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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Sudlow, Phebe W.
(July 11, 1831–June 8, 1922)

–19th-century female pioneer in Iowa public and higher education—was one of six children of Richard and Hannah Sudlow. Born in Poughkeepsie, New York, she moved with her family at the age of four to a farm near Nelsonville, Ohio, where she attended school in a log cabin. After receiving further education at Athens Academy in Athens, Ohio, Sudlow, then 15, returned to her home to teach in that log cabin. After her father's death in 1851, Sudlow moved to Rockford, Illinois, in 1855 to live with her brother, and shortly thereafter the family moved to Round Grove in Scott County, Iowa, where she taught in the local school.

    Sudlow's outstanding abilities as a teacher caught the notice of Abram Kissell, superintendent of the Scott County and Davenport schools. He appointed her assistant in Davenport's subdistrict No. 5 in 1858, named her assistant principal of both Grammar School No. 2 and District School No. 3 the following year, and in 1860 designated her as principal of both schools, possibly the first female public school principal in the United States and probably the first female principal in a municipal school system.

    During those years, Sudlow actively advocated equal pay for women educators. Her arguments for equal pay to the Davenport Board of Education eventually resulted in adoption of the same pay scale for men and women, an unusual policy not only for the time but for well into the 20th century. Sudlow carried her crusade to the Iowa State Teachers Association (ISTA), which did not grant women teachers status as full members. In 1862 she served on an ISTA committee that recommended equal membership and the same dues structure for male and female educators. Along with her successful campaigns for female equality, Sudlow breached the barriers to public presentations by women in 1869, when Abram Kissell, then State Superintendent of Public Instruction, had her speak about language instruction to a predominantly male gathering of administrators and teachers in Des Moines.

    Sudlow expanded her teaching endeavors in 1872, when she became principal of the Davenport Training School for Teachers. She also served as principal of Grammar School No. 8, the dual positions resulting in a very respectable annual salary of $1,200.

    Notwithstanding her previous accomplishments, Sudlow achieved a remarkable milestone in June 1874, when, by unanimous consent, the Davenport Board of Education chose her as superintendent of its schools, the first woman in the United States to hold such an administrative position in a municipal school system. However, she was less than impressed when the board offered her a lower salary than the former male superintendent had received. Her reported response was, "Gentlemen, if you are cutting the salary because of my experience, I have nothing to say; but if you are doing this because I'm a woman, I'll have nothing to do with it."The board immediately rectified the salary amount, and Sudlow was superintendent for four years, during which time Davenport residents, somewhat to their surprise, regarded her as "competent" and "responsible" and an eminently successful administrator of their schools. According to a local newspaper, Sudlow achieved "absolute freedom from complaint, disaffection, jealousies or friction among the teachers" and instituted "thoroughly efficient instruction" that demonstrated "real progress."

    In 1876 Sudlow became the first woman president of the ISTA, winning the election against two well-known male candidates: Henry Sabin, then superintendent of Clinton schools, and Amos Currier of the State University of Iowa. Her 1877 inaugural speech demonstrated wide-ranging thinking far ahead of the time as she advocated kindergarten education as well as technical and vocational education, emphasized the importance of good lighting in schools, and discussed the role of women in education.

    Sudlow resigned her superintendent position in 1878 and passed yet another milestone, becoming the first female professor at the State University of Iowa. She received an honorary master of arts degree from Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, that same year, but otherwise had no academic degrees. However, she had demonstrated knowledge and skill in language and composition and was appointed chair of the Department of English Language and Literature and the sole instructor for all of the university's courses in English literature, composition, rhetoric, oratory, and elocution. Maintaining such a course load was rigorous and exhausting, and Sudlow resigned in 1881, citing ill health, as had her predecessor.

    She returned to Davenport, where she was co-owner of a bookstore, and in 1888 spent a final year in education as principal of School No. 1. However, Sudlow did not retire from educational activities. In 1889 she founded and then directed the Club of '89, a literary and discussion group for women. Her community service extended to active participation in the Methodist Episcopal church, where she founded the Women's Missionary Society, the first Methodist missionary organization west of the Mississippi. Sudlow's continuing interest in reforming women's position in society led her to a 15-year presidency of the Ladies Industrial Relief Society, which provided working mothers with day-care and laundry facilities. In 1921 Davenport's residents showed their appreciation for Sudlow's contributions to education and to their general well-being, supporting the Davenport board of education's renaming East Intermediate School to Phebe W. Sudlow Intermediate School.

    Sudlow was inducted into the Iowa Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.
Sources include Cornelia Mallet Barnhart, "Phoebe W. Sudlow, Palimpsest 38 (1957), 169–76; Rebecca Christian, "A Few 'Firsts' for Phoebe," Iowan 37 (Summer 1989), 6–9, 62; John C. Gerber, "English at Iowa in the Nineteenth Century," Books at Iowa 51 (November 1989), 32–52; and "Phebe W. Sudlow: Iowa's First Lady of Education" (Publication of the Davenport Public Library, Special Collections).
Contributor: Kathy Penningroth

Cite as: Penningroth, Kathy. "Sudlow, Phebe W." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 25 April 2014