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Samuelson, Agnes Mathilda
(April 14, 1887–May 12, 1963)

–state and national leader in education —was the eldest of seven surviving children of Sven August Samuelson and Alvida (Johnson) Samuelson, Swedish immigrants to the United States. Born in Shenandoah, Iowa, she enjoyed the benefits of a municipal school system within a rural setting, graduating from high school in 1904. Her desire to become a teacher was due in part to her experience in orienting newly arrived Swedish immigrants to American customs and language. She enrolled in the Western Normal College in Shenandoah, completing the 11month scientific course in 1905.

    Samuelson began her teaching career in 1906 in the one-room Pleasant View country school, two miles north of Shenandoah. Over the next two years, she taught in a number of southwest Iowa schools before becoming principal and teacher of the Silver City high school (1908-1911). When her father died in 1908, Samuelson became the primary source of support for her family, a situation that made her particularly sensitive to the common practice of justifying higher salaries for male teachers because of their family support roles.

    To further her education, Samuelson attended the University of Nebraska from 1911 to 1913. That course of study, in combination with a State University of Iowa extension course on the history of education and her own teaching experiences, prepared her to become superintendent of the Yorktown, Iowa, public schools in 1913. The Iowa legislature mandated that the position of county superintendent become an appointed rather than an elected position beginning in 1915. That year, Samuelson successfully campaigned to win appointment as Page County Superintendent of Schools, joining 54 women county school superintendents in Iowa.

    As Page County Superintendent of Schools, she worked to provide rural schools, which had fewer resources than municipal schools, with instruction in the new curricular areas of home economics and vocational and agricultural education. In order to promote more uniform standards, she instituted countywide textbooks and saw to the professional advancement of teachers by organizing summer schools and institutes.

    In 1923 she became an extension professor of rural education at Iowa State Teachers College. In that capacity, she traveled around the state continuing her efforts to provide equal education for rural children by insisting that they have scientific and vocational instruction, promoting increased certification requirements for county superintendents, and advocating consolidation of rural school districts.

    Samuelson earned a B.A. from the State University of Iowa in 1925 and an M.A. in 1928. During graduate study, she worked with O. S. Lutes on a study of the efficacy of arithmetic drills, published as "A Method for Rating Drill Provisions in Arithmetic Textbooks" in the first series of the State University of Iowa Monographs in Education. Samuelson's master's thesis, "A Study of the County Superintendents of Public Instruction in Iowa," dealt with professional qualifications, methods of election or appointment, salaries, and proportions of males to females from the origins of the position to 1928.

    In 1926, while both a student and an extension professor, Samuelson determined to run for the position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction. She entered the Republican primary against the incumbent, May E. Francis, who in 1922 had been the first woman elected to a state office in Iowa. Samuelson won an acrimonious battle for the Republican nomination, which was viewed as a victory for an education establishment that favored consolidation of rural schools. She won reelection in 1930 and again in 1934, when she was unopposed.

    During her 12 years as Superintendent of Public Instruction, Samuelson proved to be an effective and well-regarded leader. She reorganized the state into divisions to enhance supervision; established a statewide course of study for elementary grades and developed syllabi for the high school extension service; conferred with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during the Depression on the administration of the Federal Emergency Relief Program for Education in Iowa to provide work for unemployed teachers, create programs for adult and early childhood education, and increase support for rural schools; created a research division to conduct a regular census of Iowa's teachers and collate information on their salaries; formed the public junior college system to carry out statewide vocational education; provided financial incentives and special programs for rural schools to facilitate consolidation; formed the Iowa Council for Better Education; and established a statewide education system for children with disabilities, which was a testament to her commitment to equal opportunity.

    In 1935 Samuelson won election as president of the National Education Association (NEA), firmly cementing her presence on the national scene. Choosing not to run for a fourth term as Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1938, she became executive secretary of the Iowa State Teachers Association (ISTA), a position that allowed her to work on teacher certification and salaries.

    Samuelson left the ISTA in 1945 for the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the NEA to become assistant editor of the NEA Journal and associate director of American Education Week. Before she retired in 1952, she worked with Hazel Davis of the NEA's research division on an article, "Women in Education," for a 1950 issue of the Journal of Social Issues about problems of professional women. In addition, she was instrumental in establishing the NEA's Division of Rural Service.

    Samuelson was a member of a number of honorary, professional, and volunteer associations. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at the State University of Iowa, was a member of Pi Lambda Theta, and was a charter member of Delta Kappa Gamma, formed in 1929 to address issues of equality for women professionals in education. She served on advisory committees of education organizations and women's clubs, and maintained consistent involvement with the Augustana Lutheran Church and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). In recognition of her accomplishments in education, she received honorary degrees from Augustana College, Simpson College, MacMurray College for Girls, Luther College, and Tarkio College. A Des Moines elementary school was named for her in 1965.

    Samuelson spent her "retirement" years in Des Moines, where she continued to participate in numerous community and service organizations and kept up a full agenda of speeches, seminars, writing, and radio and television appearances. She was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1976.
Sources Samuelson's papers are at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City. See also Dorothy Ashby Pownall, "Agnes Samuelson: A Dedicated Educator," Palimpsest 43 (1962), 497–544.
Contributor: Kathy Penningroth