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Understanding the Work of Women in Education

Posted by Dr. Rose Fine-Meyer
1 February 2015 - 6:15pm

I was fortunate this year to be given an opportunity by the Ontario Historical Society to guest edit a special edition of the Ontario History journal, which focuses on women and education in Ontario. I received support throughout the project by Tory Tronrud, senior editor. The publication will be published in the spring (Ontario History Vol. 107, No. 1 (Spring 2015) and I hope you will have an opportunity to read the collection.

Ontario History is a peer-reviewed journal that is published bi-annually by The Ontario Historical Society and was first published in 1899. This journal edition brings together a wide range of scholars in the field who explore the ways in which women have shaped, and been shaped, by educational institutions, broadly speaking. Five scholars provide important narratives to expand the scholarship in the field and give us greater insight into the working lives of women in education. Women have been restricted in their work within educational arenas, but they have also brought with them new ideas and strong leadership.

Three scholars, Brittany Luby, Kathryn Labelle and Alison Norman look at the lives and work of First Nations educators; Funke Aladejebi explores black women working in urban areas; Kate Zankowicz examines women working in museums, and, Ruth Sandwell explores women homemakers’ responses to government energy educational programs. These articles explore traditional institutional-based settings, such as schools, as well as in informal learning networks. Their research demonstrates that all women are challenged in addressing ways to balance community with individual and professional needs. Because of entrenched systems in place within education institutions, women teachers had to advocate for themselves on a professional and community level. Their challenges need further examination in the field, along with a greater attention to ongoing issues of gender inequality in education.

We are fortunate in Canada to have scholarship in this field, well known through the early publications of historians Alison Prentice, Ruby Heap, Elizabeth Smyth, Cecilia Reynolds and  Rebecca Coulter, to name only a few. Scholars have explored individual women teachers (Prentice, Theobald, Coutler & Harper, Bourne & Smyth, Barman, Llewellyn); school curricula and resources (Fine-Meyer, Clark, O’Brien); school board administration and policy (Coulter, Light, Staton & Bourne, Status of Women); the impact of the women’s movement (Adamson, Bristin & McPail, Forman, Fine-Meyer), and, more broadly within educational programming in various institutions (Zankowicz, Cook, McLean & O’Rourke, Carstairs & Janovicek). [1]

Not enough scholarship is focused on the ways in which provincial history/social studies curricula restricts the inclusion of women’s narratives. The feminist movements were a catalyst in transforming systems of education to address blatant discriminatory practices within schools, but curricular changes have been limited (Fine-Meyer, 2012). However, recent public historical narratives and commemorations in Canada have confirmed the need for a more balanced examination of the past. Current commemorations of the War of 1812, and John A Macdonald and Confederation, for example, have focused on the achievements of Canadian men. Moreover, the refusal by the current government of Canada to include women on Canadian commemorative bank notes, (see Merna Forster's petition where she argues that the lack of women on banknotes “perpetuates the myth that women are not nation builders”) demonstrates how women can be marginalized from the public historical record. An anthropologist stumbling on historical documents reflective of our rituals to honour great men might deduce that women were either not present in the country, or were placed within a less prominent position. Would they be incorrect?

In my role as an instructor working in a faculty of education, I am fortunate to visit classrooms of all grades in Ontario. What I see is a major focus on the achievement of men, on historical events explored through the words and ideas of men, and minor attention given to women’s voices except in unique references (eg. Laura Secord, factory work during the wars). Is it possible to adequately address this inequity, whereby women remain 50% of the population, but not 50% of the voices heard in history classrooms? Curriculum change to include women’s narratives, however, is present in individual classrooms, the result of dedicated and purposeful work carried out by dedicated teachers-- but it is unfortunately not the norm.

Feminist educators of the 1970s and 1980s advocated for new curricular frameworks and broader interconnections between disciplines. As Wendy Brown (1997) argued, women’s history is not just about incorporating “women positive content”: it’s a framework dedicated to questioning traditional frameworks, and demands a re-thinking of history disciplines, and accepted epistemological categories. Feminist groups and individuals were united in the firm belief that the inclusion of women in the curricula was essential for any meaningful exploration of the human condition, a core element of the humanities. Women have been and will continue to be vital change agents for the improvement of teaching and learning.

The upcoming Ontario History journal on Women and Education, in addition to a number of new publications, are adding to the scholarship in the field, with the hope that it will encourage further discussions and understanding on the history of education in Canada and the issues of gender inequality that are still with us today.



[1] For a list of scholarship see: Canadian Committee on Women’s History (CCWH-CCHF) bibliography to 2008. Sample scholarship referenced here: C. Carstairs and N. Janovicek, eds., Feminist History in Canada: New Essays on Women, Gender, Work, and Nation (Vancouver : UBC Press, 2013); Kristina Llewellyn, Democracy's Angels: the work of women teachers (Montreal : McGill-Queen's University Press, 2012); E. M. Smyth and P. Bourne, eds.,Women Teaching, Women Learning: Historical perspectives (Toronto : Inanna Publications and Education, 2006); R. Priegert Coulter and H.Harper History is Hers : women educators in twentieth century Ontario (Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 2005).


Rose Fine-Meyer, “Including Women: The Establishment and Integration of Canadian Women’s History into Toronto Ontario Classrooms 1968-1993” (UofT, PhD Thesis, 2012)

Wendy Brown, "The Impossibility of Women's Studies," Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies. 9.3 (Fall, 1997)  


Photo Credit: Student teachers in a kindergarten class at St. James Square in 1898. Archives of Ontario RG 2-257 Acc. 13522 or Wikimedia Commons.