My sister and I grew up with young parents. Mum and Dad were 21 when I was born and 25 when my sister came along. They were both primary school teachers.
We grew up in the 70s, surrounded by 20-somethings – our parents and a slew of aunties and uncles – actual and honorary.
When I was in Year 2, I changed schools so I could attend the school where my mother taught. I gained more aunties, friends of my mother, women who I looked up to, women who were kind to me and let me be my precocious self.
They – and my mother – taught me that working in a professional role was normal for a woman. I had no idea then the type of blatant sexism they faced. Embarrassingly, I had no real idea what they faced until recently when my mum sent my sister and me an email.
This is what she wrote about her early years in the teaching profession:
I know you love stories about the women who work hard to make equality a reality. As you probably know, when your dad and I started our careers, women earned less, even though we were both teachers and had started working at the same time. The gap was significant – about $5000 per year.
Female teachers had to wear dresses, or skirts and high heels. No pants. Women were not entitled to maternity leave. Instead, we could resign and then re-apply for our jobs when we wanted to come back to work. I was fortunate enough to have 3 months at home with both of you before I had to go back to work. In staff rooms, we had assigned seats. There was an obvious and patriarchal hierarchy and at my first school. The men sat together and the women sat together.
Early on, I became a union member to help expedite a shift to equality.
What I did:
1) I worked diligently at my first school to ensure the female deputy principal allowed women to wear pant suits, especially with those who taught smaller children, and needed to sit on the floor at times.
Eventually, this policy passed and we could wear pant suits – on the proviso we did not just wear slacks and a top. When other schools found out, women there were allowed to wear pant suits a those schools as well. I suppose those women spoke up about the practically of it, like I did.
2) In the staff room, I refused to sit in ‘my spot’. I kept sitting in different chairs, because I knew that women should be able to talk to whoever they wanted, including the male staff members. Eventually, everyone moved about daily, and ignored the assigned seats policy. It was much more pleasant – we were all teachers, after all.
3) At another school, I worked hard to convince the principal that I could teach Science to all the senior primary students (Year 4, 5, and 6). At that time, this was considered a man’s job. I was successful; I got to teach Science.
4) As a Union Rep, I lobbied for better pay, better conditions, and more opportunities for women. I marched and I went on strike, along with many of the men and women I worked with. We lost pay, but we didn’t care. Our cause was too important.
5) At a rural school, only boys were allowed to wear pants, while girls had to wear skirts, even during the cold weather of winter. After many meetings with the administration and with the Parents and Citizens’ Committee (the P&C), we had a win and girls could also wear pants to school.
6) I initiated non-gender-biased clubs at every school I worked at. If girls wanted to learn about science, or if boys wanted to learn to sew, great. Any interested student was welcome and encouraged to develop their skills and interests.
7) At a school I taught at in Queensland, some sports were girls only or boys only. I fought to change that by working closely with the administration and the P&C.
8) As I taught in a lot of rural schools, there was often the issue of not having enough of one gender to fill a sports team. So, I introduced mixed teams at these schools. Then other schools started to do this. I was criticised, but again I didn’t care. Students were able to compete in sports that with other schools – that was what mattered.
9) For too many years, women were not considered competent or skilled enough to teach upper grades. I rejected this idea, and was fortunate to have support from many of my principals. I would ask for an upper grade, so I could prove that women could competently teach those grades.
I worked very hard to get equal pay equal and equal opportunities for women over the years. It wasn’t just me, but I was there, putting up my hand and speaking up. I was called names, told off, and ‘put in my place’. But that didn’t matter. I believe everyone deserves the chance to be equal in all things.
My conquests were small and some would say insignificant, but change happens when individuals – many individuals – stand up. The voice of one becomes the voice of many.
Thank you, mum, for leading the way, for taking a stand and surrounding us with wonderful female role models.
Thank you also to our dad, who is one of the most fervent feminists I know and who was an outstanding teacher. And thank you to our step-mum, who has only just retired after nearly 40 years as a teacher, and has also been a wonderful professional role model.
Side note: I taught for 14 years before changing professional direction in 2009. My sister is still a teacher – and so is her husband. #familyprofession