Bloody Lessons: Victorian San Francisco Teachers–Part One

From the start, my plan for the series of mysteries set in Victorian San Francisco has been that each book should feature a different occupation held by women of that period. In Maids of Misfortune, my protagonist, Annie Fuller, goes undercover as a domestic servant, in Uneasy Spirits, she investigates a fraudulent trance medium, and in my short story, The Misses Moffet Mend a Marriage, the elderly seamstresses who live in Annie Fuller’s boarding house are on center stage. In Dandy Detects, it is another boarder, Barbara Hewett, who is the main protagonist.

BL_cover_800x1200_lrAnd it was while I was developing her background story, including her work as a teacher at the city’s Girls’ High, that I decided that my next full-length book after Uneasy Spirits would be about the teaching profession. In less than two weeks, that book, Bloody Lessons, will be published, and for those who like to know more about the historical background of my fiction, I am going post a multiple-part series on San Francisco teachers in the late 19th century. Most of this material is drawn from my dissertation, Like Machine or an Animal:’ Working Women of the Far West in the Late Nineteenth Century and the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Less than ten percent of all the women working in San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles in 1880 held jobs in the professions, and over ninety percent of them were teachers. Fifty years earlier school teaching had been dominated by men; women had begun to join the profession in significant numbers as full-time teachers only in the 1840s, and yet by 1880 over two thirds of the teachers in the United States were women.

“There were several reasons for the increasing importance of women in this profession in the period. The spread of the common school movement, which worked toward the establishment of public schools, had produced an accelerating demand for teachers. Men, who had traditionally taught in the public and private schools of the nation, could no longer adequately fill this demand, at least not at a price that the small budgets of public schools could handle. As a result, the hiring of women as teachers at lower rates of pay seemed a practical solution to the problems facing financially-strapped communities. Catherine Beecher, one of the earliest promoters of women as teachers stressed the advantages of accepting female teachers, writing at one point, ‘…women can afford to teach for one-half, or even less, the salary which men would ask…’

“Whether or not this view was correct, just as the demand for female teachers rose, there was an increasing number of women available and eager to meet this demand. The middle-and late-nineteenth century witnessed the expansion of institutions of higher learning for women, and more women were attending high schools, normal schools, and colleges. Teaching was a logical outlet for those women who wished to do something practical with their learning before settling down to marriage. At the same time, the middle classes were beginning to view teaching as a more respectable occupation for young women. The historical debate over the negative and positive effects of the ‘cult of domesticity’ still rages, but it is clear that activities, like teaching, that could be easily identified as an extension of maternal or domestic roles became more accepted pursuits for women in this period. Women who taught, particularly if they taught in the elementary grades, were seen as simply applying (or practicing) their maternal talents outside the home.”

“Western school boards hired women as teachers for all of these reasons. Urban leaders in the Far West felt that it was imperative to provide up-to-date institutions in their cities to prove that their region was a modern as the East. With rapidly growing populations, however, it was often difficult to secure the funds necessary to set up good public school systems. All three cities witnessed battles over the issue of school funding in the 1850s and 1860s; hiring women seemed an acceptable solution to these problems in the Far West as well.

“Even after the passage of a California law in 1874 that states, ‘Females employed as teachers in the public schools of this State, shall in all cases receive the same compensation as is allowed male teachers for like services, when holding the same grade certificates,’ the average salaries of women teaching in California were substantially lower than those made by males. For example, in 1879 a woman’s average monthly salary of between $70 and $80 was $50 a month less than a man’s. The ineffectiveness of the state law explains this differential in part, but the fact that women were usually limited to teaching in the lower-paying, elementary and primary grades while men were more likely to hold jobs as administrators of high school teachers explains most of the difference.” — “Like Machine or an Animal:’ Working Women of the Far West in the Late Nineteenth Century”

While I knew the general outline of the problems facing women teachers from my dissertation work, the research I did last year in preparation for writing Bloody Lessons proved extremely enlightening. A search of the San Francisco Chronicle for 1879-1880 exposed the fact that in December 1879, just a month before Bloody Lessons opens, the newly elected city school board, in an attempt to cut the costs of public education, slashed the salaries of the primary school teachers––in some cases cutting their monthly salaries in half. Previously, a teacher’s salary was determined by the grade they taught (lower grades, lower salary), supplemented by the number of years teaching experience they had and what level of teaching certificate they had obtained through a statewide examination. Now, the base salary of primary school teachers base was lowered and their experience and training would not be taken into consideration.

This decision was made by a slender majority of the School Board, and it caused an uproar among the teachers and their supporters, culminating in a mass meeting held December 21, in the Metropolitan Temple (the large Baptist church founded by Rev. Isaac Kalloch, who had just been elected mayor of San Francisco.)

Teachers, principals, and the board members who had voted against the measure spoke out against the cut in salaries. Over and over, women testified that the new salary of $46.50 a month was not enough for a woman to live on, stressing that many of them were either entirely self-supporting or, even worse, were the sole support of widowed mothers. (My own study found that 30% of the women in San Francisco who held teaching jobs lived at home with unemployed parents–reinforcing the women’s testimony.)

They also argued that the new method of calculating salaries would drive the most experienced teachers out of the city’s public school system––or force them to refuse positions in the primary school grades.

However, it was clear from the Board’s decision to cut salary of the teachers in the lowest grades the most (and another proposal to have unpaid Normal school students substitute in these grades), that these men had accepted the common rational for paying women less––that women were simply exercising their natural maternal instincts with young students––hence their experience or education shouldn’t count.

Several of the teachers and principals directly addressed this idea in the mass meeting, one stating that “…the real work lies in the primary grades, where the groundwork for the pupil’s education is formed…” while another said, “Little children of six to ten years of age much be studies and carefully handled, and it is only after years of experience that any teacher can successfully cope with the difficulties of a class of very young children.” San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 1879

The Board did not step back from its decision, causing one young woman to suggest that the teachers go out on strike, and in March a bill call the Traylor Act passed the state legislature rolling back the salary cuts. Yet, when the law’s constitutionality was questioned the Board withheld these teachers’ entire pay until halfway through the next summer, causing great economic difficulties for teachers and those how who depended on their income. San Francisco Chronicle, July 29, 1880

As a retired teacher, I must say I found this battle over teachers’ salaries distressingly familiar, echoing the recent controversies and cut-back facing public school teachers throughout the nation. There was even an “Anti-Tax Pledge” that all the Republican School Board members had taken during the previous election that had prompted the cut in salaries.

However, as a novelist, I couldn’t have been happier. I wasn’t going to have to invent a sense of crisis among my characters, it was already there, waiting for me to discover and turn into a mystery plot as I wrote Bloody Lessons.

M. Louisa Locke

Bloody Lessons the third book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series is due out September 15 in print and ebook on Kindle, and it is available for pre-order here.

2 thoughts on “Bloody Lessons: Victorian San Francisco Teachers–Part One

  1. I really enjoy your historical background posts. This one sent me off on a quest to find out more about Isaac Kalloch. As you might guess from my nom de plume, I am particularly fascinated by religious leaders who become involved in politics. Kalloch certainly had a colorful career.

  2. Reblogged this on Crazy Normal – the Classroom Exposé and commented:
    Proof from author M. Louisa Locke that America has abused its teachers for more than a century. Click and read her entire post. After reading Locke’s post, President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” makes sense—just more abuse of teachers. America has always had someone to kick around and blame for cultural flaws and problems, and in the early 21st century, teachers have been the target more than ever.

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