Monday, June 24, 2024

Elizabeth Binmore and the Canadian Teaching Profession

The woman in the photo is my grandfather's aunt (my great-grandaunt). She also turns out to be a bit of a Canadian education pioneer.

Elizabeth's father Thomas Binmore (my great-great grandfather) was born in London in 1837. He came to Montreal when he was 14. He married his wife in Lockport, NY in 1857, and Elizabeth (first of four children) was born in 1860. Tom did some traveling about (including a stint as a newspaperman in Pithole, an oil boomtown just a few miles away from where I'm sitting, because crazy coincidence). He eventually settled back in Montreal, working as a financial manager for James Leggat and worked for years at the United Shoe Machinery Company of Canada in Montreal.

Lizzie went off to McGill Normal School, Quebec's first school for teachers (and the only one for English-speaking women in Montreal), in 1875 (the school has been founded in 1857). In 50 years, McGill trained 2,989 teachers. Lizzie acquired three teaching diplomas there (elementary-1876, model-1877, and academy-1878). It appears her sister Laura also attended McGill, as well as a Louisa Binmore (Not sure how she's related, but Binmores were and are pretty rare). She began her teaching career at age 18. 

Lizzie returned to McGill later when they began offering a degree program and in 1890 became part of the first cohort to graduate with a BA from McGill. The class had 13 members, five of them women, including Maude Abbott and Carrie Matilda Derick, who went on to be very successful in their own fields. In 1894 she became one of the first two women to earn a Masters degree (McGill again).

According to her entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Lizzie spent some summers at Harvard University, taking courses in botany in 1893 and chemistry in 1906 and 1907. She did not earn any diplomas for this work, but they weren't recognizing female students at that time, so no degree. The dictionary adds:
With her unusual education and her extraordinary energy, Binmore brought fresh vitality to teaching. She worked in a number of ways to reduce reliance on rote learning and rules. She thought music should be joyful and French “natural.”

Lizzie promoted Sloyd, an educational idea that came out of Finland in1865 that focused on handicrafting. It emphasizes crafts, handicraft and handiwork, as in woodwork, paper-folding, sewing, and needlecraft.

In the course of her career, Lizzie taught in Bradford, Pa, and in the Protestant schools of Clarenceville, Longueuil, and Montreal, Quebec, especially the Montreal Senior School where she mostly taught math.

She was also something of an activist for education and women.

Elia Alexandra Paradissis, in her 1982 McGill masters thesis, wrote about the Canadian educational  atmosphere in the 19th century:

In 1857, at the time of the inauguration of the McGill Normal School, the most fundamental deterrent to the start of the school was perhaps the social one which concerned the importance given to education by the society in which the \ school was founded. The issue of whether education was to be substantially supported by society is not one which the school faced consciously but one that surrounded its whole being, permeated its entire atrnosphere, and remained unresolved. Education in Canada did not enjoy a high priority in the scale of social values and it was in a rather harsh and hostile atmosphere that the Normal School began. The University which controlled it and which gave it its name was itself still struggling for survival, and the commercial society in which both the University and its affiliated Normal School found themselves, was very undecided as to their value or role. As events turned out both the University and the Normal School did in fact enjoy steady improvement bath in status and in prosperity, but this has probably been due to many factors besides local foresight and good will.

In her paper, Paradissis also notes that besides the low priority put on education in general, the church also resisted education, "with importance attached to guarding the population against any criticism of established Church values." Glad that's not a problem any more. Paradissis's paper, clocking in at just under 200 pages, is a fascinating look at McGill's first fifty years, but I'm going to avoid that rabbit hole today. 

Lizzie was active in many professional groups; She was elected the first woman president of the Teachers’ Association of Montreal in 1896 and was on the executive of the Provincial Association of Protestant Teachers in 1916.

We have a copy of a paper she presented in 1893 to the Teachers' Association in Montreal (it's in The Educational Record of the Province of Quebec, Vol. 13, 1893). The paper's entitled "Financial Outlook of the Women Teachers of Montreal" by "Miss E.A. Binmore, B.A."

