Friday, September 20, 2013

A Woman's Work Is Never Done - Meg Mims

My mother always said this, while raising six kids in the 1950-1960s. She chose to leave a bank clerk job and be a housewife. My grandmother, raised on a farm, worked in an office as a typist before getting married and staying home to raise her family. That trend went back to the 1800s, when girls were raised to marry and have children. Many chose to work first at a job before settling down with a husband. Many didn't have a prospective suitor. Or didn't want one.

But there wasn't much to choose from in terms of paid employment at the upper level of salary choices. Men dominated the professions such as being a physician, a lawyer, owning a business, etc. Of course, there were exceptions - but for the most part, women worked as domestics (maids, laundresses, cooks) or in factories or at home, often paid by the piece, either stripping tobacco, picking nuts, producing silk flowers or sewing, making lace, etc. They sometimes worked in millinery and dressmaker shops, or ... as teachers. It seems fitting, being September, to talk about women working as teachers.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister, Catherine Beecher, born in 1800 in a prominent family of social reformers, was self-taught and believed that women were natural teachers. Catherine became one in 1821 and was a co-founder of the Hartford Female Seminary - where women were trained  to be mothers and teachers. She also believed that teaching was far more important than the work of a doctor or lawyer - something I agree with - although she never supported suffrage. Still, for the early 1800s, she spurred progress for women to further their education and then pass that knowledge to children.

It seems many people agreed with Beecher. "God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems... very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price." -- Littleton School Committee, Littleton, Massachusetts, 1849

In urban schools, women taught and men were superintendents or principals. In western rural areas, men might have taken the lower pay of a teaching position if they had no other choice. School districts might have hired a man to teach the older children and a woman to handle the younger ones. If they could afford both, that is, depending on the school and settlement. And most schools were one-room, handling up to sixty children. Often there was little extra money for slates, books or even coal or wood for the stoves to heat the small schoolhouses in poorer settlements. 

Reading - utilizing the Bible, early primers or later MacGuffey's Reader - and grammar, arithmetic, geography and history were taught in schools, sometimes by teachers who had barely learned the same lessons. But while many consider the quality of lessons as basic or primitive, consider today's trend to skip spelling and grammar lessons (disappearing unfortunately). The extensive "figuring" lessons in measures and weights, basic accounting and other necessary math was vital to running a farm or a keeping a business afloat.

Women in the field appreciated the chance to live an independent life, and to earn wages - even if on a  temporary basis before marriage. By the turn of the century, 75% of teachers were women. My husband's aunt worked in a one-room schoolhouse with children ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. She swept the steps and classroom every day, fetched coal for the heating stove, brought extra food for kids going without breakfast/lunch (during late Depression) and handled discipline - but the children loved her since she made it fun to learn.
Rural North Dakota - above

To the right, a class of thirty children, possibly the same age (easier than thirty all at different grade levels), and their female teacher - at the Watkins School, Nashville, Tennessee, late 1800s.

Today, women still dominate the teaching profession. They do have the advantage of earning pensions, benefits and fairly decent wages - although for the work involved, they are still not paid enough (in my opinion.) We all have memories of our favorite teachers. God bless them all.


Meg Mims is an award-winning author with two western mysteries under her Eastern belt. She lives in Michigan, where the hills are like driveway slopes and trees block any type of prairie winds. LIKE her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or check out her books on her website. Double Crossing won the 2012 Spur Award for Best First Novel and Double or Nothing is the exciting sequel.


Caroline Clemmons said...

Well said, Meg. Teachers are still underpaid for the importance of their jobs. I'm sad to see spelling and grammar and geography lost to our current children. It reminds me of a sci-fi story my husband read in which it is several hundred years in the future and a man becomes famous because he figures out a way to add and subtract without a computer.

Alison E. Bruce said...

Teaching and nursing are two highly undervalued professions. Yet the health and education of a society is the best litmus test of it's vitality.

Ginger Jones Simpson said...

Your post reminded me of a passage in my own Western Historical where my heroine hoped to find a legitimate job, but the only avenue open to her was working in a saloon. Luckily, she opted to be the "songbird" but even that wasn't without it's trials and tribulations. Teaching was a male dominated career for so long, and most of them were mean. :)

Meg Mims said...

GEOGRAPHY!!! I forgot about that, and I looooved learning geography in school. One teacher used to scribble hand-drawn maps (so funny) and we got such a kick out of them. Thank goodness there's an APP for learning about U.S. geography - STACK THE STATES - I find it informative! I was rusty on the flags. LOL

Well said, Alison. And Ginger, I hear ya. Men *always* made more $ if they taught, and became the principals and superintendents also. Teachers need a lot more support and praise for all the work they do.

J.E.S. Hays said...

You know, doctors and lawyers and such always THINK they should get the top bucks -- but where did they learn those crafts? Right, from the lowly highly-underpaid teachers!

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