TWO LITTLE GIRLS snuggled together in front of the fireplace, books on their laps. It was the winter of 1880 — and well below zero outside the farmhouse on the prairie not far from Fargo, North Dakota. Josephine “Josie” Corliss, who was 7, loved to read even more than did her big sister, Myrtia. Both liked to play school. Josephine said she always knew what she wanted to be when she grew up: a teacher.
By the time she was 14, the precocious girl was helping first-graders learn their ABCs. In 1891, having taught full-time for nearly two years, she was a fully certified, 18-year-old teacher in Otter Tail County, Minnesota, with high marks from the superintendent’s examiners.
A potbelly stove took the edge off bitterly cold days outside the rough-hewed schoolhouses north of Fergus Falls, the county seat. Locals still quip that the only thing that stopped the cold north wind back then was a barbed-wire fence. Boarding with farm families, Corliss slept in more than one attic. She was “so lonesome,” according to a later newspaper story, that she had resolved to improve the lives of rural teachers if she ever got a chance.
She got her opportunity a few years later in Walla Walla, an influential agricultural city in Southeast Washington that practically doubled in size, to 20,000, in the first decade of the 20th century. And she made the most of it.
In 1912, two years after Washington women won the right to vote, 39-year-old Josephine Corliss Preston was elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the direct beneficiary of a suffrage movement propelled by thousands of resourceful female campaigners. She prevailed in a tricky four-way race by outcampaigning her opponents, including two other women. Support from women’s clubs was decisive to her victory.
Washington’s first female statewide elected official was idealistic, disarmingly bright and politically nimble — simultaneously puritanical and progressive, a proto-feminist divorcee who sang in the church choir. In 16 years as state school superintendent, she effected 55 new laws “with alacrity, clarity and confidence,” as one historian put it, creating a modern school system. Early on, she emerged as one of America’s most influential educators. There was speculation she might become the first female member of a presidential cabinet, as Secretary of Education.
In 1919, Preston was elected president of the 52,000-member National Education Association, which then included principals and superintendents as well as teachers. She also led the Council of State Superintendents and Commissioners of Education and was elected a vice chairman of the new Women’s Division of the Republican National Committee.
During the 1919-20 votes-for-women campaign that saw Washington emerge as the penultimate state to ratify the 19th Amendment, Preston and national suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt became close friends. Unsurprising, for they had much in common. Catt had been a 14-year-old teacher in Iowa, and both belonged to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Preston arranged the 1919 luncheon in Olympia where Catt rallied Washington women to round up pledges of support from male lawmakers after Gov. Louis F. Hart balked at calling a special session to ratify the suffrage amendment. Catt ended her address by calling for the formation of a League of Women Voters.
The Washington governor ended up signing into law the cornerstone of Preston’s legislative agenda that year: “an act to prevent discrimination in the payment of salaries between male and female teachers in the public schools of this state.”
On Preston’s watch, state per-pupil funding increased, kindergartens were established and vocational education classes incorporated in the secondary school curriculum. She improved teacher pay and retirement benefits — though not nearly as much as she had hoped — and promoted higher standards for teacher certification.
Remembering the cold nights when she graded papers in a barn, Preston helped rural communities build cottages for teachers, emphasizing that better housing would also attract competent men to a female-dominated profession. The superintendent preached the importance of school attendance, lengthened the school year, instituted hot-lunch programs, improved pupil transportation, consolidated districts to improve curriculum and promoted parent-teacher associations. Preston also was an early proponent of junior high schools and two-year community colleges. In 1913, the year she took office in Olympia, 2,512 students graduated from high schools around the state. In 1928, the year she left office, 21,587 received diplomas. It was Preston who mandated a Washington state history course for sixth-graders.
Chin up, posture perfect, Josephine Corliss Preston exuded confidence. Reporters covering a national NEA convention observed that when anyone asked which lady Mrs. Preston was, delegates advised them to just look for the woman in the jaunty wide-brimmed hat trimmed in red.
Preston was also an exacting workaholic. “People who offended her were quick to realize her wrath,” Gary Gordon Rude wrote in a thoughtful 1985 doctoral thesis on Preston’s educational leadership. Subordinates who saw her as highhanded called her “The Duchess,” at least behind her back. When several resigned in two separate public huffs during her first term, the strong-willed superintendent calmly told reporters, “Good riddance.” It took a manufactured mini-scandal to finally defeat her after she crossed Gov. Roland H. Hartley, a mercurial conservative with retrograde ideas about school funding.
