Lillian de Lissa, Women Teachers and Teacher Education in the Twentieth Century

A Transnational History

by Kay Whitehead (Author)
Monographs 278 Pages


Beginning with Lillian de Lissa’s career as foundation principal of the Adelaide Kindergarten Training College in Australia (1907–1917) and Gipsy Hill Training College in London (1917–1947), and incorporating the lives and work of her Australian and British graduates, this book illuminates the transnational circulation of knowledge about teacher education and early childhood education in the twentieth century. Acutely aware of anxieties regarding the role of modern women and the social positioning of teachers, students who attended college under de Lissa’s leadership experienced a progressive institutional culture and comprehensive preparation for work as kindergarten, nursery and infant teachers.
Drawing on a broad range of archival material, this study explores graduates’ professional and domestic lives, leisure activities and civic participation, from their initial work as novice teachers through diverse life paths to their senior years. Due to the interwar marriage bar, many women teachers married, resigned from paid work and became mothers. The book explores their experiences, along with those of lifelong teachers whose work spread across a range of educational fields and different parts of the world. Although most graduates spent their lives in Australia or England, de Lissa’s personal and professional networks traversed the British dominions and colonies, Europe and the USA, fostering fascinating global connections between people, places and educational ideas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • List of Illustrations
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1: A Transnational History of Women and Education in the Twentieth Century
  • Chapter 2: ‘Miss de Lissa Has Chosen a Life Work’ in Teacher Education
  • Chapter 3: ‘Teachers Are Not Merely Leaders of Children, but Makers of Society’
  • Chapter 4: Gipsy Hill Training College ‘Has Made Its Name in the Educational World’
  • Chapter 5: ‘Our Community Is Self-Governing’
  • Chapter 6: Modern Women Teachers in the Interwar Years
  • Chapter 7: A Long World War Two on the Home Front
  • Chapter 8: ‘Interesting Work […] in the Uttermost Parts of the Earth’
  • Chapter 9: Constructing a ‘World Pioneer in Education’
  • Chapter 10: Making Women Teachers, Making History
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← vi | vii →Acknowledgements

Family, friends and colleagues near and far have followed the research and development of this book. Mum, my sister Judy, Keren Wicks and Catherine George have patiently kept watch over my progress. Thank you to colleagues at Flinders University for their interest and support for my academic work; particular thanks to Susan Krieg for our many discussions about continuities and changes in early childhood education.

I acknowledge the transnational community of historians of education for their collegiality, stimulating conferences and inquiries into my jetlag after yet another flight from Australia. I have benefited greatly from a close association with the Australian and New Zealand History of Education Society, the International Standing Conference for History of Education and the British History of Education Society. Although I can’t name everyone, Ruth Watts and Joyce Goodman have been unstinting in their support for my research and I honour their longstanding contributions to feminist histories of education.

Many people have contributed directly to the book. I acknowledge the support of librarians and archivists in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, especially in the Kingston University Archives and Special Collections. Lynne Trethewey’s meticulous archival research into the Adelaide Kindergarten Training College graduates has underpinned several chapters. Kevin Brehony, Susan Feez, Marja Van Breda, Maartje Hazenoot, Amy Hamilton, Chris Evans Appleyard, Kerry Bethel and Sue Middleton have helped me resolve specific knotty issues. I owe an enormous debt (and many desserts) to Craig Campbell and Lyn Wilkinson who read the manuscript carefully and gave invaluable constructive criticism. Annmarie Reid has assisted with the preparation of the manuscript and obtaining permissions from various institutions. For permission to reproduce images I am indebted to the State Library of Western Australia and the Kingston University Archives and Special Collections. Several chapters of the book are informed by previously published papers. I am grateful for permission to reprint the following material.

← vii | viii →K. Whitehead, ‘Contextualizing and Contesting National Identities: Lillian de Lissa, 1885–1967’, Vitae Scholasticae 28/1 (2009), 41–60.

K. Whitehead, ‘A “Break with Tradition” in Interwar Teacher Education’, Gender and Education 22/3 (2010), 279–294. Publisher name: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

K. Whitehead, ‘A Decided Disadvantage for Kindergarten Students to Mix with the State Teachers’, Paedagogica Historica 46/1–2 (2010), 85–97. Publisher name: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

K. Whitehead, ‘Contesting the 1944 McNair Report: Lillian de Lissa’s Working Life as a Teacher Educator’, History of Education 39/4 (2010), 507–524. Publisher name: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

K. Whitehead, ‘Gipsy Hill Training College Graduates: Once, Always and Everywhere a Modern Woman Teacher in the Interwar Years’, History of Education 44/5 (2012), 617–636. Publisher name: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

K. Whitehead, ‘Transnational Connections in Early Twentieth Century Women Teachers’ Work’, Paedagogica Historica XLVII/3 (2012), 381–390. Publisher name: Taylor & Francis Ltd.

K. Whitehead, ‘Kindergarten Teachers as Leaders of Children, Makers of Society’, History of Education Review 43/1 (2014), 2–18.

