Wednesday, April 13, 2011

All Married Female Teachers Lose Jobs

1941 photo of married teachers from Liberty High School.
     The deadline of July 15, 1940, set by the Bethlehem School Board, came and went with no response from the district’s 33 married women teachers. Over a year before, at the June 29, 1939 school board meeting, the board voted 8 to 1 to request the resignations of all the married female teachers of the district. George B. Curtis, head of the board’s administration committee, made the motion. Only one board member, Dr. Frederick F. Bruch, a local dentist, opposed it. William J. Morgan, a Bethlehem Steel employee, was board president. Clifford F. Frey, school district business manager, reported to the board that he had not received one resignation by the dead-line.
     After the 33 women teachers received written notice to resign, they banded together to refuse the ouster. They hired an attorney and informed the school board that they could not be removed simply because they were married. They felt that board’s order was unconstitutional.  The women teachers warned that if the board followed through on their removal they would fight it until it reached the highest court in the state.
     The inspiration behind the board’s decision was to save money. The women teachers would be replaced by "applicants at a beginning salary rate." This, Curtis said, "would result in a saving of $24,700 the first year and eventually would reduce "the tax burden generally."
     Northampton County Superintendent of Schools, George A. Grim noted that the Great Depression had a terrible impact on Northampton County schools, especially in Bethlehem. Bethlehem had the lowest allocation of text books per students in the county. Between 1929 and 1939, there only was only a one percent increase in new students.
    The Bethlehem School Board of the 1930s and early 1940s was a fiscally conservative and autocratic board. A commission was formed in 1937 to study the problems of the district. It was headed by William E. Arnold of the University of Pennsylvania. The committee’s conclusions were presented in a 328 page book. The committee observed that the board gave very little authority to the superintendent of Bethlehem schools, W. H. Weiss. They commented that there was far too much fighting amongst board members and that the curriculum was badly in need of updating. This was an evaluation of the same board that decided for economic reasons to replace all the married women teachers. In 1945, a Citizen’s Committee was formed which successfully instated four new board members, including the first woman, Irma MacLellan.
     Before the Civil War, Northampton County schools employed mostly male teachers. Northampton County Superintendent Abraham Kind reported in 1865 that at least 70 of his male teachers had joined the army. Kind encouraged the employment of women teachers and remarked “Their success and usefulness was equal to that of the best male teachers.”
     In the late 1930s, several bills were introduced to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to give school boards the right to fire female teachers on the basis of marital status. None were successfully passed. The teacher tenure law passed in 1937 did not mention marital status as a condition of tenure. The law stated that a teacher must serve a three year probationary period before being awarded tenure or a permanent position. The Bethlehem School Board thought that the Pennsylvania School code gave them the power to order the resignations. The code stated, “The school board in every school district in the state may adopt and enforce such reasonable rules and regulations as it may deem necessary and proper regarding the management of its school affairs, and the conduct and deportment of all superintendents, teachers and other appointees or employees during the time they are engaged in their duties to the district.”
     The Bethlehem board’s decision of a marriage ban was reported in newspapers across the state. The board members did not make themselves available for interviews from reporters regarding their controversial ruling. We can assume the board did not follow through on their edict as the subsequent district yearbooks prominently displayed pictures of married female teachers. The priorities of Bethlehem soon were more concerned with national preparedness programs in the early 1940s. Again, a war drained the community of working men, resulting in a teacher shortage. This eased up the prejudices regarding married female teachers. Nationally the employment of married women rose from 26 percent in 1930 to 47 percent in 1940. After the 1940s, marriage bars for female teachers were unheard of.

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