Dr. Maria Montessori, Feminist
The date most commonly associated with Dr. Maria Montessori is January 6, 1907, when she opened her Casa dei Bambini, or Children’s House, in Rome, Italy. Montessori began implementing her then-novel educational approach at the Casa, one that continues to be used today in Montessori schools around the world. Montessori herself is often portrayed as child-whisperer, a nurturing educator who understood children and sought to remake early childhood care. And since early childhood care, as well as public schooling, have long been socially characterized as “women’s work,” Montessori’s work perhaps seems unremarkable today. Yet beginning Montessori’s history with the Casa overlooks the first half of her life, and her long history as a feminist, a doctor, and a scientist who conducted crucial research with children with disabilities, all of which she combined in her advocacy for radical social change.
Montessori experienced the sharply delineated gender roles of late-19th century Italian society from an early age. As a girl who enjoyed mathematics and wanted to study engineering, she was a rare sight at her Italian technical school that typically educated only boys. Cultural mores forbade her from socializing with her classmates, so during recess, she was placed in a separate room from the boys. Her grades demonstrated that she was more than capable of excelling in the historically masculine subjects taught at such technical schools. However, she soon turned her attention to the even more exclusively male realm of medicine. When she entered the University of Rome in 1890 intent on pursuing a degree in medicine, the administrators refused to admit her — or any woman.
Nevertheless, Montessori persisted, earning excellent marks and somehow gaining admission to the medical school. Her attendance at medical school lectures epitomized the gendered expectations and double standards of the day. Although she would consistently earn higher grades than most of her male classmates, Maria had to be escorted to and from the university by her father because it was not socially acceptable for a woman to walk in public by herself. Similarly, she had to wait outside of the lecture hall until all her male classmates were seated before she could seat herself, nominally because she was not supposed to interact with the men. This also served, of course, to ensure that she had to scramble for a seat, and probably one that was consistently the least desirable.
Maria’s medical school work presaged her later path. She studied pediatrics and psychiatry, worked at a women’s hospital, and published original research in the Italian scientific journal, the Bollettino della Società Lancisiana degli ospedali di Roma. She won prestigious scholarships, which funded most of her medical school costs, and she earned superlative scores. Yet many words on her doctor’s diploma had to be amended by hand, with ink, from the longstanding masculine noun forms to the feminine ones. In the phrase “the exams taken by Mister…,” the “dal Signor” had to be changed to “dalla Signora.”
Montessori gained international acclaim as a fierce advocate for women’s rights at the International Women’s Congress in Berlin in 1896 — the same year she completed medical school. Montessori addressed her peers at the Congress on several occasions, championing women’s education and the reduction of illiteracy. She spoke “for the six million Italian women who work in factories and on farms as long as eighteen hours a day for pay that is often half of what men earn for the same work and sometimes even less.” Congress delegates unanimously adopted her resolution for equal pay for equal work for women was unanimously adopted.
Montessori amplified her vision of the “New Woman” during a series of lectures around Italy in 1899. She contended, “the woman of the future will have equal rights as well as equal duties…Family life as we know it may change, but it is absurd to think the feminism will destroy maternal feelings. The new woman will marry and have children out of choice, not because matrimony and maternity are imposed on her.”
Meanwhile, Montessori presented her then-radical ideas about children with disabilities at a national Pedagogical Congress in 1898. She argued that these children should be educated and nurtured, not locked away and left to rot, and maintained that many of their disabilities could be addressed by changing their environments and engaging them. She spoke about “the vast class of children Italian society didn’t want to recognize” — a multifarious group including children with physical or mental disabilities, those with psychological or emotional disorders, or those who were severely impoverished, deprived, or abused. At the time, such children were lumped together under terms such as idiots, imbeciles, delinquents, or degenerates, and they were essentially abandoned by society. Instead, Montessori urged her compatriots, “Our efforts will have to go into gaining an understanding of those children who have the most difficulty adapting to society and helping them before they get into trouble.”
Montessori’s work as a scientist advanced when she co-directed a school focused on children with disabilities starting in 1900. She had begun independently studying previous research on educating children with disabilities in 1897, and she used those investigations to inform her own firsthand research with children at the school she co-directed. She observed these children and personally worked with them for hours every day. She diligently recorded measurements and observations for each child, kept meticulous notes, and implemented her educational approaches on a test-and-see basis. When Montessori later wrote the book The Montessori Method: Scientific Pedagogy as Applied to Child Education in “the Children’s Houses,” published in translation from Italian to English in 1912, she detailed her educational methods and noted that her work with these children with disabilities was foundational to her educational approach — what she called her “scientific pedagogy.”
While Montessori was employing a scientific — and compassionate — approach to children with disabilities and sought to improve their environment and education, the eugenics movement grew in the United States and Europe. Eugenics was predicated on the notion that socially-constructed ideas of “idiocy” or “delinquency,” so-called “undesirable traits,” were heritable. The eugenics movement policed the bodies and actions of women, immigrants, and people of color — a reactionary move against immigration, industrialization, and urbanization. In response to these same issues in Italy, Montessori called instead for social and educational reform, an approach that was revolutionary in a climate of eugenic thinking.
Montessori unified her feminist and scientific approach to social change with the opening of the Casa dei Bambini in 1907. The Casa represented the culmination of Montessori’s previous work, not the beginning of her story. She opened the first Casa in a Roman tenement, focused on young children. However, the Casa was not merely about education in the sense of learning skills like reading, writing, or arithmetic. Montessori viewed the Casa a place to nurture a whole person, one who would learn to feed and dress themself, prepare meals, tidy up, and help and serve others. Montessori wanted to nurture and prepare these children for life. For her, it was just as important that the boys learn the “practical life” skills of food preparation and cleaning the floors as it was that the girls study mathematics.
Montessori’s speech on the inauguration of the second Casa in April 1907 cogently outlines her vision for radical social change. I have referred to the Casa that way throughout this essay, instead of calling it a school, to emphasize Montessori’s own thinking about this. The Casa — the house, the home — enabled mothers and fathers to work, assured that their children were well cared for. She explained, “Let it be remembered that all the mothers in the tenement may enjoy this privilege, going away to their work with easy minds. Until the present time only one class in society might have this advantage.”
Montessori advocated the provision of high-quality, comprehensive early-childhood education. She recognized that the care of children and the elderly was work and should be treated, recognized, respected, and compensated as such. Her inaugural speech heralded the Casa as integral to the community, a collective endeavor to make child-nurturing the responsibility of society, not just the responsibility of the mother. Similarly, she called for a social approach to the provision of medical and nursing care, and to food preparation.
Maria Montessori received nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1949, 1950, and 1951. The Nobel Prize Nomination database states that the motivation was that Montessori “furthered international understanding through her educational work.” Yet remembering Montessori as merely an educator fails to acknowledge the feminist, scientific, and disability-focused approaches that were foundational to her reform. She sought to remake children’s education not to change children, but to change the world.
Angeline Stoll Lillard, Montessori: The Science behind the Genius, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Elene Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women (Timbuktu Labs, 2016).
Image credit: Maria Montessori (ca. 1910-1915). (Library of Congress via George Grantham Bain Collection | Public Domain)