Equal Rights for Women?

Equal Rights for Women?


By Elton Camp


(This is another in the continuing series on life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.) 


            With two grades to a room, the school Milas’ children attended went through the eighth grade. Three of the teachers were men. The other, Miss Gunnels, was a thirty-something spinster who’d lived in the community all her life.

            “Bless her heart, she’s so stuck on learning thet nobody kin stand her,” one lady in the community commented to another. The most horrible things could be said by one woman about another as long as the slander was preceded by the canceling expression, “Bless her heart.”

            Miss Gunnels was discharged from her position that year. Although paid by the state of Alabama, she served at the pleasure of local trustees. These were drawn from the more prominent men in the community who reflected local values.

            Miss Gunnels unfolded a note handed to her by the son of Gordie Buchman, chairman of the trustees. Despite its child-like printing, the message caused her to pale. She had been summonsed to a meeting with the trustees after school that very day. Never in her ten years at the school had that happened.

            The four men gathered on the school porch shortly before the end of the school day. Gordie’s son spotted them. His grin and knowing look told the teacher that he had inside information. She saw him whisper something to one of his pals. They both laughed.

            As the children rushed out of the classroom, the teacher quickly touched up her hair. Since it was straight and fell loosely near her collar, there was little she need do. Her plain blouse and skirt were clean. Having pride in her appearance, she hadn’t let herself go like so many women in the community, but weighed little more than when she’d finished with honors at the secondary school. Teachers of that period didn’t need a college degree.

            “Won’t you have a seat, gentlemen?” she invited.

            She gestured toward cane-bottom ladder chairs. The men sat down. Gordie shifted his feet toward the sides of the chair, cleared his throat, and glanced at his companions before proceeding.

            “Ruth, guess y’u know why we’s here,” he began.

            “I have an idea,” she replied.

            She made eye contact with him and then with each member of the board of trust. Each dropped his eyes at her gaze.

            “Y’u been seen goin’ out wif’ thet traveling salesman ’gain. Last Sattiday, y’all warnt back t’ yore place ’til atter ten. Thet ain’t settin’ a prop’r ’xampl’ fer our youn’ uns. I had my wife warn y’u  ’bout hit last month. Seems y’u don’t ker whut we think.”

            “Mr. Buchman, what I do outside of school is no concern of yours.”  Carefully enunciating each word, she spoke slowly and deliberately. Her eyes flashed with indignation.

            “We sez ’tis, Miss Ruth,” another of the trustees retorted.

            He looked to his comrades for support. They nodded and grunted in agreement. One bit off a wad of tobacco and began to chew it.

            “Air y’u plannin’ t’ wed him?” Gordie demanded.

            “I may if he asks me.” A flush came to her cheeks.

            “Then you’ll b’ givin’ up yore job,” Gordie said with finality.

            “The men who teach here are all married as are you trustees. Have I not the same right?”

            “Married wimmin oughten t’ b’ workin’ ’way from home,” Gordie declared. “Wif th’ way y’u think, tis best y’u jest depart now. We all think thet. Ain’t thet right, boys?” 

            The men murmured and nodded in agreement. The tobacco chewer spit in the direction of the stove.

            “But the children. What will they do?  There are still two months left in the school term,” she protested.

            Gordie looked up. “My sister has a girl who needs a teachin’ job. She kin take over.”

            “Oh, so that’s it,” Miss Gunnels almost whispered. There was no appeal.  She’d have to leave.  There was no tenure law. 


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Life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.
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