N THE LATE 19th AND EARLY 20th CENTURIES thousands of women across Canada & the U.S. sought a measure of independence and financial security in one of the few avenues open to them — teaching. Among them were several Switzer-Merrill ancestors including my grandmother & both great-grandmothers. For the latter, their careers began after passing a country schoolteacher’s exam, were spent within their home communities, and came to an abrupt end when they married. In my grandmother’s case the road to the classroom, and her experiences there, were quite different.1
Normal Schools: From the Classroom to the Classroom
By the time Grace Merrill decided to become a teacher formal training was required and after graduating from Western Illinois Normal School at Macomb she began her career in 1913. Her first position was in Viola, Illinois where she was paid the princely sum of $55 a month — about half of what male teachers earned2 — and had no pension or job security. Over the next 4 years she would change positions 3 times in as many states, before returning to Illinois in 1918.
These gypsy-like movements may have been the result of that poor job security or just a desire on my grandmother’s part to exercise her independence and see a bit of the world. Regardless, wherever she worked she was ruled by administrations that were almost exclusively male and her conduct in and out of school was closely monitored and rigidly controlled. Living arrangements were either with the families of her students — sometimes moving from one home to another — or perhaps in a teacherage which was often little more than a shack lacking even basic comforts.
After finishing a two-year contract in Stephen, Minnesota she spent the summer of 1916 in Airdrie, Alberta with her parents3 (who had emigrated the year before) returning to the U.S. in the fall to teach in Apgar, Montana. The following year she was in Sandpoint, Idaho and the year after that, Rock Island, Illinois. By then her pay had risen to $90 a month and she'd moved from one-room schoolhouses to a large departmental school but little else had changed. It was during this time she renewed her friendship with my grandfather and the prospect of marriage entered the equation. A situation that still had a profound effect on most female teachers' careers4.
After marrying on March 4, 1921 my grandparents rented a farm located a stone's throw from the Pleasant Hill country school in McDonough county, Illinois. Here my grandmother finished out the school year in what would be her final teaching postion. She was excited to be earning extra money by taking on the janitor duties but must have known her days in the classroom were numbered. By the time summer rolled around she was pregnant and while the local school board may have tolerated a married teacher, a pregnant one was a different story entirely. Her teaching days were done. Or were they? With six children arriving over the next 10 years and decades of child-rearing ahead of her, maybe her most important teaching had only just begun.
Fearless Females: 31 Days of Blogging Prompts
All March posts are in celebration of Women's History Month and inspired by Lisa Alzo's 31 inspirational writing prompts. Visit her blog at The Accidental Genealogist.