Feature

Looking Back: Women's History in Ontario Teacher Federations

Mary Morison

Excerpted by Mary Morison from “It’s Elementary: A Brief History of Public Elementary Teachers and Their Federations.” Barbara Richter, ETFO, 2008.

Eighty-one percent of the members of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) are women and, in many ways, the history of women teachers reflects the struggles of all Canadian women. Women in the paid workforce face challenges. They get pregnant. They do more work at home including child care and elder care. They are more vulnerable to violence and harassment at home and at work. And they are underrepresented in positions of power – in boardrooms, legislatures, courtrooms, union governing bodies and school boards. That was true 150 years ago and remains true today.

Women have made up the majority of elementary public school teachers since 1880, but their initial acceptance into teaching some 40 years earlier was the subject of controversy. In the 1840s, options for women who wanted or needed to work outside the home were limited mainly to what were considered subordinate or nurturing roles – domestic service, factory work, nursing. In 1865, Egerton Ryerson, an educator, politician and public education advocate in early Ontario, wrote that women were “best adapted to teach small children, having, as a general rule, most heart, most tender feelings, most assiduity, and, in the order of Providence, the qualities best suited for the care, instruction and government of infancy and childhood.”

Since teachers of younger children were paid less, boards could save money by hiring young women for primary classes while offering higher salaries to men teaching higher grades. When men married they received bonuses or promotions; when women married they were told to go home. Their limited time in the workforce meant women accrued fewer increments, exercised less influence and had fewer opportunities for advancement.

Feminism ’s First Wave – Women Teachers Begin to Organize!

Increased immigration, industrialization and urbanization brought changes to Canada’s social structure in the latter half of the 19th century. Women started to organize.

The “first wave” of feminism, the suffrage movement, helped open the doors for women to universities and the professions, and resulted in women winning the right to vote in 1918.

In 1888, eight women formed the Lady Teachers’ Association of Toronto, later called the Women Teachers’ Association (WTA) of Toronto. The group’s aims were “the social and mutual benefit of its members, the advancement of the interests of the Toronto lady teachers and the profession generally.” The WTA established a sick leave fund and worked for better salaries. Women teachers in London, Galt, Ottawa, Peterborough, Hamilton, Chatham, Port Arthur, St. Thomas, North Bay and Prescott formed similar associations.

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