Martyr, Mommy, & Matriarch: Gender Scripts of Jewish Women in Educational Leadership

  • by: Miriam Hirsch Stern and Terry Astuto

Miriam Hirsch is an Assistant Professor of Education at Stern College, Yeshiva University. Terry Astuto is a Professor of Educational Administration at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, & Human Development, New York University.

Read “What is a Gender Script?” here.

This paper situates Jewish female educational leadership in the broader context of women in educational administration. Blackmore’s scholarship on gender scripts provides the conceptual background to interpret the lived experience of two contemporary Jewish female educational administrators. This paper begins with two narratives of Jewish female educational leadership developed from empirical research. Next, we interpret the cases to according to Blackmore’s set of eight gender scripts and suggest three new gender scripts for Jewish women in educational administration: Martyr, mommy, and matriarch.

Sometimes you feel like one more question, or one more concern, or one more criticism and your head is going to pop off and you think to yourself, I need to be removed from this, because I don’t ever want to say something that is impolite or rude, and unprofessional; it is better to just take a step back, and say o.k. I know I am tired. I have been pulled in one million directions this week, I need to just chill for a day. (Rivka)

The study of Tanakh yields powerful portrayals of our matriarchs and other female figures that lend shape and substance to our knowledge and understanding of female Jewish leadership practice. Historiography and biographical text on Grace Aguilar, Rebecca Gratz, Sarah Schneirer and Miriam Moses Cohen, provide a glimpse of several influential pioneers in the field of women in Jewish education. But what of our female Jewish educational leaders of today? What is the nature of their experiences, their challenges, their strategies? This article initiates the dialogue of contemporary women in Jewish educational leadership by presenting two narratives of North American Jewish female educational administrators. They do not represent the gamut of the experience of female Jewish educational leadership, rather, they serve as a focal point to begin the conversation.

The two narratives of Rivka and Sarah (pseudonymous) were constructed from research on a larger study of women in educational leadership during the spring of 2004. Blackmore’s (2002) set of eight gender scripts for women in educational leadership serves as the conceptual frame to interpret the findings (see sidebar). First, we present the narratives of Rivka and Sarah, two women in contemporary Jewish educational leadership. Then, we interpret their experiences through the lens of gender scripts and suggest three new gender scripts particular to the experience of female Jewish educational leadership. We conclude with recommendations for future research and inquiry.

Individual Profiles


A cheerful, intelligent, and reflective director of an early learning center (ELC) housed in a suburban Jewish community center (JCC), Rivka supervises a staff of 25 teachers and about 102 children aged 2.5 through kindergarten. She started her career as a home economics teacher in a local public junior high, but became disillusioned with the challenges of adolescent classroom management. On a lark she stopped in at the JCC to visit the director, a former mentor. The director needed an immediate substitute and Rivka was hooked. As the years passed she moved through the ranks to her current position of director. “I am kind of like the story of someone who came to dinner and never left.” This is her twenty-second year.

The day is filled with starts and stops. If a student appears ill, Rivka takes his temperature. Volunteers pop in with questions about the upcoming flower sale, and a father wants to know if the school refrigerator has room for his daughter’s birthday cake. A student has come to school in her pajamas and the teachers are perplexed. The phone rings constantly. Can a teacher take paint from the supply cabinet? The flow is discontinuous, the pace is rapid, and Rivka has no secretary or working computer. “I do everything longhand because I am archaic. I am fighting technology.”

The ELC has a very low teacher turn-over rate despite a two-year salary freeze.

Rivka explains:

Without sounding full of myself and egotistical, I think a lot of them are here because they respect me. They consider me fair and considerate and very compassionate. And they know how appreciative of them I am, and they also know that I, at every opportunity, let other people know that one of the biggest reasons the school is so successful is because of them.

She describes a further layer to this reciprocity: She holds herself accountable to the same criteria she establishes for her staff.

I need to be able to depend on you that you are going to show up, on time, ready to work, prepared . . . and I feel that I do, I get all of that from my staff, and I give all of that to my staff.

The dialectic between maintaining her strong work ethic and creating a caring community ricochets across her organizational field. She describes difficulties in confronting a teacher who is also a personal friend. “I knew that I needed really to talk to her and to say to her that you are getting lazy and sloppy . . . and it was very, very, very difficult.” At times she has to don her “boss” hat: “I am still the one who sits back here and the buck stops here.”

However, Rivka admits that when it comes to family issues she has a hard time saying “No,” and she is aware that she may be taken of advantage of. Unmarried, with no children, Rivka never thought that she would become an administrator. With so much of her self-esteem tied up in her work life, she may experience a more severe sense of disappointment or failure when things go awry.

