England and Canada in the past. In this book, she uses the narrative thread of de Lissa's life to bind together a wide range of subjects and themes that transcend many borders.

The book begins with an outline of Whiteheads historiographical approach and concludes with a chapter that ties together the numerous strands within it. Chapters 2 and 3 provide some background on de Lissa's early life in Australia where she established her intellectual framework and the leadership skills that guided her throughout her career. Chapters 4, 5 and 6, to my mind the heart of the book, cover de Lissa's move to England, the founding and flourishing of the Gypsy Hill Training School (GHTC), and explore the lives of the women who studied and taught there during the interwar period. The next three chapters cover the events of the disruptive war years, and the lives of de Lissa and other educators as they mature in the 1950s and 1960s.

Whiteheads narrative of de Lissa's education and early career in Australia introduces themes that dominate the rest of work including her commitment to progressive education and feminist social reform, her impressive leadership and communication skills, and the role class and gender play in shaping a generation of early childhood educators. Lillian Frances, born in 1885, was one of six children born to Montague and Julia de Lissa in Woollahra, a middle-class suburb of Sydney, Australia. All the de Lissa girls attended Riviere College, a liberal progressive girls' school, where Lillian excelled academically. De Lissa's own account situates her decision to pursue a career in early childhood education in a larger commitment to democratic and social reform that was formed during these years. In 1905, at the age of 20, she moved to South Australia to establish the Kindergarten Teachers' College (KTC) in the city of Adelaide and soon after assumed a leadership role in the Kindergarten Union of South Australia (KUSA). Whitehead traces the development of de Lissa's lifelong commitment to the progressive ideas of Froebel, Dewey, and Montessori during these formative years. In Adelaide, de Lissa first encounters the gendered politics of teacher education. She was guided by a belief that, not only did women make the best educators, they should also control the education of female teaching colleges--a view that often put her at odds with the male-dominated state education system. This meant, for example, championing the college's right to establish entrance standards that were more appropriate than the Junior university entrance exams used throughout the state. This was the first of many such gendered challenges the she would face throughout her career.

In 1917, de Lissa moved to London, England, to be the founding administrator of the GHTC and the Rommany Nursery school. Whitehead chronicles de Lissa's role in the establishment of both institutions as transnationally respected sites for teacher training and early childhood education. De Lissa's leadership at the GHTC was complemented by her advocacy role in England's national Nursery School Association (NSA), writing and publishing (including the 1939 book, Life in the Nursery School), speaking engagements at home and abroad, and active engagement in a transnational network of education reformers. In keeping with the book's transnational framework, Whitehead takes care to highlight this by mentioning de Lissa's professional relationships with early childhood educators from the United States, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.

The account of de Lissa's life and accomplishments during this period relies largely on institutional documents, published articles (her own and others'), and correspondence with her closest colleagues. The picture that emerges is one of a professional woman devoted to her work. The absence of diaries, or accounts from close friends and family limit our understanding of her personal life. For example, we learn of little of her marriage in 1918 and her subsequent divorce in 1928 except that she "no longer conformed to the dominant narrative of marriage and motherhood." (1) The lack of personal information left me curious; I wanted to know more about the private Lillian de Lissa. However, these omissions do not at all dilute the usefulness of the narrative as a site for the social and political exploration of women's lives.

Whitehead skillfully constructs a "thoroughly peopled narrative" of the women in the interwar period with stories of the teachers, students and graduates of the GHTC. (2) Like de Lissa, the faculty and students largely came from white, middle-class homes. They were part of a new generation of women for whom working was, at least temporarily, a viable alternative to marriage and their social class afforded them an education that would prepare them for a career. Students were carefully selected to be students at GHTC by administrators like de Lissa who believed that, although the best teachers of children were women, not all women were born to teach. Under her guidance, GHTC offered a rigorous two-year residential program with theoretical and practical components. Its strong social reform agenda encouraged students' democratic involvement in the school and fostered them to "think deeply and politically" about their role as social reformers.

The early careers of many of GHTC graduates were reported in the Wraggle Taggle section of the school's magazine. Drawing from this rich source of information, Whitehead documents the lives of these modern women as they ventured forward after graduation. The inclusion of their stories provides a wider social context for the book and extends its focus beyond the narrative of de Lissa and the GHTC. Many took up positions in state-run infant schools where they confronted large classes and administrators who often were resistant to their progressive ideals. Some found themselves in impoverished working-class conditions that challenged their white, middle-class identities. Still others left England to work travel and work in other countries. Reflecting their racial backgrounds, few ventured beyond the white settler nations, except those who engaged in missionary work in the British colonies. Despite the hardships they faced, many of them navigated careers that extended for decades. In other cases, teaching careers were cut short by marriage bans that remained in many parts of England. The stories and anecdotes provide insight into how these women viewed their own situations. They remind us that for some of them, getting married was seen as a "change of occupation, not a withdrawal from work." (3) These were modern women who made the best of the opportunities provided by their class and navigated their way around obstacles and limitations.

