Phebe (Pheobe) Sudlow
Phebe Sudlow was a teacher and a warrior in the fight for equal rights. She now has an Intermediate School named after her. If that wasn’t enough, she also was the first female to hold the position of Superintendent in the United States.
Phebe’s teaching methods and successes brought her to the attention of Abram S. Kissell, who was at the time the Superintendent of both the Scott County schools and the Davenport school system. By 1858, Mr. Kissell had moved Phebe to sub-district Number 5, as assistant of the district.
In 1859, Phebe was appointed assistant principal at Grammar School Number 2 and District School Number 3 . Her yearly salary was $350, less than the set wages for a man in the same position. By the next year, at the age of 29, Phebe was principal of both schools—possibly the first woman principal of a public school in the United States—at $400 dollars a year.
During her years in Davenport, Phebe argued with the board of education against gender-based teacher salaries, believing that men and women deserved equal pay for equal positions and experience. Although the board refused to listen at first, Phebe persisted. Eventually, the board did agree to pay all teachers, whether male or female, on the same scale, setting a precedent that had an impact not only on Davenport, but on other Iowa school systems as well.
In 1872, Phebe became principal of the Davenport Training School for Teachers, during which time she also held the position of principal of Grammar School Number 8 (present day Harrison School). Her annual salary was by then $1200, which was considered very good for the time.
On June 19, 1874, Phebe made educational history. She was unanimously chosen by the Davenport board of education to be the new Superintendent of Davenport Schools, the first woman in the history of the United States to be hired at this level of school administration. But before she agreed to take the position, Phebe had questions about the terms of employment, which included a salary somewhat less than William Edward Crosby, her male predecessor, had earned. She told the board, “Gentlemen, if you are cutting the salary because of my experience, I have nothing to say; but if you are doing this because I am a woman, I’ll have nothing more to do with it.” Phebe was immediately hired at the greater salary.
Phebe served as Superintendent for four years, during which she oversaw the construction of a new high school at Pershing and East 6th Streets (this building was later refitted as School Number 9, or Lincoln School, after the present day high school on Main Street was built). Although Davenport citizens may have been skeptical at first to have a woman in charge of the city’s schools, they soon found that she was a great asset to the community. As the Citizen’s Association of Davenport stated in one of their booklets, “All the public schools of the city are now under the charge of a lady Superintendent, who is fully competent for her responsible duties.”