Sometimes I will get in a funk and think, “Is anyone going to save this child? Is anybody going to hear what I am saying? Am I in the right profession? Why did I do this again?”


One of four assistant principals, Sarah has a background in learning disabilities, college instruction, teacher supervision, and curriculum development, but at the Berman Academy, a Jewish high school renown for its high Ivy League acceptance rate, she was hired to monitor attendance, discipline, extra-curricular activities, and scheduling. The climate of the school is intense. “Nobody says hello to each other.” Her morning is filled with calling kids into her office for assorted grievances and between classes she “sweeps” the halls moving students into class. Teachers stop by to talk about students and students stop by to talk about teachers.

Every day there is a mandatory meeting for all administrators, even if the topic doesn’t pertain to them. The principal does most of the talking and may also use this forum to express his dissatisfaction. “Now sometimes you get yelled at in the office, or you are told in front of everybody what you did wrong” She thinks her chatty, somewhat discursive style may be at odds with his more taciturn personality.

I am used to having principals that would walk in the morning, come in the morning, you say “Good Morning,” you schmooze for a while, you are social, you are all these different things, and there is a relationship there as far as “How are you today?” “What’s new in your family?” . . . that is not how he operates. I would come in the morning, and he didn’t want to say a word. It was like, “Don’t bother me.”

She realized that she must have initially driven him crazy because she kept trying to chat when he wanted to be left alone. “A few times he would yell at me, and I had never been yelled at in my life, professionally . . . I thought I was going to get fired.” Sarah does believe if she were male she’d receive less flack and has thought about leaving, but “people don’t like principals who move too rapidly, how was I going to explain being here a year?”

Sarah decided that the best approach to dealing with the fiery outbursts was to exercise restraint. “It had to really be thought out . . . I had to be strategic . . . I had to learn to back away.” While most colleagues told her to stand up for herself, Sarah didn’t feel that this was the right approach. “I chose to be careful, and to listen, not to always have to respond to something. I had to hold back.”

Sarah has also spent considerable energy transforming her job more to her liking through a path of subtle redirection. “I kept wanting to do education, and it wasn’t happening, and [the principal] kept saying, ‘We didn’t hire you for that.’” She continued with her responsibilities, incrementally expanding her role. She developed a book for incoming freshman, reorganized the school calendar, and through her interactions with students, found pockets of need.

By talking to the kids, and just inquiring a little more, and a little more, I found out about the kids, I found a kid whose family had no food, a family whose mother is so sick and there is no one there to help.

Eventually, the students, parents, and teachers started to see Sarah as their advocate. “Word started to spread . . . it was like, ‘Oh, you have a problem, call Sarah, she’ll help you.’”

Blackmore’s Gender Scripts

Blackmore’s (2002) gender scripts of Being Strong, Superwoman, Leadership over Love, Women’s Style of Leadership, and Power are apparent in both narratives. The gender script of Professional Success is reflected in Sarah’s experience, and the remaining two scripts, Postmodernist and Social Male, are not represented.

Still strong

Sarah maintains an image of resilience and resistance to the unpleasant verbal lashings she occasionally endures from her supervisor. While it seems somewhat complicitous (De Beauvoir, 1953/1989), there is no question that Sarah sports a suit of emotional amour to retain her position and her dignity. Rivka seems to experience this need for strength slightly differently, battling a sense of disappointment emerging from the frustrating inability to make a difference or get things done. She may have to take a day off from work, what she calls “a mental health day,” to restore her sanity.

Seeking Superwoman

Both Rivka and Sarah express the sense of exertion and exhaustion that comes from tackling an overwhelming workload. Sarah describes her office like a bakery: “Sometimes there are like twenty kids all waiting, all wanting something.” Rivka admits that while her official hours are 8:30-3:00, she rarely leaves before 5:00 and some days 6:00. “I change diapers, I work at the Purim carnival, and I clean up crayons.” These school leaders “manage the unexpected” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2001), whether it is a child in pajamas or in poverty. Says Rivka “I have a whole school to take care of and a business to run and a staff to take care of.”

Leadership with/over love

Both Rivka and Sarah are currently unmarried single women although both have strong connections to their families. Their narratives present a divisive split with respect to the way the women discuss emotional attachments within their organizational contexts. Rivka, unmarried and childless, often describes her school community as her second family. “This is my family, these are all of my children, and it is a great feeling for me.” In contrast, Sarah, a divorced mother and grandmother, is clear about the worker/family divide. She explains that if a teacher she has helped gives her a hug or a kiss in an expression of gratitude, an alarm sounds.

I don’t like this, because it is just not our relationship. I don’t want an intimate relationship; I don’t want to be her buddy. I want to care a whole lot about her, but I want to care about her because she is here.

