Maternity Leave: The Teacher-Mother Problem


Mrs. Lora Wagner, one of many married teachers to petition for a maternity leave policy in the 1910’s

While researching the term maternity leave in newspaper archives, the terms “teacher-mother” or “mother-teacher” began to appear. Papers were using these terms in trying to describe when married teachers would get pregnant and then neglect their teaching responsibilities due to child labor. In 1913, the Hartford Courant reported that a teacher in New York, Mrs. Katherine O. Edgell who had petitioned for a leave of absence for childbirth was denied by a vote of 32-5. According to the article, “the board voted beforehand not even to allow the position to be debated.” This shows one example of strong opposition to letting female teachers take time off to give birth.

In 1914, the New York Times reported a more optimistic case in which the local New York mayor was being interviewed about the “teacher-mother controversy.” After Mrs. Lora Wagner had been charged with “neglect of duty” after taking time away from school for childbirth, it appears some changes were petitioned to be made and the local school leaders were more prepared to take action. Although he was not reporting an official school board decision yet, Mayor Mitchel told reporters, “It is my understanding that leaves of absence will be provided for teachers about to become mothers.” The end of the article gave directions for participation in a local debate at  Washington Irving High School in which people could hear different sides of the question. It said, “At the close of the discussion, a resolution addressed to the Board of Education, in favor of granting a leave of absence to the married teacher, who is about to become a mother, will be voted on by the audience.” This shows a desire for community input on the issue. However, it seems that the local authorities had already made a tentative policy decision since they stated afterward: “whether the vote is aye or no, it will be forwarded to the Board of Education.”

In January 2015, the Hartford Courant reports a teacher in the  Bronx who successfully won an appeal after she was charged with neglect of duty and dismissed after leaving to have her baby. The article reported that “decisions in five other mother-teacher appeals are expected soon.” As part of the case decision it was reported that, “A law providing that a woman teacher’s position automatically became vacant when she married, had been declared unconstitutional.” He then explained that a married teacher having children and needing a leave of absence should be therefore logically granted as a “natural corollary.”

Another article in the Hartford Courant in 2015 labels the difficulty women face when working and preparing to bear a child the “mother-teacher problem.” The article explains that this is a greater issue in New York than in Hartford because, “the proportion of married teachers is large, and this condition has been the cause of much conflict.” This indicates that there is quite a stir in New York not long after there was such a quick denial of Edgell’s petition. The article articulates one of the central arguments against granting a leave of absence for “mother-teachers” as, “the married teacher who has a husband able to support his family, is depriving some unmarried and self-dependent woman of an opportunity to earn her living.” The concern was centered then more on the propriety of married women and mothers to work than on the individual mother and child in question.


“TEACHERS TO GET MATERNITY LEAVES.” New York Times (1857-1922), Nov 13, 1914.

“TEACHER-MOTHER WINS HER APPEAL.” The Hartford Courant (1887-1922), Jan 12, 1915.

“THE MOTHER-TEACHER.” The Hartford Courant (1887-1922), Jan 15, 1915. 


3 thoughts on “Maternity Leave: The Teacher-Mother Problem

  1. It is interesting that because teaching was one of the largest employers of women in the nineteenth and early-twentieth century, it began much of the debate over whether women should get some kind of maternity leave after having a baby. It seemed unjust to some people to give married women jobs when they had a husband who could provide, claiming that it would deprive single women. My questions are how did women continue to teach at all when they were not given a maternity leave? And how would they continue to teach after that? Did they bring their children with them or were there any systems for child care available? To what extent would men/fathers assist in helping their wives to continue to work after having a baby?


  2. The fact that women were punished for temporarily leaving their jobs to have children seems very strange to me. Not only because the classroom probably isn’t the best setting for childbirth, but also because teaching was regarded as a feminine profession of the basis of their maternal, nurturing traits.


  3. It is surprising to me that women were not given maternity leave in teaching jobs in the early 1900’s. What was the gender ratio in teaching like then? What was the percentage of married women who were teachers? Could their husbands even support them or their families with his salary? The school board voting against leave is interesting. What was the gender ratio on the school board? What were their experiences that would lead them to vote this way? Why did they not allow for it to be debated? How can we avoid those pitfalls today of voting on something that may be out of our personal experience?


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