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Women and Education

By the early 20th century, an era of massive newcomer arrival to Saskatchewan, formal barriers to female education had largely disappeared. Still operating, however, were social expectations and assumptions, shaped by ethno-cultural and class considerations: perceptions differed as to the value of female education and its proper nature. Most Saskatchewan youth at the time secured only a basic education, a few years at best—perhaps only intermittent sessions determined by family farm obligations. What is now called secondary education was also available to female students, but only in larger communities or in schools run by religious orders; among the latter were female-only institutions. Only a minority of females (as well as males) went to these institutions, let alone graduated, until well into the 20th century. As for university education, the University of Saskatchewan, which officially opened in 1913, always admitted women (though until 1915 for the College of Agriculture); but few enrolled, forming a far smaller percentage of the student body than in the secondary institutions. Initially, even though it was above the national average, only about 17% of the university student body was female. Increases did occur, and starting in the 1950s female participation began to rise significantly. Now the two universities in Saskatoon and Regina have slightly more female than male undergraduate students. Gendered expectations still operate: women tend to concentrate in certain areas like education, social work and the humanities, although law and engineering also have significantly more female students today.

The curriculum female students have been taught has been affected by gender considerations. Historically, female education in Saskatchewan was largely linked to the presumed proper destiny of women: marriage, with its associated roles of mother, wife, and homemaker. An undercurrent was the acquisition of income-earning skills, so that a women could, if necessary, support herself. At the elementary level, the three “Rs” were taught to all, but disagreements arose about subsequent curriculum. By the early 20th century, domestic (or household) science appeared to be the answer to the vexed question of what to teach females: courses were instituted in the existing educational system, particularly in the larger urban schools; the University of Saskatchewan offered the first classes in domestic science in 1917; and the School of Household Science was established in 1928. This new “science” was also made available to rural and farm women through University Extension and the Homemakers Clubs. Opportunities also developed for the female minority requiring educational qualifications for work deemed suitable for women. Especially favoured was elementary teaching, and many women attended the short courses as well as lengthier programs offered through the Normal Schools (which continued into the mid-20th century). Young women might also train as nurses, a respectable female occupation by the 20th century, learning their craft at nursing schools that the newly established hospitals set up and maintained until training was taken over in the late 20th century by technical institutes and universities. As the need for office workers grew, many secondary institutions offered business and commercial courses for women. New social demands also led to the emergence of proprietary schools, some run by women, which provided for example beauty parlour training as well as secretarial and stenography courses. By the late 20th century, training for women for what were called “non-traditional” trades, such as carpentry and motor mechanics, was possible.

Women’s involvement in education has been heavily gendered. Since the latter 19th century, women had been viewed as natural teachers of young children (and were expected to accept half the pay of a male teacher). Working as a “schoolmarm” was deemed a suitable job for a young single woman with some education who sought to earn a living and enjoy some degree of financial independence. Such women became rural elementary schoolteachers in one-room schools. The work, if sometimes rewarding, was also difficult: working and living conditions were often primitive, and the morals of single female teachers were constantly scrutinized by local school boards and members of the community. Few stayed in such inhospitable environments, many choosing to leave to marry a local farmer or to seek another job, perhaps in a better- equipped school in a more established community. City teachers sometimes attempted to upgrade their profession, as with the Saskatoon Women Teachers’ Association, formed in 1918. Improvements in working conditions came slowly; also, teacher shortages and changing attitudes ended single women’s dominance during the postwar decades. Now the majority of female school teachers are married and have families—something not allowed before World War II.

Before 1939, the female secondary school teacher was a rare phenomenon: men dominated instruction at this level and received higher salaries than female teachers. Unusually well-educated women, like E. Don Cathro and Helena B. Marsters (later Walker—see Helena Walker) in Regina, filled a few positions in the collegiate institutes that were established before World War I. Better paid than their elementary school counterparts until 1973, when wage parity was attained, their pay was still below that of male teachers; women, often with families, have now become the norm at the secondary level. Although men dominated secondary teacher training after the war and into the 1970s, they are now once again very much the minority in both elementary and secondary school training in Saskatchewan. At the University of Saskatchewan, only a handful taught: the University was a man’s world; until 1947 women were allowed in the Faculty Club only once a year. Even so, the Saskatchewan record in this regard was better than the national average for the years between 1920 and 1974, when it began to lag. Among the faculty were women like Mabel Timlin and Hilda Neatby, who established national reputations. Even now, women still constitute a minority in higher education and tend to be over-represented in part-time or inferior positions at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina.

Outside the classroom, women until recently have had few opportunities. Historically, female principals have been few, and likely in charge only at the elementary level. In the past, the occasional woman doing pioneering work found a place: Catherine Sheldon-Williams, for example, while working for the Department of Education started the Outpost Correspondence School in 1925; this was the beginning of the provincial Correspondence School designed to provide educational opportunities to those in sparsely settled or remote areas. As the educational bureaucracy has expanded, more women now occupy positions of responsibility in high schools, as directors or superintendents of education, and as managers and directors in the provincial department of education. Despite the significant changes of recent decades, the result in part of the impact of feminism, the world of women and education is in many respects still a gendered one.

Ann Leger-Anderson

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Further Reading

Corman, J. 2002. “Returning to the Classroom: Married Women Fill the Void for Teachers in Saskatchewan,” Atlantis 27: 81–90; Hallman, D.M. 1997. “Telling Tales in and out of School: Twentieth Century Women Teachers in Saskatchewan” Saskatchewan History 49: 3–17; Poelzer, I. 1990. Saskatchewan Women Teachers, 1905–1920: Their Contributions. Saskatoon: Lindenblatt and Hamonic.
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