Chapter 7 details the disruption caused by the evacuation of children and the dislocation of schools in London during WWII and several other issues that preoccupied de Lissa during this period. In the years leading up to The Education Act of 1944, de Lissa spoke and wrote frequently on education reform and the role of early childhood education. Her 16-point blueprint for education, published in the Times Educational Supplement in 1942, was well received as was a six-month speaking tour of the United States. Nonetheless, despite evidence to the contrary provided by de Lissa and the NSA, the state appointed McNair committee report on Teacher Training and Education in England, published in 1943, was critical of female-centred training colleges, depicting them as centres of isolation, poverty, and intellectual dead ends. By the end of the war it was clear that, despite her best efforts, the GHTC could no longer continue as an independent institution. As an advocate for "cooperation not absorption," de Lissa negotiated with the "male inner sanctum of educational administration" to find a solution that would allow the GHTC to maintain its identity. (4) In 1944, the school moved to Surrey under the administration of the Surrey County Council, an arrangement that saved the school but sacrificed some of its independence, which saddened de Lissa.

In the closing chapters, the focus shifts back to a more "peopled narrative" of the lives and careers of the now mature graduates of the school in the 1950s and 1960s. These chapters highlight the many career paths that GHTC (and some Adelaide Kindergarten Teacher's College) graduates followed, including returning to the workforce after the removal of marriage bans, pursuing other careers or advancing up the administrative ladder, and settling in other countries as part of the post war immigration boom. In her own golden years, de Lissa retired to her "old cottage" but continued to engage in advocacy, writing, and travelling (including a trip back to Australia in 1955 for the Jubilee anniversary of the Adelaide KTC), until failing health confined her activities to an ever-smaller sphere.

Whitehead situates the book as a transnational history with a focus on the flow of people and ideas across borders. The book joins a trend in historical writing from Australia that seeks to stress its connectedness to the rest of the world. Historical research in this framework is challenging and complex. Whitehead weaves archival sources from three countries--Australia, the United States and England--across a span of more than 50 years into one cohesive narrative. De Lissas life, lived in both Australia and England and enriched with many transnational connections through her active role in the progressive education movement that extended across many borders, provides a suitable subject for this approach. Interestingly, de Lissa's Australian roots seem less a part of her own constructed identity, while her accomplishments and contributions are more acknowledged and celebrated in her home nation than in England.

The inclusion of so much detail about the lives of the Adelaide KTC and the GHTC students and graduates is what truly expands the book's transnational scope beyond the story of a woman whose life and work spanned borders. A narrower biographical focus might have excluded details about the relatively few international students at the GHTC who returned home to establish nursery schools far afield in China, Estonia, Denmark, and Canada. Stories like these and similar ones of women whose careers take them beyond England remind us that not all pioneers are leaders. The archival sources available to Whitehead, particularly the annals of the women whose post graduate lives were chronicled, make it possible to add this truly transnational element.

Lillian de Lissa, Women's Teacher and Teacher Education in the Twentieth Century: A Transnational History transitions from personal biography to institutional history to collective stories of women's lives and back again. Whitehead weaves the chapters together quite seamlessly in this highly readable book. It would be a welcome addition to the library of anyone interested in women's roles in institutional leadership and education reform, the history of progressive education, particularly of young children, and the lives of educated middle class women in the twentieth century. As a former board member of a large early childhood provider with a 150-year history in Canada, I was particularly interested in the stories of individual and institutional resilience which rang true to my ears. However, I believe the theme that best links the myriad of topics in this work is identity. The women in this book navigated their lives in a world both feminized and dominated by men. Whether de Lissa's own careful construction of her personal legacy as a world pioneer in education, a young woman from China navigating through the culture shock of GHTC, or graduates whose ideals are challenged by reality at home and abroad, the women in this book were shaped by the opportunities and the limitations of their race, gender, class, and ethnicity. Lacking a conscious critique of their situation, as Whitehead notes, they instinctively adapted to circumstances and gently pushed back at constraints.

In her introduction, Whitehead muses about the fundamental theoretical challenge of writing about women in education in ways that acknowledge the gendered constraints on their lives without victimizing them. This work meets that challenge. It pays homage to a leader whose transnational influence may not have received its due recognition and gives a voice to countless women for whom the years as students at Adelaide KTC and GHTC were formative experiences at the beginning of lives destined to adapt to changing circumstances.


(1) Kay Whitehead, Lillian de Lissa, Women Teachers and Teacher Education in the Twentieth Century: A Transnational History (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016), 90.

(2) Ibid., 13.

(3) Ibid., 146.

(4) Ibid., 173.

Nancy Bell

York University Toronto Canada
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Author:Bell, Nancy
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2019
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