Women complain at ‘blatant’ discrimination in teaching profession

Week IV

The discrimination between salaries paid to male teachers and those paid to women was highlighted in a deputation of the Connacht Irishwomen’s Suffrage Federation to the local MP for Galway Stephen Gwynn. The fact that there was such a difference in salaries highlighted yet again the powerlessness of women who had no vote to influence fairness.

The Galway Express, reported on June 20 1914, that the deputation pointed out that the much delayed and welcomed Birrell Intermediate Bill* fell down when it provided male secondary school teachers with an annual salary of £120 while women teachers only received £80. They felt this was a ’gross injustice to women’ in view of the fact that the work done in girls’ schools is just as onerous as in boys’ schools. Especially as under the Intermediate Education system boys and girls worked for the same syllabus and underwent the same tests. The hours of teaching were the same and the educational year was the same also. The delegation could not understand how Mr Birrell (see brief biography of Augustine Birrell in box ), could have made such a discrepancy when drawing up his Bill.

They dismissed out of hand the old argument that men must be paid more as they had a wife and family to support. ’It costs us women just as much to live as a man, and in many cases working women support as many dependants as a man.’ Recent facts highlighted by the Civil Service Commission amply justified this position. ‘Forty-two per cent of women civil servants having ten years service had other people to keep, and the percentage rose to 84 among women with 20 years service.

The deputation also pointed out the blatant discrimination to only appointing men to the schools inspectorate. ‘The amount of girl’s schools is as large as the number of boy’s schools to be inspected, indeed it is probably a greater number.’ Yet the job is solely confined to men. Stephen Gwynn MP, who had long supported the women’s suffrage movement ‘expressed his entire agreement with what the deputation had to say.

No male ‘lifted his voice’

Highlighting much the same argument, The Irish Review, October 1912, commented that ‘It is noticeable, too, that no male teacher lifted a voice in protest against the unfair treatment of his woman colleagues.’

‘We shall not hear a word of criticism from men for this part of the scheme. They are obsessed by the idea that men are better paid because they have so many ‘dependent’ on them - as if a male teacher’s pay increased automatically on his marriage, or on the birth of his children, or fell off when a maiden aunt ceased to encumber him, or when a daughter was taken off his hands! Even on this test of providing for dependents it will be found that women have frequently dependents in the shape of aged parents or younger sisters and brothers; yet statesmen take no recognition of the fact.’

Women’s wages

Of course it was not only the professional class that had their battles for better or for equal pay. Working conditions in Irish industry prior to 1914 were frequently Dickensian and dangerous, particularly for women and children. A series of Factory Acts was introduced in the early years of the last century to try to make work-places safer, and healthier.

In many cases this was achieved by reducing working hours, which often led to a reduction in the meagre salaries that were often paid. The struggle between salaries and health was often a difficult balance to achieve. Many voices were raised in objection to a reduction in wages particularly for women.

One of the impressive visiting speakers to address the Connaught Women’s Franchise League was Alice Abadam, a Welsh suffragette and committed public speaker. In October 1913 she told a well attended meeting that throughout the United kingdom (of which Ireland was a member at the time ), five million women were working for their livlihood, ‘and not a single one got due remuneration for her work.... In some cases women were working for as low as 5s and 4s a week, and even in Government employment for as little as 3s a week…and that was the only encouragement the country gave women for living a decent, honest life.’

She could not mention a single Bill before parliament that did not affect women as well as men, and yet women had no vote to influence the laws that directly affected their lives.

Next week: On St Patrick’s Day, March 17 1697, a beautiful painting of the Virgin Mary, with her hands joined in prayer, watching over a sleeping Jesus, wept tears of blood in the city of Gyor, Hungary. The miracle was witnessed by many people who gave sworn testimony that what they saw was true. The painting is believed to have been hanging in St Nicholas Collegiate Church, and was the property of the Lynch family, who were generous patrons of that renowned medieval building. Legend says that as Cromwellian soldiers approached the town Walter Lynch, Bishop of Clonfert, is believed to have taken to painting into exile, ending up in Gyor. Today the Weeping Virgin of Gyor is widely venerated throughout Hungary. But are its Galway origins true?

Augustine Birrell, a British Liberal party politician, was probably the best Chief Secretary for Ireland in the closing years of British rule. He may have got the secondary school teachers salary wrong by depriving women of £40 a year; but he revolutionised university education with his National University Bill 1908. He created the NUI colleges of Dublin, Cork and Galway (leaving Trinity and Queen’s alone ), thus opening the gates for Catholics, and women, to enter university; while allowing Protestants to feel they had their own colleges too.

Opening the doors of all levels of education for both men and women, and the granting of the franchise to women in 1918, was a major turning point in this country, in ending differences between the sexes in all walks of life. Whether, 100 years later, that has been achieved or not, is still an arguable point.

Birrell loved Ireland. He was happy travelling around, particularly the west. “I used to think during my many western tours, an Irish parish in Connacht, supplied with a pious and sensible priest, a devoted and skilled ‘Dudley’ nurse, and a sober dispensary doctor, attained as nearly to Paradise as it is possible for any place on earth to get. But that complete combination was sometimes hard to find.”

He did not like the Suffragettes much. In November 1910, he was walking away from the House of Commons when he was recognised by a group of some 20 women who set upon him, and physically hurt him. They damaged his knee. He joked afterwards that he would always be known as ‘a weak-kneed politician’.

His love and dreams about Ireland (he was delighted by the prospects of Home Rule, and a great supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party ), probably cost his his job. I am afraid that dreaming around the west of Ireland was not what a Chief Secretery should be doing. He failed to recognise the threat of the Ulster Volunteers, and the build up to the 1916 Rising. He resigned following fierce criticism for his lack of perception, and his failure to see the storm that was coming.

He never returned to Ireland. He was, however, deeply moved when in 1929 the National University of Ireland conferred on him an honorary doctorate; but storms on the Irish Sea prevented him from making the crossing. He received his degree, and by implication Ireland’s gratitude, in absentia.



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