Still in style

Rivka and Sarah share many of the key characteristics typically associated with female leadership practice. The focus on collaboration, communication, and responsiveness, the skill set of personalizing, listening, and validating, and the approaches of including multiple perspectives, putting children first, and espousing an ethic of care draft a leadership portrait that is in concert with the traditional scholarship on female leadership practice (Beck, 1992; Noddings, 1992; Restine, 1993; Regan & Brooks, 1995; Grogan, 1996).

Power play

Sarah’s artful use of complex feedback mechanisms to bolster her credibility and value to the school organization evidence remarkable displays of “female” power indirectly designed to gain organizational “brownie points”. Her subtly strategic responsiveness to students, teachers, and parents artfully circles back to her boss through indirect means. This deliberate strategy indicates an impressive power play. Rivka assumes power in concert with Blackmore’s (2002) gender script, “the knowledge of being female” (p. 61), with her targeted responsive reciprocity, but also exemplifies a bureaucratic understanding of power: “I am still the one who sits back here and the buck stops here.”

Professional success

Rivka describes how she serendipitously visited a mentor and stayed on for 22 years, more accidental than intentional. In contrast, Sarah is proud of the career trajectory that gradually moved her from the classroom to leadership positions across multiple school sites. Her profile manifests aspects of the professional success script that Rivka’s does not. In addition, Sarah denies that gender has previously played a role in any of her professional accomplishments. She remarks: “… it never dawned on me that being a woman is a negative or can hold you back.” She views her accomplishments and achievements as a consequence of individual effort, in line with the professional success script.

Unique Gender Scripts

The profiles present three additional gender scripts that are distinct from Blackmore’s (2002) set. They include: The martyr, the mommy, and the matriarch. We generate a description of each with specific examples supported from the narrative.

The martyr

This gender script revolves around the sense of self-sacrifice the leader exhibits toward the organization. This script extends beyond a sense of charitable giving of one’s energy and time toward a formal expression in the language of martyrdom. Rivka has no working computer or secretary near her office, and must use the JCC’s resources two flights away. She does not demand the technological necessities that would improve the image and efficiency of her leadership, stays at work beyond her defined hours, and assists with menial tasks. Rivka acknowledges that she is too soft with teachers and often doesn’t stand up for herself against parents – she would rather take a mental health day than say something impolite.

Sarah compromises both her own dignity and professionalism by allowing her boss to publicly flog her; there is an embarrassing message of, debasement, and discrimination that surrounds her professional accomplishments. She acknowledges that if she were male, she doesn’t think that she would be treated quite the same way, and rationalizes that holding back and not answering is her strategic response. The martyrdom that Sarah projects damages both her own ego and sense of worth, but also presents a destructive image of female subordination in front of all her colleagues

The mommy

This gender script reifies the role of the educational leader as “Head Mommy.” The language of both women reflects the pervasiveness of the metaphor. Rivka views the whole school as her family, and she at the helm is therefore the head mommy. Sarah describes the experience of the fast paced multi-tasking with the following simile:

It is like being the mother of 12 children, you know how that is, it is like being the mother of 600 kids and 100 teachers. They all need something and they all want something at one time, and sometimes I can’t breathe.

One may argue in the case of Rivka, director of an early learning center, that the work of early childhood education parallels the traditional mothering responsibilities of the home environment and that this gender script is therefore most relevant and appropriate for early childhood educational leadership. However, it seems that the issue at hand is not the leader’s relationship to the student or child, but the leader’s relationship to the adults in the mix: teachers, support staff, and parents. Rivka explains:

I feel that when the teachers walk by and they just see me sitting here, it is so much of a security blanket to them. They have this great sense that nothing can go wrong, because Rivka is sitting here. Which is very odd to me, because that is always how I felt about my mother.

Enomoto (2000) probes the complications of this gender script in her work with the metaphor of the leader as mother. She finds that the leader as mother metaphor highlights the woman’s work in child care, nurturing, and caring for others, but cautions that “the depiction of mother in a home environment implied that she was out of place if she was out of her home” (Enomoto, 2000, p. 392). Enomoto suggests that this metaphor reinforces the “inappropriate nature of mothering in management and leadership” (p. 392). Schools are responsible for child care, a surrogate extension of “mothering”, yet “mothering” by leaders is considered unprofessional. Thus the behaviors of caring and nurturing, while a primary component of the school agenda, devalue assumptions of the leader’s professionalism and competency. Particularly in the North American Jewish educational climate, where many parents feel that they are more knowledgeable than the teachers and administrators, the enactment of the leader as mommy may compromise institutional credibility.

