Girls Becoming Teachers: An Historical Analysis of Western Australian Women Teachers, 1911–1940

by Janina Trotman


Until the latter decades of the twentieth century historical works on Australian education tended, almost without exception, to not foreground gender. The revitalisation of feminism in both the social and academic worlds in the 1970s nurtured scholarship whose primary purpose was to place gender at the centre of policy and research. One strand of this project was to map the careers and structural positioning of women teachers. However, while this important advance brought an analytical lens to bear on what had been a significant lacuna in the history of education the emphasis on the overt structural and cultural exclusions faced by women who taught tended to perpetuate stereotypes of teaching and professionalism. Thus, women teachers were understood as victims of patriarchal bureaucratic systems. The possibility that women teachers had more complex and agentic lives was largely unexplored.

More recent scholarship has called for the need to investigate the subjective experiences of becoming and being a woman teacher thus creating a greater set of bounded studies which pay close attention to ethnic, class and regional differences as well as instances where women teachers exercised autonomy and resistance. A further significant development has been the insistence on the inclusion of ‘stories from below’ gathered through the biographical and autobiographical writings of women teachers as well as oral history testaments.

This book is part of that ongoing historical exploration of women teachers’ lives and makes a unique contribution. This is partly due to the location, Western Australia, and also in the focus on the process of becoming a woman teacher. Oral testimonies from twenty-four women teachers who graduated from the only Western Australian teachers’ college in the early twentieth century provide the personal perspective, while secondary sources, policy texts and institutional records are used to create the historical context.

The historical period in which book is set, 1911-1940, was characterised by intense and significant ideological and social reformation. In particular, the period has been identified as one of crisis in the formation of masculinities and femininities. This crisis held the potential for change in gender relations and for women’s participation in the professions, but there has been little scholarly investigation of the subjective experiences of girls and young women as they became teachers and constructed their identities and negotiated discontinuities in the discourses of femininity. Girls Becoming Teachers addresses this deficit by mapping the journeys of twenty-four Western Australian girls who became teachers in the first half of the twentieth century and lived within and between traditional and modern discourses of femininity. Starting with the family, the book moves on to schooling, the pre-college monitorship and then to Claremont Teachers’ College. The gender discourses circulating in these institutions are explored, and the contradictions between the traditional and the modern are revealed. The women’s testimonies provide insights on how these discourses shaped and entered their lived experience of daily life; were taken for granted or resisted.

This book challenges the assumption that families and schools unproblematically reproduced prevailing gender regimes. By becoming teachers, these women had been exposed to traditional expectations that they would accept masculine authority and eventually leave teaching to become wives and mothers. On the other hand they were also educated, encouraged to enter the teaching profession, and rewarded for their achievements. They learned to invest themselves in developing their rational and critical capacities. If they stayed in the profession they would have to remain spinsters, an apparently unacceptable social position. It might have seemed like an impossible choice but in the final chapter of the book Janina Trotman details the nature of these choices and the rich and varied lives of the women who made them.

Girls Becoming Teachers will appeal to a wide range of groups. Scholars engaged in researching gender, education and professionalism would find much of interest, as will those who investigate the construction of subjectivities. Since much of the book is based on oral testimonies it would be an important addition to an Oral History Collection. Finally, since stories are a source of pleasure and fascination, many teachers, both retired and in service would find the book a pleasure to read.


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