In celebration of Women’s History Month, the Minnesota Humanities Center has asked some of our friends to write essays to share with you their thoughts on diverse women’s achievements and challenges over time, in Minnesota and elsewhere. These thoughts and reflections display a variety of perspectives to encourage healthy dialogue, nurture understanding, and spark positive change within community. Enjoy!
I’m the superintendent of Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191. In Burnsville, the mayor is a woman, the police chief is a woman, the city manager is a woman, the president of the Chamber of Commerce is a woman, and when I was first named to this role, the chair of the school board was a woman.
It is a rare situation to have so many positions of leadership held by women in one community. It even drew attention from national media in the summer of 2019 when I started. It’s been a gift to have partners who know what it’s like to be a woman in a leadership role. They’ve been a source of support and knowledge.
It may have people thinking that we’ve made it, that we have equality for women. But if that were true, it wouldn’t have been national news. In fact, only 25 percent of school superintendents in the United States are women – and only 18 percent in Minnesota – even though women make up 76 percent of teachers.
This reminds me that broad social changes depend on specific historical actions and events. As the first black woman superintendent of District 191, my journey to success has been paved by other women—especially women of color—who had the will, skill, and talent. Former Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent Dr. Bernadeia Johnson and other female superintendents have mentored and supported me, preparing me to reach this position and to be successful in it.
Other exemplary and unforgettable women educators in American history who inspired me are Mary McLeod Bethune and Hallie Quinn Brown. Bethune was a champion of racial and gender equality and lifelong educator, working as a teacher before founding Bethune-Cookman College (now University) in Daytona, FL. President Franklin Roosevelt named her director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration and in 1940, she became vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Brown was another tireless educator and advocate, teaching school in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Ohio; founding a scholarship for women’s education in the 1880s; and then moving into higher education as a lecturer for her alma mater, Wilberforce University, and then as “lady principal” (dean of women) at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Yes, the Hallie Q. Brown Center in Saint Paul is named after this legendary woman.
These educators blazed the trail for me, and I know it is my responsibility to blaze the trail for the women who will come after me. In that way, failure is not acceptable for me. It is the blessing and responsibility of being a “First. Only. Different,” a phrase coined by Shonda Rimes. I hope that my work will help create a path for some district’s first American Indian, first Somali, or first Latinx or LGBTQ superintendent. Because history made by women is history made for everyone.
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By: Dr. Theresa Battle
Dr. Theresa Battle is the Superintendent of Schools for Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191.