Girls Becoming Teachers. An Historical Analysis of Western Australian Women Teachers, 1911‐1940

Anne Price (Murdoch University)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 14 October 2011



Price, A. (2011), "Girls Becoming Teachers. An Historical Analysis of Western Australian Women Teachers, 1911‐1940", History of Education Review, Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 193-195.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The life stories of 24 retired women teachers are the focus of this intriguing book by Janina Trotman. Set in Western Australia between the years 1914‐1940, the book traces their lives, experiences and views about “becoming and being” teachers from childhood through to the present. All of the women trained to become teachers through various teacher preparation programs at Claremont Teachers’ College, the first teacher training institution established in Western Australia.

The book provides a unique insight not only into the lives of these women during times of tremendous social, political and economic change but also the shifting approaches to education and in particular teacher education. A central theme is the way in which women teacher identities were shaped by and in turn played a role in shaping prevailing discourses about gender and teaching. With a focus on women teachers, the book offers the reader an opportunity to view these times and these discourses from feminist perspectives and in doing so adds to the growing collection of international works related to the history of women teachers.

In order to understand the central question of what was it like “becoming and being” a woman teacher in early twentieth century Western Australia, prolonged interviews were undertaken with each of the women. In order to avoid quasi‐experimental interviewing strategies, the interviews, though guided, aimed to be conversational and flexible in order to allow the women opportunities to talk about what they wanted to talk about. These oral testimonies provided the basis for developing individual and collective narratives about their life experiences.

The author acknowledges that her voice and her choices are an unavoidable part of the narrative. Chapters are organised so that the women's voices are presented in narrative form embedded within the author's broader analytical narrative. By doing so the author not only portrays the life histories of the women but also analyses these based on her understandings of the prevailing constructions of gender and in particular of women “becoming and being” teachers. These constructions and symbolic representations are gleaned from the author's analysis of public documents including government policies and regulations relating to teacher education and teaching as well as those from the teacher education institutions.

The book highlights the gender differentiation that existed at the time in the teacher education programs and the employment policies for teachers. In particular it focuses attention on the way women teachers were, for example, discouraged from studying the maths and science fields and channelled into early childhood teaching and sewing as well as the insidious practices of salary differentiation and the marriage bar. This latter policy had the effect of not only limiting women teacher's career prospects but also stigmatising those who chose teaching over marriage as spinsters. The book does not, however, simply foreground unjust and oppressive practices but searches for contradictions and opportunities that “being and becoming” women teachers offered them. It is argued, for example, that attending Claremont Teachers College provided many of the women the opportunity to actively engage in critical debate and a range of social and cultural activities denied many others. Similarly the opportunity to teach, particularly in rural schools, held contradictory opportunities. On the one hand, prevailing discourses promoted this as an opportunity to “marry a farmer”; other discourses saw these women as pioneers forging a strong and independent role in the community.

As well as gender issues, the book also provides insights into varying dominant discourses related to models of teacher education implemented between 1914 and 1940. These included monitorships, short technical courses and long university based courses. Debates about the best way to train or educate teachers resonate today. Battles over the need for subject knowledge gained through university education vs practical experience and pedagogical skills abounded then, as they do today. The book adds weight to the argument that historical sociology of education is valuable work.

There are times when the book seems disjointed and repetitive and the individual narratives of the women seem lost. This does not, however, detract from the central messages the book contains. It is a timely reminder of how far we have come and yet how easy it is for extraordinary injustices to become normalised and accepted even by the women themselves. The book ends with a heart‐rending story that while the opportunity for these women to be educated and gain employment was not easy it was not an opportunity available to many other women at the time. The book highlights the complexity of women teacher identities wrapped up as they were then and continue to be, in often competing and contradictory discourses around femininity, motherhood, nurturing, professionalism and the nature of teachers’ work.

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