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Becoming a modern woman. The life of pioneer educator, teacher, author Lucy Sprague Mitchell

Lucy Sprague Mitchell, The Making of a Modern Woman, by Joyce Antler. New Haven: Yale University Press. 436 pp. $29.95. `EVERY stage of life has its song: My song has been a woman's song.'' This title appears on a collection of notes by Lucy Sprague Mitchell - writer, pioneer educator, social reformer, wife of noted economist Wesley Clair Mitchell, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother.

In her biography of this early leader in the field of young children's education, Joyce Antler, who chairs the women's studies program at Brandeis University, views Mrs. Mitchell's career from an admittedly feminist perspective. Antler sees the central problem of her life as ``a woman's creative struggle to resolve the conflict between demanding, innovative professional work and full engagement as a wife and mother.''

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Yet this is a solid, scholarly work, with careful notes, a complete index, and lists of published and unpublished sources. Using a rich lode of public and private documents - both Mitchells wrote extensively - Antler examines Mitchell's accomplishments in chronological detail.

And those accomplishments are considerable. A 1900 graduate of Radcliffe College, she became the first dean of women at the University of California at Berkeley. During her six years in that position, one of her major concerns was career opportunities for women, and this led to a different professional focus for her. With funds supplied by her cousin, Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, Mitchell established the Bureau of Educational Experiments in New York, to provide an interchange of information on new ideas about educating young children. The bureau evolved to become an experiment in cooperative teacher training that had roots in the theories of John Dewey. Later it was given degree-granting status as the Bank Street College of Education. The Bank Street Writers' Laboratory grew out of Mitchell's studies with children's language and gave writers an opportunity to explore new ideas about stories for young children. Mitchell's own ``Here and Now'' books, which emphasized everyday experiences, were popular for decades.

Antler's description of Mitchell's developing career emphasizes the significant part other women played in her work. This picture of professional women in the '20s belies the notion that commitment to a career is a recent phenomenon for women.

Although this book was not intended as a history of the development of child-centered education in the United States, it offers valuable documentation of a neglected field. But missing is any mention of another notable woman, whose work has some parallels with Mitchell's. Dr. Abigail Adams Eliot established the Nursery Training School of Boston after she had studied early childhood education in England. This school is older than Bank Street, provided classroom-based teacher training from the start, and exists today as the Eliot-Pearson department of child study at Tufts University.

Unlike many educated women of her period (only 5 percent of her Radcliffe class continued to work after marriage), Mitchell combined an active professional career with marriage and motherhood. After a courtship that spanned nearly four years and involved voluminous correspondence, she almost said ``no'' to Wesley Clair Mitchell because of her concern over the effect that marriage could have on her working life.

The effect, as Antler shows, was mutual support that enhanced both careers. The closeness of their companionship is poignantly seen in the fact that Mitchell wrote poems and notes to her husband almost every day of the 19 years she survived him.

Four children in five years - two her own and two adopted - gave Mitchell additional challenges in balancing the demands of family and professional work. With a supportive husband, good domestic help, living arrangements that allowed both parents to spend maximum free time with the children, and a career concerned with child growth and development, Mitchell was satisfied that she had achieved a wholesome family life as a complement to her work.

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But was she a good mother? asks Antler, who notes that Mitchell's grown children viewed her as somewhat lacking in warmth and supportiveness, despite their mother's well-documented involvement in the details of their childhood. Antler's question reflects a major issue for professional women today. Perhaps the response of Mitchell's youngest son is a valid answer: ``She did the very best she could possibly do.''

After a notable career studying how children learn, Mitchell looked at the learning stages in her own long life. As she organized her personal notes, she saw her lifelong learning as an ``amazing adventure,'' culminating in the discovery that old age had freed her to become more like her own ``essential'' self.

During Mitchell's nearly 90 years, American women gradually emerged from 19th century restrictions into the possibilities of the 20th century. Looking at her life, her challenges, and her choices deepens our understanding of what it means to be a woman. And what it means to be a fully realized person.

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