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Women still fighting for equal rights

August 29, 2017 Bromley Chamberlain, ATA News Staff
Nancy Kerr
Staff officer, Manitoba Teachers’ Association

While the teaching profession has been predominantly female for more than a century, women have had to struggle for equity right from the beginning.

This was the message shared by Nancy Kerr, a staff officer with the Manitoba Teachers’ Association, at the inaugural Women’s Breakfast at the ATA’s 2017 Summer Conference in Banff on Aug. 16.

“It is 2017, but feminism is still needed,” Kerr said. “We have come a [long] way, but we have a long way to go still.”

Kerr engaged a room of more than 200 men and women with facts and statistics about how female teachers struggled for more than a century to receive the same rights as their male counterparts.

“This isn’t something that happened overnight; women were not welcomed into the profession. Women were not given the opportunity to do whatever they wanted in the profession,” she said. “They weren’t given equal pay; they weren’t given equal benefits. They just simply weren’t handed any of these things. It took decades of hard work to get there.”

She advised young women to get involved and take on leadership opportunities.

“I want you to come away with the understanding of a legacy that has been passed on to you by those teachers who have worked so hard over the last decades and centuries to bring us to where we are today,” she said.

In the 1800s, male teachers were allowed to take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings if they went to church regularly, whereas women teachers who married, or engaged in other “unseemly” conduct, would be dismissed.

“There are countless stories of women out there who had to hide their pregnancies, literally started wearing baggy clothes,” Kerr said. “Even at the point in time where pregnant women were kind of being tolerated, once you started showing, you were pretty much expected to leave.”

Alberta was progressive in the sense that, in 1937, teachers gained the first tenure rights, which allowed married women to be teachers, Kerr said.

“There were trustees in Alberta who suggest, as late as the 1940s, that married women ought to be booted out of the profession,” she explained.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that most Ontario federations negotiated maternity leave into collective agreements, Kerr said. In 1971 the federal government passed the Unemployment Act, which established maternity and sickness benefits. Manitoba passed its first maternity provisions in 1973.

Female teachers have fought from the beginning to receive equal pay, to continue to teach once married, to become mothers and more, Kerr said. These struggles continue today, despite the wide misconception that women and men are treated equally.

“There was always an excuse not to pay women the same as men,” Kerr said. ❚

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