Ruby G’s story

Divorced in the 1930s, as marriage dissolution became more affordable for couples – if no less stigma-laden – Ruby G kept a successful teaching career alive in a marriage-bar era and raised a daughter too.

Born into the industries surrounding and supporting the fishing trade in the North East of England, Ruby grew up in a family of daughters with a father who had political ambitions. Clearly bright, she followed her older sister into school teaching – a respected position for unmarried women to hold at the beginning of the 20th century.

Teaching at this time was a profession open to both single and married men, but only single women – the exceptions being older women married to school teachers in predominantly rural areas who might teach the infants or the girls in a small school, or widows who had previously been teachers. Like many other skilled professions at the time, unmarried teachers were expected to give up their job at marriage and be supported by their husbands. In her second proper teaching position, at the beginning of the 1920s in Wiltshire, Ruby was no exception – despite four years’ service, school log books refer to her expected resignation throughout the year, indicating that she was stepping out with a beau, and her resignation occurred as the school year closed. Sure enough, marriage records show that she married that summer.

A daughter was born over the following few years, and by societal expectation she would have been based caring for family and home while her husband worked and earned. However, this marriage was clearly not a happy one, and a separation happened at some point before 1930. Divorces, although still frowned upon by general society with the generations-held belief that marriages should be made work at whatever cost, were easier to obtain at this time. A private member’s bill introduced to the UK parliament in 1923 – which passed as the Matrimonial Causes Act – helped this process by making adultery by either wife or husband the sole grounds for divorce, where previously the wife had to provide extra evidence of faults against her husband. The Summary Jurisdiction (Separation and Maintenance) Act, passed in 1925, also extended the grounds on which either partner could obtain a separation. Ruby’s decree absolute came through in 1935, possibly indicating that she had been separated from her husband for seven years at this point.

Whatever the grounds for Ruby’s separation, she found herself alone with a young daughter to support. The school she had resigned from took her back on temporarily, despite the fact that she had been married, when a member of their staff was sick and indisposed for a few weeks. She was then taken back on to that school’s staff permanently the following summer. Being divorced meant that she was not married, and therefore was not subject to any restrictions under the marriage bar. Therefore, the school could employ her without a problem, and did.

She taught at the school for another six years, during which the department of education approached her twice with a view to her taking on a headship of a school elsewhere – which is more likely an indication of her skill as a teacher than any lingering stigma about employing a divorcee. On both occasions she refused, and chose to remain in position at the Wiltshire school. A couple of years before the second world war began, she chose to resign of her own accord, and moved herself and her daughter to Shropshire. They lived with her father, now a widower, and spent the duration of the second world war there.

In 1935 the marriage bar for teachers was removed by London County Council, but that only applied in their area of jurisdiction. The National Union of Women Teachers had campaigned for this change for a long time. The marriage bar was removed for all teachers in 1944, meaning that Ruby’s unmarried colleagues could now keep their jobs if they chose to marry – many female teachers were life-long spinsters, as they loved their work too much to end it.

Ruby herself never remarried. She died in Somerset in the early 1960s, leaving her possessions and money to her unmarried daughter.

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To submit a woman from your family for inclusion in The Women Who Made Me project, contact Lucy of Once Upon A Family Tree. If you don’t think you have anyone, she begs to differ and can help you discover your female relatives’ lives.

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