Amazing educators through history: I need suggestions!

I’ve got an idea about my next big project a la Capturing the Mode, Pompeii to Paris, and Grandeur & Frivolity.

My idea is still very rough, but it would be about educators: people who have contributed to the overall scope of human learning and knowledge.  I’m particularly interested in people who have made it possible for disenfranchised groups to gain access to education.

I have a really quick list of potentials (really quick – I just thought about it for 20 minutes and didn’t do any research), but I would love more suggestions and input.  Obviously it would help if the educators had costuming potential, as a bunch of men in suits isn’t that exciting!

My potentials:

Aspasia – achieved education and an independent life in ancient Athens (no easy feat for a woman!) and made her house an intellectual centre, attracting all the main thinkers of the 4th century, including Socrates, whose work she influenced (and I could make a 4th c. male outfit too and have Socrates & Aspasia!)

John Amos Comenius (a man!  I know, I would have to make another male outfit!) – advocated universal education in 17th century Europe, and stressed learning outside of books and the classroom.  Considered the father of modern education.  I could possibly talk about John through his patron, Queen Christina, who was pretty awesomely educated in her own right, or through his almost invisible wife, to give her a voice.

Ninon de l’Enclos  – used her charms to support literature and the arts, rather than to accumulate personal wealth and fortune, and created (well, revived) the persona of an intelligent, independent woman who was valued for her wit more than her body.  Also gave lots of money to help poorer children (including the future Voltaire) receive educations.

Benjamin Franklin (possibly through Deborah Reed Franklin) – Franklin came from a poor family, who were only able to send him to school for two years.  He managed to self-educate by reading every book he could get his hands on, and as a young man helped to found the first public library in America, so that other people who could not afford books or formal schooling would have access to learning.

Mary Wollstonecraft – famously, and influentially (and rightly!), argued that with education women would be every bit as brilliant as men.

Baroness Bertha Marie von Marenholtz-Bülow – advocated for early childhood education in 19th century Europe.  Her influence is responsible for the use of creative learning and the arts in primary schools.

Lousia May Alcott (and through her, Thoreau & Emerson) – Alcott’s own educated was influenced by the her parent’s close friends, Thoreau & Emerson who emphasized independent thought and critical thinking over rote memorization in their teaching.  Their influence is evident in her writings, in which she also stresses the importance of developing moral character as well as intellectual learning.

So, that’s my totally uncohesive idea list so far.  Any suggestions of your own?


  1. Melissa says

    May I suggest Maria Sibylla Merian (1647—1717)? She learned how to paint and began to illustrate the insect life around her, making some important contributions to entomology. One could argue that her illustrations of butterfly metamorphosis helped to disprove the “spontaneous generation” theory.

    Her work eventually took her to Surinam to study insects, a pretty bold thing for a woman to do at the time. She also took on students when she was living in Nuremburg.

  2. Jenny Wren says

    If you’re wanting supporters of disenfranchised groups, I’d add Julius Rosenwald to your list purely because he was a big supporter of African-American education, an example of which you don’t seem to have yet. The costuming potential might not be as exciting, though.

  3. Well – I was going to suggest Comenius. Obviously. I like the idea with his wife… He actually had two; the first one died in Poland in a fire, with their children. *shudder* He must have loved her a lot, ’cause a book I have says that he called her in a letter “my treasure dearest after God”. Which is awesome, when you think about it.

    Then I thought of Georg Johann Mendel, who practically discovered genetics (and was a teacher). Except that would probably be one boring costume. Male. And no chance of a woman.

    Booker T. Washington. Who’s also rather boring. Or maybe not?

    • Oooh! Sounds like you have access to books on Comenius that I don’t! I may have to pick your mind on him at a later state. That is so sad about his first wife 🙁

      Yeah, Mendel is kinda out. I could do Washington through Anna T. Jeanes, who gave him a million dollars (OMG a million dollars was a LOT of money in ca. 1900) to further education initiatives for blacks,. I wonder if there was anyone who was more hands on?