← viii | ix →List of Illustrations

← x | xi →List of Abbreviations

← xii | 1 →CHAPTER 1

A Transnational History of Women and Education in the Twentieth Century

When the foundation principal of Gipsy Hill Training College (GHTC), Lillian de Lissa, retired in January 1947, her British colleagues presented her with a testimonial which read in part

We recognise with pride her magnificent work of helping to create in this country a demand for nursery schools, and of founding a College for teachers of young children. We remember that Gipsy Hill Training College was a pioneer college and suffered periods of great stress […]. We also remember Miss de Lissa’s contribution to international understanding, especially in the field of education.1

GHTC graduates concurred. Had her former associates and Adelaide Kindergarten Training College (KTC) graduates in Australia been consulted, they would have commented similarly about her contributions to Australian early childhood education and teacher education between 1906 and 1917, and added proudly that the foundations of de Lissa’s life work were laid far from the imperial centre.

Beginning in the late nineteenth and extending through the mid-­twentieth century, this book is structured around the chronology of de Lissa’s life. De Lissa’s career and personal and professional networks connected people and ideas about teacher education and early childhood education within and beyond the British Empire. While she was a highly significant figure in both fields of education, I resist locating her as an ‘exemplary heroine’. Following Joan Scott, I position women such as de Lissa

as sites – historical locations or markers – where crucial political and cultural contexts are enacted and can be examined in some detail. To figure a person – in this ← 1 | 2 →case, a woman – as a place or location is not to deny her humanity; it is rather to recognise the many factors that constitute her agency, the complex and multiple ways in which she is constructed as a historical actor.2

By exploring de Lissa’s life and work, intertwined with graduates of the Adelaide Kindergarten Training College (1907–1917) in Australia, and Gipsy Hill Training College (1917–1947) in Great Britain, this book illuminates the transnational dimensions of early childhood education and teacher education. Mostly young, white, middle class women, graduates from both colleges taught in a variety of contexts and integrated their teaching skills into their domestic work, civic participation and leisure. The book situates de Lissa and her graduates firmly within contemporary society for as well as having professional lives they were ‘were also “ordinary” women, living their lives in the context of the same social norms of femininity as other women in the first decades of the twentieth century’.3 Their personal and professional networks, connected with those of de Lissa, spanned the British dominions, Europe and the USA. The histories of these modern women educators are part of a larger story of the multi-directional flow of people and ideas within and beyond national and imperial borders. Tracing the contours of de Lissa and modern women teachers’ lives and work reveals a world that is simultaneously connected and deeply divided by gender, class, race and nation. In so doing, the book contributes to a transnational history of women and education in the twentieth century.

This chapter commences with a review of the current historiography of women teachers’ lives and work, including their leadership in Australian and British teacher education and early childhood education in the first half of the twentieth century. The second section proposes that a transnational rather than a national or imperial framework is necessary to encapsulate de Lissa and the graduates’ lives and work, address the fluidity of their identities with respect to class, gender, race and nation, and understand the circulation of knowledge about teacher education and early childhood education beyond national borders. The final section addresses the archival collections that inform the historical narrative and provides a chapter outline.

← 2 | 3 →Women educators in profile

From its beginnings, feminist scholarship on the history of women educators has encountered ‘a central theoretical problem in understanding the past: How to evoke the oppressive structures that maintained a patriarchal order while at the same time affirming that women were not the passive victims of that oppression’.4 Constructed to serve the needs of mass compulsory schooling, nineteenth century school systems were such that men managed and single women taught.5 From the early twentieth century, formal and informal marriage bars generated a three-caste system of women teachers.6 Most taught briefly prior to marriage; married women were a ‘reserve army’ of temporary labour, and never-married teachers made teaching their life work.7 Whatever their marital status and tenure, women educators’ professional identities were associated with the sector in which they taught – tertiary, secondary, elementary and infant, the latter overlapping with pre-school teachers whose nomenclature varied in different countries.8 Australian kindergarten teachers and British nursery school teachers focused on pre-school children. Thus the field of early childhood education included infant, kindergarten and nursery school teachers. The focus of Lillian de Lissa’s work as a teacher educator was Australian kindergarten teachers and British nursery school and infant teachers. Vignettes of several Adelaide KTC graduates have been included in celebratory histories of Australian women in early childhood education but GHTC graduates have not been studied to date.9 Furthermore, studies of women educators in all sectors tend to focus on their professional lives rather than their engagement with contemporary society. Most of the early KTC and GHTC graduates taught briefly, married and resigned from paid work in the interwar years. Following World War Two and the removal of the marriage bar, increasing numbers of married women teachers adopted ‘portfolio careers’, moving in and out of paid work according to ­employment opportunities and family circumstances.10 Graduates also dealt with enormous transformations in social and political life as well as both World Wars. The burgeoning literature on modern women that might ← 3 | 4 →be applied to KTC and GHTC graduates supports a nuanced account of twentieth century women teachers’ lives and work.11

