This is a short blog post to mark International Women’s Day, March 8th 2017. It gives an all-too-brief overview of the role of women, both as teachers and pupils in the Irish Education System through the 19th and 20th century.
The history of formal education for Irish women has been characterised by a dichotomy: should a girl be educated for the private sphere and a dutiful subservience, or should she be educated for independent thought and paid employment? Nonetheless, Ireland’s long history of patriarchy is matched by an ongoing evolution of its women’s movements. The first wave of the Irish women’s movement dates from the mid-19th century, with the franchise secured for women in 1918 while still under British colonial rule. First-wave feminists played a role in the nationalist movement, but their demands were later side-lined during the construction of a conservative, Catholic, post-colonial Irish state. In the 1970s, the second wave marked a critical period of radicalism and consolidation, with important gains on issues of violence against women and women’s reproductive rights.
Through this time however, professional opportunities for women were, realistically, greatly restricted. Nonetheless, Irish girls and women of all social classes, were leaving home to take part in public life – work, schooling, buying and selling, activism and entertainment. National school teaching was considered a great career opportunity for girls from skilled working-class and small-farming backgrounds in Ireland. On-the-job training was sometimes paid, and scholarships were increasingly available. Thus, the burden on low-income parents was bearable.
Unlike other positions in the Civil Service at the turn of the 20th century, National school teaching was a lifelong job; the marriage bar was only introduced in 1933 for those qualifying on or after that date. At this time, the National Board put great emphasis on teacher training; Ireland was not short of teachers or schools as anyone could open a school and expect a modest income. The figures below indicate the exponential growth in the opening of national Schools through the 1830s and 1840s in Ireland:
Year No. of Schools in Operation
This work was considered suitable for women whether spinsters or widows. If they knew how to read and write, they were considered equipped to teach.