      • It’s just a book of stories from the history of Christianity. Czech, so it contains details about Czech people.
        But I think we have a biography, too. I just never got around to reading it. I have a feeling someone told me that the exact one we have is not so good. I should discuss it with grandma; she knows that kind of stuff (and might have the better one).
        In that fire, his big thesaurus of Czech language was destroyed, too. It was one famously disastrous fire.

        Booker T. Washington had several wives (consequently). Three, if I remember correctly, and all of them were his co-workers, so there’s plenty of opportunities there, although I don’t know how much is known about them outside of that or how fun they could be from a costuming point of view. We read his autobiography for school (I actually had a presentation on him) and we agreed on the impression that the first two died because of work overload… He comes out as a workoholic, strangely inconsiderate of his family. All he writes about his family is what they studied and what job they did/plan to do. It might be just the tone he chose for the autobiography, but it comes out really weird.
        The autobiography is available on Project Gutenberg.

    • Oooh, excellent selection! I can’t believe I didn’t think of her actually – I wrote a paper on Sor Juana in university, drawing parallels between her and Tahirih. I have no interest in making a nun’s outfit, but that dress she wears in the portrait done as a teenager *swoon*

      • I know, right?! Creep-city.

        For costuming potential though you might want to consider Charlotte Angas Scott (1848-1931) . She was the first head of the math department at Bryn Mawr College. She worked toward standardized testing for college entrance which, while certainly flawed and riddled with bias, also helped to level the academic playing field, at least for entrance. With her long life you have lots of options for costuming!

        • Mmmm….standardized testing….what a great contribution to education.

          Nah! It really does serve a purpose. I like what I’ve read on Scott, but I’m a little worried about how much information I’d be able to find on her. Would it be enough for a full, interesting story?

  4. Hayley says

    Lady Mary Wortley Montagu???

    Or Kate Sheppard – oh gosh, could you make the dress she’s wearing on the $10 note?

    • Oooh thanks! I love the idea of Lady Mary for all sorts of reasons: I want to do that era, I like the idea of including a traveller, and someone involved in medicine. I’m not so sure about Kate, as I don’t want the talk to have too much of a suffrage/woman’s rights lean, and Kate wasn’t that involved in promoting education. I do love the idea of having a Kiwi represented, so am doing some research on those lines.

    • Kate says

      Yes, I came in to suggest Lady Mary as well. She offers a number of angles, plus there are several portraits of completely awesome dresses and hats.

    • Great idea! I think it would have to be her or Aspasia. It all depends on whether I’m willing to start crying onstage or not. I’m a huge wuss, and just reading about how Hypatia died made me sob.

  5. What about Veronica Franco (1546—1591)? She was a poet and courtesan who argued that women are just as influential as men are. Highly educated she wrote two books of poetry and started charities for courtesans and orphans.

    Not sure if this is what you were looking for, but I thought I’d share my thoughts.


    • Thanks for the suggestion! I’m still a little scared by 16th century costuming, and am not sure I’m ready to venture into i though! Is that wimpy of me?

      • Of course not! 16th century costuming is really scary. I have yet to venture into it!


  6. Maire Smith says

    I was going to suggest Hypatia, but I see she’s been mentioned.

    How about Hilda of Whitby?

  7. If you’re willing to do some more menswear, there’s always Erasmus. He was a theologian and tutor to young Henry VIII. Plus he’s from a century you haven’t hit yet.

  8. Dawn says

    My first thought was Catherine the Great of Russia. She promoted education for women and implemented educational reforms.

    • And had great clothes! I thought that Catherine didn’t ever have much success with her educational reforms – there were lots of theories and announcements, but not a lot of real schools got founded, and the certainly none for the serfs? I’ll have to do some research.

      • You could go with Maria Theresa of Austria instead. She’s famous (and infamous) around here for starting compulsory school attendance.