The majority of educators in this book were middle class white women, either British or Australian in terms of their national identities. They came from families who could afford both secondary and post-secondary education, but there were some differences between sectors. Elementary teachers were likely to be drawn from upper working and lower middle class families whereas secondary and pre-school teachers were more solidly middle class.12 While feminist historians have addressed social categories of class, gender, and age to some extent, much less attention has been paid to women teachers’ racialised and national identities. Kate Darian-Smith, Patricia Grimshaw and Stuart Macintyre argue that ‘whiteness in the metropolis was, for good reason, generally unconsciously inhabited, unspoken, muted, often only ever articulated in moments of anxiety and felt danger. In the normal run of things, though present, it remained invisible’.13 The same might be said of other social categories, so that women teachers mobilised social class in discussions of their work with ‘slum children’, for example. When middle class white teachers travelled abroad, they also highlighted a range of social divisions in their discussions of the nations and people among whom they lived and worked.14 Thus people’s identities are not unified but responsive to their context. Denise Riley explains that ‘most commonly you will skate across the several identities which will take your weight, relying on the most useful for your purposes of the moment’.15 This book attends then to the fluidity of women educators’ identities across their lives and work, at home and abroad, in relation to race and nation, as well as gender, class and age.

Women educators’ work as leaders as well as teachers is integral to discussions of de Lissa and the Australian and British graduates. Women educators’ leadership in teacher unions and the suffrage and civil rights movements as well as educational reform is already well-documented.16 In state school systems women were restricted to ‘administering the feminine’, namely girls and early childhood education, and the preparation of women teachers.17 Even so, they were an anomaly, complicating ‘the general ← 4 | 5 →connection of authority with masculinity’, infant departments in elementary schools being a case in point.18 A study of GHTC graduates will reveal their first-hand experiences of these tensions in British schools. Likewise, a focus on de Lissa’s forty-year leadership in teacher education has the potential to expose similarities and differences between the Australian and British contexts. British legislation required women principals for women’s training colleges from 1909 but there is a paucity of research into women teacher educators.19 Furthermore, the main texts position women’s training colleges as isolated and intellectually impoverished compared with the thoroughly masculinised training departments in universities.20 De Lissa’s leadership needs to be considered in the context of teacher education as a site of tensions between universities and training colleges and men and women educators.

In contrast with teacher education, women’s leadership in the pre-school sector of early childhood education has been illuminated in many studies and de Lissa already occupies a significant niche in the history of Australian education. Helen Jones portrays her as ‘an acceptable crusader’ in early childhood education and Bob Petersen names her as ‘the greatest of all Australian kindergarteners’.21 Thus far her work as a teacher educator and in British early childhood education has mostly eluded historians’ attention.22 The main foci of British research into women’s leadership in early childhood education have been Margaret McMillan as the founder of nursery schools, and the women who were committed to Froebelian principles.23 There are significant silences regarding de Lissa’s life and work both in Australia and the British context where she not only led the first college specifically dedicated to the preparation of nursery and infant school teachers, but was also an activist in the nursery school movement. Additionally, her personal and professional networks, along with those of the Australian and British women graduates whose lives intersected with hers, linked many places, thereby contributing to her reputation for fostering international understanding across national and imperial borders. A traditional framework of national history or of imperial history seems inadequate to the task of encapsulating the lives and work of de Lissa and her peers.

← 5 | 6 →Towards a transnational history of modern women educators

In 1955 de Lissa asserted that her progressive ideals had been shaped in Australia and spread to other countries via students from ‘China, Turkey, India, Denmark, Estonia and Canada’ who studied at GHTC, as well as ‘Gipsy Hill trained teachers in many parts of the world, all of them taking something of Australia with them’.24 Although she did not have access to the conceptual framework used by subsequent historians, she was discussing the transnational circulation of people and ideas within and beyond the British Empire in the first half of the twentieth century. Ann Curthoys and Marilyn Lake define transnational history as

The study of ways in which past lives and events have been shaped by processes and relationships that have transcended the borders of nation states. Transnational history seeks to understand ideas, things, people and practices which have crossed national boundaries.25

Patricia Calvin adds that transnationalism includes non-state actors and ‘interactions across state boundaries that were not directly controlled by the central policy organs of government’.26

Transnational history has burgeoned since the 1990s and its growth is evident in conference themes and special editions of journals.27 It exists in complex relation to national approaches to historical research that developed after World War Two. During that era, former colonies such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand developed singular histories, separate from each other and from British history. Likewise, British and USA historiographies tended towards their exceptionalism rather than their connections with other nations.28 However, ‘one of the strongest trends in Australian historical writing over the last two decades has been a drive to emphasise the nation’s connectedness with the rest of the world’.29 Transnational history does this without abandoning nation as a frame of reference. Instead, it ‘treats the nation as one among a range of social phenomena to be studied, rather than the frame of the study itself’.30 Attending to the specificity of national context continues to be important, along with recognising that the nation has permeable boundaries.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (July)
Teacher education Women teachers Transnational history
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XII, 278 pp.

Biographical notes

Kay Whitehead (Author)

Kay Whitehead is Professor of History of Education at Flinders University, Australia, and co-editor of History of Education Review. She has published widely on the lives and work of Australian, Canadian and British women educators from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century.


Title: Lillian de Lissa, Women Teachers and Teacher Education in the Twentieth Century