The matriarch

This gender script shifts the female Jewish educational leader to the status of role model, the most prominent and visible symbol of moral and ethical virtue. Both Rivka and Sarah discuss the transformative power of this script with regard to appearance, behavior, and language, albeit within their respective contexts. Rivka views herself as the matriarch in terms of her orientation to her staff while Sarah applies the script in connection with her students.

Rivka’s focus on reciprocity and her firm work ethic reflect the matriarchal role model dimension. “I need to be able to depend on you that you are to show up, on time, ready to work prepared . . . and I feel that I do, I get all of that from my staff, and I give all of that to my staff.” The emphasis is also present in her conversations on respect and integrity: “I think they have a strong sense that I do respect them, and that I do depend on them, and I am honest with them, and so I get all of that back in return.” Rivka reminds her staff to dress and speak professionally, and always screens her language with attention to grammar, vocabulary, and educational research. Having come up through the system herself, from assistant to teacher to leader, the leader as matriarch script has additional resonance: “I have come up through the ranks, so I have a great sense of what my staff goes through.” Her own experience has prepared her for the status as role model.

Sarah employs the gender script of leader as matriarch most visibly in her relationship with the students. She describes the responsibility to act as a role model for the students with regard to age, gender, religion, and character. “A professional female, but is also into home and family . . . being a role model that you can be kind of like hip and fun at the same time, an older hip.” Sarah specifically reminds herself to smile when she feels “bummed out”, and modulates her voice only so loud.

Another aspect of the matriarch script concerns the leader’s awareness of geographical placement in the school environment. Sarah keeps a visible presence in the hallway between classes, and maintains an open-door policy to her office. Both strategies are designed to communicate accessibility. Similarly, Rivka stands at the entrance to the school every morning, her “greeting spot,” a tangible symbol of access and availability. She communicates the importance of this “Kodak moment” to the parents, encouraging the staff to stage the morning drop-off with equal attention: “That is what they take away with them for the day.”

And perhaps that is a primary message of the leader as matriarch script, underscored by the phrase, “what they take away with them.” The matriarch script highlights the staging of the female leader as visible symbol of effort, image, and character, which may have a transformative potential beyond the immediacy of the encounter. This gender script is aligned with our tradition of learning from the lives of our matriarchs and connecting our practices and understandings with lessons from their experiences and challenges. In contrast with the other two unique gender scripts, “leader as matriarch” emphasizes the educational and educative possibilities embedded in positions of leadership. This gender script may offer organizational and individual benefits that the others do not, for example, energizing the leader toward introspective behavior regarding decision making practices and professional choices with regard to both short and long term consequences. The matriarch script forces the question: What is the legacy of your leadership?


Gender scripts provide a way for educational leaders to interrogate and reflect on their practices, decisions, and the impact of their choices on a personal and professional basis. This research demonstrates that women in positions of Jewish educational leadership share several persistent gender scripts with women in the broader terrain of educational administration. This research also provides the field with additional gender scripts for reflection and analysis. The martyr, mommy, and matriarch scripts push us to consider treatment of women in all areas of Jewish educational leadership. What is the language and tone that contours the interactions between genders at multiple layers of the school hierarchy? Do we perpetuate organizational dynamics that devalue our educational professionalism and idealism? How do our leadership induction programs attend to issues of gender difference and the accompanying complexities that persist in Jewish educational organizations?

Clearly, more scholarship, discussion, and reflection are required to pursue these lines of inquiry with depth and substance. Particularly, the gender script of the leader as matriarch seems a fertile theme for more research and development. This script imbues concepts of community, care, responsibility, relationships, and decision making with individual and collective application. In contrast with the martyr or mommy scripts, the matriarch script speaks to the importance of human connectedness from a position of immediate and future potential.


Beck, L. G. (1992). Meeting the challenge of the future: The place of a caring ethic in educational administration. American Journal of Education, 100, 454-497.

Blackmore, J. (2002). Troubling women: The upsides and downsides of leadership and the new managerialism. In C. Reynolds (Ed.), Women and school leadership: International perspectives (pp. 49-69). Albany, SUNY Press.

De Beauvoir, S. (1989). The second sex. (H. M. Parshley, Trans.). New York: Knopf. (Original work published 1953).

Enomoto, E. (2000). Probing educational management as gendered: An examination through model and metaphor. Teachers College Record, 102(2), 375-397.

Grogan, M. (1996). Voices of women aspiring to the superintendency. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Regan, H. B & Brooks, G. (1995). Out of women’s experience: Creating relational leadership. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press.

Restine, L. N. (1993). Women in administration: Facilitators for change. Newbury Park, CA: Corwin Press.

Weick, K. & Sutcliffe (2001). Managing the unexpected. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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