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December 28: The Red-Headed School Marm

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Teaching has never been an easy profession. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, school boards imposed severe rules on women who chose teaching as a profession. While it varied from school to school, many of the rules were common, including daily tasks like making sure the classroom had a bucket of water and a full scuttle of coal. They had to fill the lamps and clean the chimneys. Modern teachers can be glad they don’t have to clean the outhouses!

Male teachers were not allowed to go to pool halls or dance halls, but they were often allowed one or two nights a week to go courting. Female teachers, however, were often prohibited from getting married. This wasn’t difficult since they were also told not to keep company with men and not to get into a carriage with any man except a father or a brother. In some districts, a teacher wasn’t allowed to leave town without permission from school board. Smoking was prohibited. And it was common for teachers to be required to stay home between eight p.m. and six a.m. Teachers might be told they were not allowed to wear bright colors and their dresses could not expose their ankles. Some were even prohibited to cut or dye their hair. And loitering downtown in ice cream stores was scandalous.

On this date in 1909, a Minot teacher was dismissed. The next day the newspaper headline read, “Redheaded School Ma’am Resigns.” There was little in the way of detail about resignation. The article explained that she was given a “gentle hint” by the school board that her resignation would be accepted “if she felt as though she had accomplished all the good that was possible.” She submitted her resignation and it was immediately accepted. She then departed for Milwaukee.

The curious part about the story is why the newspaper felt the need to highlight the fact that the school marm was a redhead. Perhaps she had violated one of the rules and had dyed her hair. Regardless, the newspaper wished her well and hoped that she could “find the right niche to fit in.”

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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