When women were second-class teachers

22nd December 2000 at 00:00
Four former schoolmistresses, now in their eighties, talk to Leala Padmanabhan of the era when marriage was forbidden and prejudice was enshrined in law

"THE duty of a married woman is primarily to look after her domestic concerns and it is impossible for her to do so and to effectively and satisfactorily act as a teacher at the same time."

This statement, by a senior British judge in 1925, reflected the harsh reality faced by thousands of women teachers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The law dictated that female public servants who married were not allowed to keep their posts. A Dorset schoolmistress who attempted to challenge the law was slapped down in the 1925 Appeal Court ruling, which continued: "It is unfair to the large number of young unmarried teachers seeking situations that the positions should be occupied by married women, who presumably have husbands capable of maintaining them."

According to Professor Ted Wragg, of Exeter University: "It was pure prejudice enshrined in law. Women were simply expected to be at home to get their husband's tea ready."

Two years later the Commons rejected another attempt to overturn the law. The TES commented: "The woman teacher who marries has not lost the benefit of her training or experience. It will be a substantial asset throughout her married life."

It was not until 1944 that the law was finally repealed in R A Butler's landmark Act. But that was too late for women who had been prevented from marrying, many of whom faced poverty in old age as they had no family to support them.

The Teachers' Benevolent Fund, a charity that still supports the profession,set up retirement homes to help former teachers without families.

Most have closed and the few that remain now admit pensioners from all walks of life. But the Lodge in Scarborough still has a strong ex-teacher contingent, including four women in their eighties - Joan Stacey, Molly Radcliffe, Doris Weatherhead and Margaret Gregory.

Miss Stacey, 83, was engaged and faced having to resign. By the time the law was repealed, her fiance had been killed in the Second World War and she had decided to devote her life to teaching. She retired 20 years ago after spending most of her career teaching maths and PE in a challenging, mixed secondary modern in Coventry.

"It took many years for men to tolerate us women," she says. "Men could be very condescending. They would scorn older women, and say: 'Poor old dear, she's not married.' We suffered from the Miss Jean Brodie image of the spinster teacher."

Molly Radcliffe, an 81-year-old retired art teacher, owes her career to her education at the North London Collegiate School for Ladies. "If I hadn't gone there I'd never have had the chance of a profession," she says. "It wasn't easy to be a woman in a man's world but at least I had some independence."

All four women were grateful for the chance to earn, though they were paid much less than their male counterparts. Equal pay in teaching was not brought in until 1961.

But the stresses (classes of over 50, wartime lessons in air-raid shelters) were outweighed by the rewards of teaching. "These days teachers seem to have all sorts of different stresses," says Miss Stacey. "My advice to them is to keep a sense of humour."


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