Josephine Corliss Preston was the first woman elected to Washington state government after the state’s women won the right to vote in 1910. She served as the sixth State Superintendent of Public Instruction, from 1913 to 1928. She made great strides toward the improvement of schools and won national recognition for her successful efforts to inaugurate the building of teacher’s cottages, also known as teacherages, to provide private dwellings for instructors alongside the one-room schools in rural areas.
A Country Girlhood
Born in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, to Civil War veteran John Wesley Corliss (1837-1889) and Josephine Kinney Corliss (1852-1933), Josephine Corliss attended country schools and began her career as a teacher in Otter Tail County, Minnesota, schools at the age of 14. In 1891-1892, at the age of 18, she attended the preparatory academy of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
She then moved to Waitsburg, Washington, with her widowed mother, brother John, and sister Myrtle. There, she taught for four years at the Baker primary school and high school. From 1896 to 1903, she taught in the city schools of Walla Walla, Washington, and took coursework to earn her life diploma, the terminal teaching credential in Washington, in 1904.
A Rising Professional
Josephine became active in many professional organizations, such as the Inland Empire Teachers’ Organization, and community clubs, including the Daughters of Eastern Star and Daughters of the American Revolution. She also sang in the community and in First Congregational Church choirs. Her marriage to Herbert P. Preston (1873-1955) of Waitsburg quickly ended in divorce, but her academic career was on the rise.
In 1904, Preston was appointed assistant county superintendent of schools in Walla Walla County and was soon appointed deputy superintendent of the Walla Walla County schools to fill out the unexpired term (five years remaining) of G. S. Bond. She was then elected five times as county superintendent, for the years 1908-1912.
In 1911, Governor Marion Hay (1865-1933) appointed her to the State Board of Education. Her academic background, along with her Republican affiliation, won her a nomination as State Superintendent of Schools in 1912.
Washington state, having granted women the vote in 1910, was ready to elect a woman to state office. Preston succeeded Henry B. Dewey as State Superintendent of Schools, beating rival Mary Monroe, principal of the Spokane Public School system. Preston won repeatedly against all rivals, serving in Olympia until 1928, when she lost the Republican primary to Noah D. Showalter, President of Washington State Normal School at Cheney.
Country Teachers and Their Housing
While supervising the country schools of Walla Walla County, Preston encountered a widespread problem for one-room school teachers, who were often young women just starting their demanding work in country classrooms. They were forced to board with the impoverished families of their pupils, and their living conditions were demoralizing: no privacy, poor food, inadequate heat, and meager furnishings. Their home environment was crowded, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar. The result for teachers was job dissatisfaction; for parents, rapid teacher turnover; for pupils, constant instability, which disrupted steady academic progress.
Even worse, some isolated communities volunteered no accommodations for the teacher. Preston would often cite the case of a homeless teacher who had to stoop to fashion a primitive dwelling for herself out of an abandoned cookhouse, left over from the harvest, topped by a canvas roof. When winter weather destroyed the roof, the teacher reinforced it to remain protected through springtime. The embarrassment of this makeshift home spurred the community to build a proper residence next door to the one-room school, a solution that provided a decent dwelling for the teacher without imposing on beleaguered farm families.
Many communities hoped such dwellings would attract married men with families as teachers, a rare species in country schools. For parents who feared indiscretions by unchaperoned single women, Preston urged the presence of a roommate, either a female relative of the teacher or a female student who could avoid a long commute from her family farm. Once Preston held an official state position, she widely publicized the virtues of teacher’s cottages to rural communities throughout Washington. For listeners with little interest in funding comfortable residences for teachers, she argued that the teacher’s house could serve as a community center, providing meeting space for the Parent-Teacher Association meetings, conferences with parents, and hands-on lessons in home economics and gardening.
Preston secured legislation that permitted tax money to cover the cost of small residences for instructors, and, by 1915, rural Washington boasted 108 teacher’s cottages; by 1927, there were 452 of them. Preston’s campaign ignited support for teacherages at both the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C., and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, yielding national publicity for teacherages and the influential presidency of the 52,000-member National Education Association for Preston for the years 1918-1920.
A Life of Achievement
Preston was also selected for the prestigious new Women’s Committee of the National Republican Party. She was awarded honorary degrees from Whitman College in Washington in 1914 and Carleton College in Minnesota in 1925.
Preston’s administration achieved other significant changes for the school systems of her state, including higher educational standards for teacher certification, better salaries, more tax money for schools, higher rates of pupil attendance, a longer school year, patriotic activities during World War I, consolidation of school districts for efficiency, transportation for students, vocational education, kindergarten, hot lunches, junior high schools, and a retirement fund for teachers.
Josephine Preston retired to Burton on Vashon Island, where she nursed her ailing mother, and died of cancer at the age of 85 at Renton Hospital. She is buried at Mountain View Memorial Park in Lakewood, King County. Her assets were willed to Carleton College and Whitman College and to her many nieces and nephews.
Josephine Corliss Preston’s early career as an educator followed the path of most country schoolteachers in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America. But her experiences led her to improve conditions for the public school teachers of Washington State after she won election as State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 1912. Her innovations impressed school systems nationwide and stimulated a broad effort to provide country teachers with housing that rescued them from the abhorrent custom of boarding with the farm families of their pupils.