Bloody Lessons: Victorian San Francisco Teachers–Part Three

This is the final part of my 3-part series on San Francisco teachers in 1880. I hope it helps deepen your enjoyment of Bloody Lessons, the third book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery Series.

“Who were the women who did succeed in passing their examinations and securing jobs in San Francisco, Portland, or Los Angeles? And, what were their jobs like once they got them? Over eighty percent of the female teachers in these three cities in 1880 were single, and over two thirds of them were single and under the age of thirty. In Portland and Los Angeles, over two thirds of the female teachers had native-born parents. Nearly three quarters of the young single women teaching in (San Francisco) were either foreign-born or of foreign parentage, and a least a third of those who lived at home came from working class families.

“For young single women from immigrant or working-class backgrounds, the possession of a teaching job, with its high pay and middle class surroundings, may have represented a worthwhile improvement in status. Yet cultural strictures against higher education for women could create tensions for some of the young immigrant women who chose this occupation. Rebecca Kohut, who lived in San Francisco in this period, came under sharp criticism from her father’s Jewish congregation when she decided to go to the University of California to prepare to become a teacher. Moreover, the pressure to appear sufficiently ‘Americanized’ or middle class in dress, demeanor, and social behavior could prove a severe strain on a young woman from a working-class or immigrant background.

“Some of the young single women teaching in the Far West who came from middle-class and upper-class families probably saw their work as at least an enjoyable method of filling their time until marriage, or as a way to gain a little money of their own, or perhaps even as a vocation; for others, joining the work force was a matter of necessity. The economy went through periodic downturns in the Far West as elsewhere, and in a time when speculation was rampant, it was not unusual for prosperous merchant of professional to find himself in severe economic difficulties. As a result, daughters mar might suddenly find themselves expected to go to work to help their families survive the temporary, if not permanent reversals in fortunes, Moreover, when a young woman’s father died, her whole family often faced severe economic trials. It is quite possible, therefore, that a number of the young women teaching in the schools of San Francisco, Portland, and Los Angeles in 1880, particularly among those living with unemployed, widowed mothers, were doing so not out of choice but out of necessity. The young women might have seen their jobs as teachers a loss in status, a loss that the ‘genteel’ nature of the job could only partly assuage.

“Along with higher pay and shorter working days, teaching offered advantages over most other forms of female employment because it provided some chance of advancement, even within the smaller cities, Not only could women qualify for higher salaries by getting higher grade teaching certificates or teaching at the high school level, but some women held positions as special school assistants, vice-principals, principals, or even school superintendents, each of these jobs bringing with it an increase in salary and prestige.

“If high wages, shorter hours, and possibilities of advancement constituted some of the major advantages of teaching as an occupation for women, there were difficulties with the job as well. In San Francisco, teachers also faced such problems as outmoded examination systems and meddling bureaucrats, but they faced over-crowded classrooms as well. Throughout the San Francisco city schools in 1879, the teacher to student ration for the grammar and primary grade was 1 to 46, and some schools had as many as 54 students per classroom. In the large urban environment of San Francisco, with substantial numbers of working class and immigrant children attending school, classrooms of this size could severely restrict a teachers’ ability to teach.” Like Machine or an Animal:’ Working Women of the Far West in the Late Nineteenth Century”

As I developed the characters in Bloody Lessons, I didn’t consciously make them mirror the demographics of San Francisco teachers. However, the historical facts probably influenced me. As were most teachers in the nation in 1880, key characters–Nate Dawson’s sister, Laura, and her friend Hattie Wilks–are under the age of thirty, single, and native born of native heritage. At the same time, two of the main male teachers that show up in Bloody Lessons, taught in the higher grades and also had administrative roles as vice-principals, which was the common pattern (then as well as now!). This is why the average salary for men who taught in San Francisco was $50 a month more than the average salary for women.

And while a third of the female teachers in the city were either married or had been married, which was true for the characters Barbara Hewitt and Dorthea Anderson, the attitude that was expressed in the book that somehow a woman with children shouldn’t be teaching reflected real historical attitudes. Teaching was supposed to be the job held by young single woman who were waiting to marry, or reserved for the poor women who never caught a husband and lived the rest of their lives as “old maids.”

When I created Kitty Blaine (who was studying to become a teacher) and decided to make her the daughter of Irish immigrants, I was doing so primarily for plot reasons, but this was another case where my fictional creation was grounded in historical reality. While the national pattern (and the pattern found in both Los Angeles and Portland Oregon in 1880) was for teachers to be of native-born parentage, in San Francisco in 1880, 72% of the young single teachers (like Kitty) were born of foreign-born parents.

I remembered being quite surprised as I analyzed the data for my dissertation to discover how many of the teachers were of Irish heritage. I speculated that since one of the reasons a significant number of young Irish men got police jobs in the city was the dominant role the Irish played in city politics, it shouldn’t be surprising that a good number of young Irish women ended up as teachers.

I would never suggest that an author create a book “by the numbers,” making sure that a certain percentage of the characters fit a particular demographic pattern. But I do think that when you write historical fiction it is useful to be aware of those demographic patterns. Probably only a hand-full of people in the nation would know that Kitty Blaine’s Irish heritage and her desire to become a teacher was historically accurate, but as I created her, knowing she was grounded in reality helped her seem more real to me. And that is always the key. We need to believe in our characters if we are going to make them live in the imaginations of others.

Only two days to go, and Bloody Lessons will be available for sale, September 15. If you want to make sure it is on your Kindle, ready to read, Sunday morning, you might think about pre-ordering here.

5 Replies to “Bloody Lessons: Victorian San Francisco Teachers–Part Three”

  1. I have loved this this three part post!

    And I love that your characters are so rooted in fact. Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful knowledge of historical SF.

    1. Thanks!

      I am never sure whether I am boring my readers when I get in professional historian mode, but I know that I like learning the background to the books I read, so I hope that some of you feel the same.

      Mary Louisa

      1. Your historical references are what makes your books so unique and adds the background to attitudes that persist to this day regarding the teaching profession. I am referring to Bloody Lessons, specifically.
        My book club will be discussing Bloody Lessons in September. Do you have a book/ discussion guide available for this novel? All of us, in the book club, are teachers or retired teachers.
        Have read all your books/ short stories.
        Thank you,
        Carole Campagna

      2. Dear Carole,

        I don’t have questions, but I would be glad to come up with a few. I will email them to you, and maybe put them up on my website…I realized I have some questions for Maids I never put up. Good reminder to do so!

        Thanks for asking,

        Mary Louisa

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