PRESTON’S Laura Ingalls Wilder girlhood helps explain how she became the remarkable woman she was.
Fergus Falls is a riverfront town in West Central Minnesota adjacent to the Dakotas. In 1873, when Josephine Corliss was born, it had around 1,500 citizens and was on the cusp of incorporation. Her father, John Wesley Corliss; uncles; aunts; and grandparents had left Vermont in the 1850s, lured by the chance to acquire up to 160 acres of government-owned land for as little as $1.25 an acre. The 1862 Homestead Act encouraged even more Western migration.
“Josie” to her family and childhood friends, the little girl who loved to read grew up hearing tales of covered-wagon caravans, Indian uprisings and Civil War battles. The Corlisses ranked among Minnesota’s leading citizens. They are well-remembered there to this day. Josie and Myrtia Corliss were home-schooled in early childhood while their father managed his farms in and around Otter Tail County and studied law.
Josie completed high school by 16. She was teaching in a rural school on the plains north of Fergus Falls in the fall of 1889, when her father — who suffered from heart disease and pain from a Civil War wound — died, at the age of 52. His funeral procession “was one of the longest that has ever been seen in this city, a silent and suggestive testimony of the esteem and respect in which Mr. Corliss was held by this community,” Otter Tail County newspapers reported.
Josie’s grieving mother, only 37, decided to head farther west, perhaps because her nephew, Charles W. Corliss, was making a name for himself as a lawyer in Seattle. With Myrtia and 8-year-old John Jr. in tow, the widowed Mrs. Corliss became a matron at the Umatilla Indian Boarding School near Pendleton, Oregon. Josie, 16, stayed behind and enrolled at Carleton College’s Academy, a prep school at Northfield, Minnesota, near the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul. Founded in 1866 by the Congregational Church, Carleton College was theologically conservative and academically rigorous. Josie studied Greek and Latin for a year and departed as “Josephine,” a more grown-up name.
In the summer of 1891, she was teaching alongside her aunt at another rural school on the plains when her mother returned to Fergus Falls for a visit, regaling old friends with the beauty and mild climate of the Northwest. “She wishes her daughter to return with her,” the Fergus Falls Daily Journal noted.
That fall, Josephine boarded a train for her new life. She secured a $30-per-month teaching position in Waitsburg, a picturesque farm town nestled in the rolling hills of Walla Walla County. Miss Corliss was a popular, “conscientious” elementary school teacher who organized spelling bees and often met with parents. She attended teachers’ institutes and enrolled in correspondence courses in pursuit of the four-year degree she coveted throughout her career.
JOSEPHINE MET a handsome young man soon after arriving in Waitsburg. Herbert P. “Bert” Preston was the oldest son of W.G. Preston, co-owner of the town’s landmark five-story flour mill. “If he will but follow in the footsteps of his father, he will be one of the best men the country affords,” the Waitsburg Times wrote when the pair were married in 1893, hailing the bride as “a lovely and lovable young lady of good accomplishments.” Josephine had just turned 20; Bert was still 19. The new Mrs. Preston — judging from comments in Walla Walla County’s newspapers — was readily granted a waiver from the era’s widespread belief that married women should be housewives. Her admiring father-in-law was also the leading benefactor of Waitsburg’s public schools.
Unfortunately, it appears the young couple’s marriage was in trouble by the time they moved to Walla Walla around 1897. The divorce was quietly granted in 1901. Bert and Josephine had no children. Bert Preston would marry again — the very next year; Josephine remained single. She would be “Mrs. Josephine Corliss Preston” for the remainder of her very public life, with no scandal accruing to her name in an era when divorce was the subject of tongue-clucking. Preston appears in all written accounts as a virtuous, churchgoing woman, rapidly advancing in her career.
On Feb. 1, 1904, Josephine Corliss Preston, now 30, was appointed deputy county superintendent of schools by the Walla Walla County commissioners, at a salary of $75 per month. Newspaper accounts made it clear the “prominent teacher” with “many friends” was being groomed by the Republican Party to succeed the two-term incumbent, who endorsed her appointment. “It is said that no such opportunity to honor fair womanhood had ever been given here,” newspapers reported.
Her new job and growing interest in Republican politics added to a daunting schedule. While taking evening and Saturday-morning classes in English, philosophy and history at Whitman College, she earned a “life diploma” Washington state teaching credential and began writing articles about educational practices. She was active in the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic group; the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; and the Walla Walla Art Club. She taught Sunday school, wrote children’s songs and was interested in birds. She also enlisted in the campaign to secure for Washington women the right to vote.
It was a long time coming.