The challenge facing women teachers

Until the Sex Disqualification Removal Act was passed in 1919, married women were not allowed to work as teachers. The act should, in theory, have meant greater equality for women entering the profession, but in the 1920s, working women were frowned upon as there were so many men on the dole.

The authorities used 'marriage bars' to prevent married women working as teachers. This rule meant that if a woman teacher married, she had to resign from her job; if she was already married, she was sacked. Some women found a way around the marriage bars by marrying in secret and then living apart from their husband, or by having a very long engagement. Marriage bars in teaching weren't lifted until 1944.

'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 by saying: "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 Times Education Supplement 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It was not until 1944 that the law was finally repealed in R A Butler's landmark Act.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.

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