Feature

Looking Back: Women's History in Ontario Teacher Federations

Mary Morison

On April 3, 1918, representatives from women’s teacher groups across the province formed the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario (FWTAO) “to promote the professional and financial status of women teachers.”

Early Militancy

In the first year of its existence, more than one third of women elementary teachers – 4,236 out of a total of 11,359 – joined FWTAO.

In 1919, they set $650 as the minimum salary and urged their colleagues not to undercut others by accepting lower pay. They believed salary levels should increase with experience, and worked to put women’s issues before school trustees and other decision makers.

In 1922, when women teachers in Owen Sound threatened a strike, the board increased their maximum salary to $1,200. Not all women teachers were as successful. Many who called for higher pay met opposition not only from their boards but also from their male colleagues who claimed they deserved higher salaries because they taught older students, coached sports and had families to support.

But men with no dependents also received higher pay. Moreover, studies have shown that many women, although single, were supporting the family farm, elderly or disabled relatives or younger siblings.

The women’s early successes, in combination with a growing anti-union sentiment in the country, created a backlash. There was still ambivalence about women doing paid work. They didn’t fit society’s expectations that women be models of silent self-sacrifice. Newspaper editorialists who had once been supportive now called these women teachers radicals and socialists. Even former allies in the suffrage movement thought their teacher sisters were going too far.

These attitudes, a post-war recession and the 1929 stock market crash reversed many early successes.

Between 1930 and 1936, the pay of male teachers was cut by about 38 percent while the already lower salaries of women were cut by 55 percent. Women also experienced more job losses. In 1939, there were 1,486 more men teaching than 10 years earlier but 1,303 fewer women, a trend that would reoccur when enrolments declined in the 1970s.

Work and Marriage

WWII changed the attitudes to women’s work. As men joined the military, first single women, then married women, then married women with children, did their patriotic duty and entered the labour force. When the war ended and the men returned, women who had built airplanes, harvested crops, driven streetcars, run businesses and taught school, went home – either willingly or as a result of layoffs. The federal government cancelled childcare subsidies and barred married women from the civil service. Just as it had been their patriotic duty to enter the workforce during the war, it was now women’s duty to return to marriage and homemaking.

RELATED STORIES

woman passionately speaking at podium

As a teacher of three years and a current participant in ETFO’s Leaders for Tomorrow program, I am truly impressed with the opportunity I have to gain new insight to the issues that we, as women, face and the progress we have made. 

etfo members watching a speaker

Donna Dasko is uniquely positioned to talk about women and politics. She is the senior vice-president of public affairs at the Environics Research Group, one of Canada’s best known and most highly respected public opinion research firms.