Posted on October 2 2017 by Eric Pumroy and Evan McGonagill, Bryn Mawr College
Career Paths: Educated Women Educating Others
The first few weeks of Fall semester are all about the flurry of new first-years on campus, but once the dust has settled it marks the start of an important period for seniors as well: the beginning of their final year is the moment when life after college takes on a new immediacy, and hunting for jobs or planning for graduate study kicks into full gear. That was no less true for students at women’s colleges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, even at a time when career opportunities for educated women were severely limited compared to the options that exist today. Nonetheless, there were careers open to women college graduates--most notably in teaching, which was an attractive field due to increasing national spending for public education and a growing number of private schools for girls. The College Women collections contain many student letters that reveal how graduating seniors were considering their professional options. Writing home to their parents, students considered their future careers, negotiated the process of finding a good teaching job, and sought advice from their families about working conditions and salary.
College Advisors for Teaching Careers
In addition to consulting their families, students at the Seven Sisters had local resources to help them with their job search. Because teaching was such a prominent career path for their graduates, the Colleges employed designated advisors to help them prepare for teaching jobs and advise them on which offers to take. At Vassar, there was a Pedagogical Club formed in the 1890s that brought in speakers to talk about what to expect from a life of teaching. Adelaide Claflin, class of 1897, reported on a presentation that encouraged college graduates to teach in small towns because of the opportunities for community service they would find there.1 Bryn Mawr’s Marie Litzinger, class of 1920, was advised by a Mrs. Pell about appropriate salary and teaching conditions, while Ruby Willis at Wellesley (class of 1909) assured her parents that she wouldn’t do anything rash about a job offer because a Miss Chapin “will not let me do anything foolish.”2
Teaching at Private Schools
Private schools for girls seemed to be especially interested in recruiting teachers from the Seven Sisters Colleges. Litzinger reported talking with headmasters and headmistresses at private schools in Kansas City, Connecticut and the Philadelphia area, while Willis was attracted to a private day school in Cumberland, Maryland. Willis conducted her job search through the Fiske Teachers’ Agency in Boston. The Agency sent her a note early one morning summoning her to their offices to meet the Cumberland headmaster, and while there, she met several other Wellesley students who were interviewing for jobs at Cumberland and other schools.
Salary was just as important consideration as it is today, and it is mentioned regularly in the letters as students weighed their options. The Cumberland job would pay Willis $550 (about $14,250 today) for teaching Mathematics and German over a 33-week term. Litzinger heard a larger range of salaries, from $700 teaching Latin and Mathematics at a school in Connecticut, to $1200 for teaching Mathematics and Physics at a day school in Kansas City. (A wider range, but not a markedly better offer: because of fluctuations in inflation rates, Willis’s $550 offer in 1909 would have been worth about the same as Litzinger’s $1200 offer in 1920.) Working conditions also mattered. Litzinger was especially attracted to a position at the Devon School near Bryn Mawr that paid $800 a year, plus living expenses, a teaching day that ended at 2:30, and “practically no chaperone duty.” Her only concern about the job was the students she would be teaching. “The girls say the school is typical finishing variety – no particular brains, which sounds rather stupid, but Mrs. Pell said it wouldn’t hurt to have the first year easy.”
Emotions of the Job Hunt
Much as today, students’ feelings about looking for a job ranged from fear to excitement. A year before graduating, Wellesley student Eleanor Blair (class of 1917) wrote of hearing from a friend about teaching positions, which she regarded as an unwelcome reminder of what was to come. “Until she wrote really seriously about it, I had scarcely realized that in a year I will be hunting a position. I felt fearfully old when I thought about it.”3 In contrast, Litzinger was eager to find a position by her senior year: she was very much aware that she would need to support herself, which made her job search an especially urgent matter. “If only a handsome fat job would swoop down and let me grab it,”4 she wrote to her parents early in her job search—a sentiment undoubtedly shared by many current seniors who are beginning the process themselves!
Litzinger did eventually wind up as a teacher, but not at the Devon School. In fact, after earning her MA from Bryn Mawr and a PhD from the University of Chicago, she went on to teach at another 'Seven Sisters' College—Mount Holyoke—where she spent nearly thirty years in the Mathematics Department.
1. Adelaide Claflin (Mansfield) to mother, February 14, 1897.
2. Ruby Willis to Dr. & Mrs. William Willis, February 28, 1909. Ruby Willis Letters.
3. Eleanor Blair to Mrs. D.C. Blair, Montour Falls, NY, January 16, 1916.
4. March 14, 1920