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Primary Schools


As settlers poured into the province in the late 19th century, they erected their own schools that were separate from the Aboriginal schools. These early schools tended to be one-room log houses, with limited supplies and only one teacher who taught all ages and grades together. The curriculum tended to focus on Christian morality and the acquisition of academic knowledge through repetition and memorization. With the exception of convent schools, girls and boys attended these schools together and learned much of the same information, since there was very little room for specialization. 


In many cases, unless her family was located in one of the growing urban areas, it could be difficult for a pioneer girl to attend school. Schools were few and far between and children had to cross long distances to reach them. Many families depended on their children to help out with the domestic and field labour. Therefore, they were often sent to school only during particular seasons of the year when the farm work was less intensive and often only during the early years of their lives since as they grew older their labour became more valuable. Also, often when a family could not afford to send all its children to school, it was almost always boys over girls who were chosen to go. After all, boys, if they did well in school, could attend colleges or universities and become professionals. However, the chances of this happening for girls in early pioneer years were slim. It was believed that they were better off learning the practical skills necessary to become a housewife and these, for the most part, could be learned at home.

By the 1920s and 1930s views on education in Alberta began to change. A progressive education movement emerged calling for improvements in the education system and changes to the curriculum. Reformers wanted more schools built throughout the province and an improvement to the quality of education with better teacher training, stricter attendance laws, more uniform textbooks and more frequent school inspections. They wanted a new curriculum that focused less on indoctrinating the rules of morality and academic facts into the minds of students and more on developing good citizens that could function in society in a productive and intelligent manner; "Our schools should emphasize training, not for examinations, but training for life." 1

Many of the calls for school reform came from women and women's organizations. The United Farm Women of Alberta (UFWA) was very active in lobbying government for school reform. The UFWA believed that, in particular, the curriculum in rural schools should be reformed in favour of practical and scientific skill that related to agriculture and farm technology. It believed that the curriculum should be specific to both sexes, and that the new schools should instruct boys in economics, animal husbandry, and farm mechanics and management, and girls in domestic science, home economics, and home nursing. 

In one sense, the UFWA was promoting woman's traditional role in the home; rather than encouraging her to learn skills that would equip her for a role in the public or political sphere. However, in another sense, it was boosting the importance of this traditional role by defining it as a science that should be taught in schools. The UFWAs promotion of the study of domestic science or home economics reflected a widespread belief that women should be trained to perform the work of a mother and housewife. After all, women were the centre of the household; they shaped its moral, physical and, in many cases, intellectual well-being. A woman improperly trained in Christian morality, sanitation, health matters and academics was increasingly seen as an intellectual and physical threat to her children. On the other hand, a woman who was properly trained in these matters contributed greatly to society by raising healthy, intelligent and moral citizens.

The UFWA and other organizations involved in the school reform movement did have a major impact on girl's education. More girls, even in remote rural areas, began entering school and attending more regularly. The quality of the curriculum gradually improved for both boys and girls. Also, schools started introducing home economic and domestic science courses. However, their impact was not limited to girls; the education of women also increased. The UFWA, among others, sponsored guest lecturers to talk to its members during its meetings on issues ranging from farming techniques to proper care of children. It encouraged members to keep up with current events and to become familiar with political processes. All these efforts were designed to make women better informed and intelligent citizens in a burgeoning Albertan society.



  • Byfield, Ted. Alberta in the Twentieth Century. Vol. 2. Edmonton: United Western Communications, 1992.

  • Chalus, Elaine.  "From Friedan to Feminism: Gender and Change at the University of Alberta, 1960-1970."  Standing on New Ground.  Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne.  Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1993.

  • Dawe, Michael J. Red Deer: An Illustrated History. Red Deer: Red Deer and District Museum Society, 1996.

  • Fox, Utah H. "Reverend Mr. John Nelson: Missionary with an Impossible Mission." Aspenland. Eds. David Ridley and David Goa. Red Deer: Alberta Regional Museums Network, 1998.

  • Gagnon, Anne. "Our Parents did not Raise Us to be Independent: The Work and Schooling of Young Franco-Albertan Women, 1890-1940." Prairie Forum 1994 19(2): 169-188.

  • Mook, Laurie.  "Women at University: the Early Years."  Alberta History 44(1) 1996: 8-15.

  • Rennie, Bradford James. The Rise of Agrarian Democracy: The United Farmers and Farm Women of Alberta, 1909-1921. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.

  • Silverman, Elaine Leslau. The Last Best West: Women on the Alberta Frontier 1880-1930. Montreal: Eden Press, 1984.

  • Von Heyking, Amy. "An Education for 'Character' in Alberta Schools, 1905-45." Aspenland. Eds. David Ridley and David Goa. Red Deer: Central Alberta Regional Museums Network, 1998.

  • Wilson, L. J. "Educational Role of the United Farm Women of Alberta." Alberta History 1977 25(2): 28-36.



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