When Edythe J. Gaines passed away at the age of 83, her son Richard reflected on his mother’s life and her dedication to children, both as a mother and civic-minded career woman. “She believed in kids, even when they didn’t believe in themselves,” Richard explained. “Her belief in them would give them belief in themselves.” Gaines’ steadfast conviction that youth should be given the chance to succeed led her to a fruitful career as a pioneer in education. This faith in younger generations would also propel Gaines to becoming Connecticut’s first African American public schools superintendent and the first woman in the state to hold the position.
Edythe Pauline Jones was born in Asheville, N.C., to parents who were both active in public life. Her father, Jacob Jones, was a priest in the Episcopal Church, and her mother, Jennie Dillard Jones, who may have influenced Gaines’ own career choices, worked as a high school English and Latin teacher. Jacob Jones passed away when his daughter was still quite young and, soon after his death, the family moved to New York City. In 1941, Edythe Jones married Albert Gaines. In 1944, she earned her Bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, and in 1947, her Master’s degree from New York University. She later earned a Doctor of Education degree from Harvard University in 1969.
In 1945, she began her teaching career in the New York Public Schools, teaching at the Joan of Arc School. Throughout her career in New York, Gaines earned a reputation as an innovative leader and innovator. She rose quickly through the ranks of the school system and, in 1964, became the first African American to serve as principal of a city school. In 1967, she became assistant superintendent of School District 12 in the Bronx and, in 1973, was named Executive Director of the New York City Board of Education’s Office of Educational Planning and Support.
Gaines’ career moves, reputation, and deep commitment to youth education initiatives led to her hiring as Hartford’s first African American superintendent of schools in 1975. Her appointment also made her the first woman in Connecticut to hold the post. Though her tenure was short-lived and ended in 1978, partly as a result of political turmoil in the city, Gaines was undeterred from work in Hartford. She chose to remain in Hartford and continued to play an important leadership role in education and community service. From 1979 to 1991, Gaines served as a commissioner for the State Department of Public Utility Control. In 1992, she was named to the Board of Governors of Higher Education, and in 1995, she was given the opportunity to serve a four-year term on the Connecticut State Board of Education.
Gaines civically active outside of the education sphere. She served as the chair of the Commission on Ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut and represented St. Monica’s Episcopal Church as chairwoman. She spearheaded St. Monica’s Development Corporation’s Second Century Project, a multi-million dollar effort that built houses for the elderly while also providing numerous health and human service initiatives. In 1991, she was honored by the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs for her work to establish affordable housing for the elderly. Gaines was also the first woman to be elected chair of a Harvard University alumni association and has been inducted into the Hunter College Hall of Fame.
Edythe Gaines died in Hartford in March 2006 at the age of 83.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.