Women's Intellectual Contributions to the Study of Mind and Society

Students, as part of an advanced seminar, examined and wrote about the lives of these women, their intellectual contributions, and the unique impact and special problems that being female had on their careers.

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Maria Montessori


Maria Montessori was born in the town of Chiaravalle, Italy on August 31, 1870. Though most of the information on Maria's childhood seems to be uncertain, with disagreeing dates, contradictions and omissions, I found a majority of the information about her childhood in Maria Montessori: A Biography by Rita Kramer (1976). Her father was Alessandro Montessori who was "an old fashioned gentleman of conservative temper and military habits." (Kramer, 1976, p. 22). He was a soldier in his youth and a civil servant later in life. Her mother was a woman named Renilde Stoppani. She was eight years younger than her husband. For the time period, she was very well educated and loved to read books. This was really incredible because in the town she lived in it was a matter of pride to be able to write one's name. This woman was very patriotic, devoted to the ideals of liberation and union for Italy. Alessandro and Renilde were married in the spring of 1866 and it was only a year later that Maria was born.

Maria was considered to be self-confident, optimistic and greatly interested in change. Her parents often had troubles seeing eye to eye on what was best for their "talented headstrong daughter." (Kramer, 1976, chap. 1). As a child Maria had a daily quota of knitting she was to meet. She enjoyed taking her neighbor, a hunchbacked little girl, out for walks. It was also not uncommon for her to interfere in arguments her parents would have. During that time, elementary education was a local affair and the schools were usually dirty and crowded. However, Maria learned very easily and did exceptionally well on exams. In games she was often the leader among the other children and never had trouble holding her own with other adults. As far as her relationship with her parents, she was close to her father, but never hid the fact that it was her mother who encouraged all of her dreams and ambitions.

As far as personal relationships that Maria had, it is mentioned in Kramer (1976) that she had a son, Mario, with a colleague named Dr. Montesano. Why they did not marry is very unclear. Apparently his family and Maria herself were opposed to marriage. Kramer must have had the chance to speak with Mario. He said he was sent to a wet nurse in the country after he was born. He believes it was a plan urged by the couple's mothers to keep the birth a secret. Mario was raised by a family in the countryside of Rome and his mother would visit every once in a while. It was mentioned in Kramer (1976) that Maria and Dr. Montesano agreed to never marry, but Dr. Montesano eventually married someone else. Mario married and had four children, Marilena, Mario Jr., Renilde, and Rolando.


Maria graduated from technical school in 1886. She managed to get high marks in all of her subjects with a final score of 137 out of 150. After that she attended Regio Instituto Tecnico Leonardo da Vinci from 1886 to 1890 (Kramer, 1976). There she studied modern languages and natural sciences. Of all of her classes, her favorite was math. By the time she was ready to graduate, she had decided she wanted to go into the biological sciences. Her family, mostly her father, was shocked and disapproving. It was considered impossible for a woman to be accepted into a medical school. Her father actually stopped just short of forbidding her to study medicine. The following, concerning Maria's attempts to study are recorded in Kramer's Biography of Maria Montessori and also available through the Internet sites listed in the references.

She checked first with the University of Rome and spoke with Guido Baccelli. Not surprising, however, they did not admit women into the medical program. She decided instead to enroll at the University of Rome to study physics, mathematics and natural sciences. While other students were reading novels, dreaming of romance and husbands, she was studying as much as possible. In 1892, she passed her exams with an eight out of ten and received a Diploma di licenza that made her eligible to study medicine. The problem of course was she was a woman. There is not much recorded on how she did it but she persisted until she was excepted into the school. In Kramer it was mentioned that Pope Leo XIII helped her somehow (1976). It was incredibly shocking that a woman was accepted into the school during this time period. It was also considered odd to find a woman working side by side with men looking at a patient or studying the human body. During the time she was at school, she lived at home and had very little campus life experience, however, gradually other students began to accept her. Her and her father did not talk a lot because he was still upset about her studying medicine. Her mother continued to support her and sometimes helped her study.

In 1896 she had to present her thesis to a board of ten men. They were highly impressed with her work and granted her the degree of doctor of medicine. This made her the first woman to graduate from medical school in Italy. Not only did she graduate, but with a very impressive record. At this time anything over a 100 was considered brilliant. Maria scored a 105 (Kramer, 1976).

Shortly after, she was chosen as a representative of Italy at two different women's conferences (Maria Montessori: A Brief Biography). The first was in Berlin in 1896 and the second in 1900 in London. In November of 1896, she was asked to replace a surgical assistant at the place she was a medical assistant the previous year, Santo Spirito. While there she cared for patients more than was expected. She continued doing research at the University of Rome. Maria also found time for other interests such as cooking and needlework. In 1897, she joined the staff at the University of Rome as a voluntary assistant.