  9. Sylvia Ashton-Warner? Mid 20th C in NZ is not an exciting time costumewise but the work she did worth Maori kids was.

  10. I heartily approve of your intention to honour Mary Wollstonecraft as a pioneer educator. She founded her own boarding school, and when that failed, went governessing; she wrote pedagogical texts before her two Vindications. I count myself as one of her foremost fans: you may care to look at my blog, A Vindication of the Rights of Mary.

    Perhaps you might like to group MW with her best friend and business partner, Frances Blood? Their Georgian clothing drapes well.

    To prove I am not too partisan, I offer the following names as well, chosen partly on the basis of their countries’ reputations for textiles:
    * Charity Akoshiwo Tornyewonya Zormelo (1904 — 1945), the first woman graduate from the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and the first woman from English-speaking West Africa to earn a B. S. degree.
    *Semra Sezer (born 1944), a school teacher and formerly the First Lady of Turkey. (Cf Laura Bush, children’s librarian.)
    *Dewi Sartika (1884 — 1947), pioneer for the education for women, acknowledged as a National Hero by the Indonesian government in 1966.
    * and if you need an American, may I suggest Edith Abbott ( 1876 — 1957) , economist, social worker, educator, and author. She was known as the “passionate statistician”, which puts me in mind of Florence Nightingale.

    I hope this gives you some ideas!

    • Mary Wollstonecraft is such an obvious choice! Her work was so seminal. I’ll have to see how the script development and costuming goes to consider including Frances.

      Thank you so much for all the other suggestions! It’s amazing how many amazing people are out there that y’all knows about, and suggests, and that I get to learn about. I’ve never even heard of your later 4 (Abbott may ring a faint bell)

      I’m afraid I’m going to have to cross Sezer off the list of possibilities right away: I don’t want to do anyone who is still alive, especially if they have strong political links. I’ll see if I can find enough research on Zormelo and Sartika to include them. I suspect it is going to be scarce 🙁 Abbott is a definite possibility, though I think my gap right now is with people who were hands-on, rather than theoretical.

  11. Why is 16th-century costuming so scary? (Maybe this should be a post!)

    I don’t have anyone to contribute except Maria Montessori, who is no doubt too modern; but wanted to say how excited it made me to see so many posts by people who know about this sort of thing. Hurray for education (and Wikipedia)!

    • 16th century costuming is scary because the stuff for rich people is really elaborate, and stiff, and structured. It requires a complete set of undergarments that I have no experience in making. And pretty much I have no experience in the whole spectrum of 16th century sewing, and there are lots of people who do (Ren faires etc) and some of them (not my readers – they are far too sweet and lovely!) will only too willingly point out any mistakes you make.

  12. Stella says

    It’s a great idea to celebrate education.

    How about Ada Lovelace? Writer of the first computer programme and one of the first people to understand that a computer could be more than a calculator. She also had some very nice clothes.

  13. Sarah Kate says

    Have you considered Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller’s teacher? She was the force behind Keller’s educational development. Through their work together they brought about an evolution in understanding the blind and deaf.

  14. Elise says

    The first things that come to mind are the midieval monks Alcuin and Fray Luis de Leon (who lectured at Salamanca, and wrote a notable book called ‘La casada perfecta’ or The Perfect Wife’, explaining and defending the value of women, while outlining an educational and moral curriculum for them)

    In the 18th century, you have De Condorcet (you already have the outfit!) And in the late 19th century, you have Camille See. Both of these people succeeded in bringing universal education in France, and See ensured that girls were educated.

    Funny: I cannot think of many female educators. What about role models like Christine de Pisan, or Heloise? They often defended women’s intellect, setting a model for others to follow centuries later.

  15. I realize I already commented, but have you considered Charlemagne (742? -814)? It’s not great costuming wise, but he did start the Carolingian Renaissance through which most of our early medieval texts were saved and his education reform even included the church with at that point most of the clergy were still illiterate.


    • I have considered Charlemange, but he is so far outside of my costuming and historical comfort zone, and I can’t figure out how to fit him into my narrative. And comment as many times as you want! There is no limit!

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