Lizzie leads off with a footnote indicating that she is purposefully using "woman" instead of "lady" because A) "lady" has been used for too many words like Land-lady and wash-lady and B) it implies a leisure class.

She opens the paper by noting that they left the last meeting of the association "quite convinced that no duty was more incumbent upon us than that of making good patriots and citizens of our pupils." And in 1893 she declared a principle recognizable to modern audiences:

Now, advance in standing of any community is in direct ratio to the education of that community. An ignorant community cannot form a good government, nor can an intelligent community fail to be prosperous.

She continues, observing that the age finds "repulsive" when women "claim their rights too independently." We can blame this on those women who want the best of everything to the exclusion of men. But, Lizzie says, though the newspapers lead her to believe that such women exist, she has never met one. They are less common among women "than the followers of Malthus among the men."  Nevertheless...

This is essentially a century of change. Women are gradually declaring and proving their ability and willingness to bear the burden of their own support. It is no longer absolutely necessary that every woman in the family should be dependent upon the men — to be reduced to unknown straits and intolerable suffering on the Almost every day sees some new employment thrown open to women, though there are still many employments they can not enter. This causes an undue development of those accessible and calls into requisition the law of demand and supply.

Lizzie points out that at first, women are hired because they can be paid less than men. But eventually the women's pay needs to catch up. And this, she points out, is equally true in the teaching profession.

For instance, the Superintendent of Schools in Pittsburg wrote me, '' We have thirty-seven principals, twelve of whom are ladies. Of these, two ladies and one gentleman receive $2,000 and seven gentlemen and six ladies $1,800. We make no difference in salary, between those doing the same work, for sex.” San Francisco, Boston and several other cities take a like view of the matter.

Montreal, however, was still behind the curve.

In Montreal the distinction is retained ; but let us not, therefore, feel discouraged. It can be only a question of time, when the difference shall be removed. All we can do to hasten it is to give to our teaching that energy and purpose, and devote to self-advance that time which shall enable us to win only by superiority. It would be false modesty or hypocrisy to pretend we do not do our best now. But let us bear in mind that with every advance in our position there will be a corresponding advance in general education. There is always room at the top of the ladder and we cannot strive too earnestly to advance our capabilities. Time will do the rest for us. Borne was not built in a day.

Lizzie again references the idea that schools and teachers are under-supported, even compared to art galleries, because education for all is not highly valued.

She works through the numbers to show that the typical starting salary ($250) is insufficient to live on. She also points out that Montreal is losing teachers to neighboring cities that pay more. There's also a chart showing salaries paid by major U.S. cities to teachers, plus room and board costs for those cities. Chicago and Pittsburg [sic] led the pack, with a maximum salary of a hefty $2,500. She talks about those who fail to raise enough school tax to pay teachers better.

Do they wish their children educated at the expense of private individuals ? If not, let them so raise their school tax as to pay their teachers a fair and just remuneration for labor conscientiously and successfully performed — so well done that our sons and daughters have almost universal success in competing with our neighbors across the line on their own ground.

Lizzie continued to teach and work on the support of education and the profession. She was active in the community and helped sponsor speakers and push for things like the Fresh Air Fund

In 1907, the Hochelaga School caught on fire. The fire started in the basement of the two-story, four classroom building. The principal was Sarah Maxwell (a McGill grad) who ran through the building, directing evacuation efforts. There were no fire escapes. Maxwell was last seen at a second floor window, passing children out to the firemen. 16 of the roughly 150 children in the school died. Maxwell was the only adult who didn't make it out alive; she was 31. Lizzie led a city-wide drive to create a memorial to Maxwell.

Elizabeth Binmore traveled a great deal; she never married. She passed away at her mother's home (311 Elm Avenue, Westmount) of heart dropsy. She was only 57. 

H/T to my sister, who kicked off this trip down a family rabbit hole.

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