One of her responsibilities is what led her to her most loved occupation. She was to visit asylums for the insane. Here she came across feebleminded children, unable to function in schools or families and had no other public provisions. She saw that they were starving for experience and started to think about what she could do to help out. So in 1901 she returned to University with a desire to study the mind instead of the body (Maria Montessori: A Brief Biography). So in 1904 she was offered a job teaching as the professor of anthropology at the University of Rome. She accepted but in 1906 gave the job up to work with sixty young children of working families. This is were she developed all of her educational methods which became so successful that even learning disabled children began to pass examinations for normal children. Her methods will be discussed later in the paper. With these sixty children she started a "Children's House" in San Lorenzo Rome (Maria Montessori: A Brief Biography). This children's home was an environment that was offered to the child so he may be given an opportunity to develop his activities (Kramer, 1976). Of course it was very dependent on financial resources and opportunities in the environment. She began to notice how the children would absorb knowledge almost effortlessly from their surroundings. She felt the children were teaching themselves, which helped inspire her lifelong pursuit of educational reform.

In 1913, she made her first visit to the United States. It was during this year that Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel, founded the Montessori Educational Association in Washington D.C. (Maria Montessori: A Brief Biography). Other American supporters were Thomas Edison and Helen Keller. In 1929 she founded the Association Montessori International in Amsterdam, Netherlands. In 1938 she opened the Montessori Training Center in Laren, Netherlands. In 1947, she founded the Montessori Center in London. And in 1949, 1950, and 1951 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (Maria Montessori: A Brief Biography).


Maria Montessori was a devout Catholic, so a lot of her theories are steeped in her faith (Foss, 1998, p.1). She is sometimes referred to as the one who discovered and revealed the qualities of children different from and higher than those usually attributed to them.. When she began her work, large groups of children were supposed to do the same thing at the same time and in the same way. She knew there was a better way to teach children. She based most of her approach to teaching on truths about human nature. E. Mortimer Standing, a former associate of Montessori's wrote, "No one has so completely understood the soul of the child in its depth and greatness, in its immense potentialities, and in the mysterious law of its development." (1952, p. 1). O'Brien wrote that Montessori considered the child often at a disadvantage because adults fail to realize that children possess knowing and willing faculties, which are greater than their ability to express themselves; therefore, she emphasizes the importance of trying to understand the child (O'Brien, 1998, p.3). From the hands to the mind is an expression often used in Montessori training. "The materials used by the senses are a doorway to the mind." (O'Brien, 1998, p.5).

Through giving children some freedom in a specially prepared environment that was rich in activities, children of 4-6 years learned to read on their own, chose to work rather than play most of the time, loved order and silence, and developed a real social life in which they worked together instead of competing against one another (Standing, 1952). In Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook, it describes a typical room found in the Montessori school system (1965). There is usually a central room for intellectual work with some small rooms off to the side. A lot of outside space and the choice to work outside. The furniture in the room is light so the children can arrange it how they are comfortable. Cabinets containing items the children could use were set low so the children could reach them. When it was time for their meals, they were to help prepare their place at a table, wash their hands, and also clean up after a meal.

The book also gives a lot of little exercises for the children to do which will help them in three major focuses in this method which include motor education, sensory education, and language. Montessori felt it was necessary for a teacher to guide a child with out them being able to feel her presence too much. The teacher was never supposed to be an obstacle between the child and the experience. The 1912 first edition of Dr. Montessori's Own Handbook was sold out (5,000 copies) in four days.

The basic Montessori concepts are pretty well known by now (Montessori in Perspective, 1966). 1 - The teacher must pay attention to the child, rather than the child paying attention to the teacher. 2 - The child proceeds at his own pace in an environment controlled to provide means of learning. 3 - Imaginative teaching materials are the heart of the process. 4 - Each of them is self-correcting, thus enabling the child to proceed at his own pace and see his own mistakes. If you were to look inside a Montessori classroom, you would get the impression of "controlled chaos" because each child would be quietly working at his private encounter with whatever learning task he or she chose (Montessori in Perspective, 1966). Montessori often reminded teachers in her course, "When you have solved the problem of controlling the attention of the child, you have solved the entire problem of education." (Kramer, 1976, p. 217). Maria's theories of the sensitive periods in the development of a child were new to people at this time, however, now they seem to correspond with what we consider to be the "needs" of a child at different stages of their development.

In Maria's book, the Montessori Method, she further describes her system (1964). Educators in the field set up special environments to meet the needs of the students in three age groups: two and a half years, two and a half to six years, and six and a half to twelve years. The students learn through activities that involve exploration, manipulations, order, repetition, abstraction, and communication. The teacher is to encourage children in the first two age groups to use their senses to explore and manipulate materials in their immediate environment. Children in the last age group deal with abstract concepts based on their newly developed powers of reasoning, imagination, and creativity.

Back in 1913 when Maria arrived to America, she was considered to be at the height of her fame. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described her as, "a woman who revolutionized the educational system of the world...the woman who taught the idiot and the insane to read and write - whose success has been so wonderful that the Montessori method has spread into nation after nation as far east as Korea, as afar west as Honolulu and south to the Argentine Republic." (Kramer, 1976, p.15). This is a very positive review. However, these things that were considered new to the educational system are today viewed almost as a given. Our school systems take most of these issues into account.

Considering the time period in which Maria was raised and lived through, she did have some great accomplishments. Well into the 1890's, a woman could not walk in the street alone, write her own check, and basically not do anything with out her husband. Maria managed to succeed in school, go to college, and become the first woman in Italy to graduate from medical school. Maria was almost eighty-two when she died in Noordwijk, Holland in 1952. Kramer wrote that Maria was, "no longer considered a major influence in education, but a historical relic," when she died (1976, p. 16).

Other books to help with research about Maria Montessori:


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