20th Century

Rules of Conduct for Women Teachers, 1915?

My bookshelf holds a copy of  ‘Instructions for New Zealanders’: a collection of excerpts from the hundreds of instruction guides that have been issued to Kiwis over the last 150 years, covering everything from the clothing an immigrant should bring, to how to take a bath, to what children may be employed as street vendors.

One of the more interesting inclusions is a list of ‘Rules of Conduct for Women Teachers, 1915’.  ‘Instructions for New Zealander’s’  credits the list to the Museum of Transport & Technology, Auckland.  Some things in the list don’t read quite right to me so I did a bit of digging, and found that the National Library has a copy of the ‘original’, apparently located at the Tauranga Historical Village Museum.  It’s also reproduced on the Puke Ariki website.

Ok.  Lots of NZ Museums using it.  But…the language isn’t accurate for New Zealand, nor do the rules make any sense for what was going on nationally or globally.  So what’s up?

Sure enough,  a bit more looking also turns up the list on Snopes, along with another purported list from 1872, and the conclusion that while the list has been around for a long time, it was almost certainly created as a ‘Oh my, the past was terrible’ document, and isn’t a period original, much less a NZ original.

So what are these rules for women?

You will not marry during the terms of your contract.

Women were expected to give up their jobs when they married, and certain districts may have expressly forbid it, so this rule may have some basis in reality.  However, considering the labour shortages in NZ during WWI, it’s quite likely that  a number of married women taught while their husbands (and many men who might have been teachers) were overseas.

You are not to keep company with men.

What does that even mean?  (I mean, I know what it means, but the more you think of it as a rule that a school board would issue, the more ridiculous  it seems).

You must be home between the hours of 8pm and 6am unless attending a school function.

Unlikely.  Teachers in the early 20th century, particularly in NZ, often had dinner with the parents of pupils, and were expected to be part of the community in terms of church groups, ladies patriotic groups (WWI, remember), etc, all of which might meet at night.

You may not leave the city limits without the permission of the Chairman of the Board.

Chairman of the Board?  City limits?

You may not loiter downtown in ice-cream stores.

Downtown isn’t a Kiwi term, nor were ice-cream stores common, so this one is a dead giveaway as a fake.  And sounds exactly like what someone in 1955 would think a school board would be afraid a teacher would do in 1915.

You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.

Oh bless!

You may not smoke cigarettes.

You may not dress in bright colours.

Because the past was black and white.  Duh.

You may not under any circumstances dye your hair.

Once again, this sounds far more 1950s than 1915.

You must wear at least two petticoats

Fabrics were already scarce in NZ by 1915 due to WWI, directly leading to the popularity of simpler undergarments like combinations, and garments that took less fabric.  Skirts were very slim in 1910-13, and even as they widened again in 1914, they were more unlikely to be worn with  so many layers of undergarments, especially separate petticoats.

Your dresses must not be any shorter than two inches above the ankle.

See above

This is definitely a fake.  It’s not remotely accurate to NZ, nor is it accurate to anywhere else in the Western World in 1915.  It’s clearly written by someone with only a vague idea of the fashions and social mores of 1915, who simply had the idea that the past was extremely prudish and restrictive.

At first this seems fun and cute, good for a laugh, though it’s  certainly not an accurate picture of New Zealand in 1915.  However, it’s also a really dangerous example of how we warp history: someone makes up a silly list like this, it gets disseminated, and manages to make its way  into numerous museum collection.  From there, it gets published in books, and suddenly it has veracity: it’s citable in research papers.  The more it is believed and spread, the less we are able to get an accurate picture of what the past was really like.
Mythbusting the rules for teachers, 1915 thedreamstress.com


  1. Linda Olson says

    My grandmother was a teacher and had most of the same rules given to her when she started teaching. Getting married meant you gave up the job. Certainly she was not to show anything above her ankles, but I’m not sure the 2 petticoats rule was included in her rule book. Minnesota early 1900’s.

  2. Lyndle says

    Well done. I’ve seen the same list quoted by so many sources that I was pretty sure it was a fake. I can tell you, however, that when my mother was at high school in the 1950s in small town NZ, they were not allowed to be seen talking to or in a car with any male other than their father. I must check whether brothers were allowed- I think they weren’t as the rule was mainly to protect the reputation of the school.

    • Lyndle says

      I meant to say that applied while they were in school uniform!

      • I’ve heard of that! It kind of makes sense – as long as you are in uniform you are representing the school. But still quite overbearing! It’s part of what makes me think this list may date to the ’50s – they are very ’50s ideas of what the past might have been like.

  3. Marguerite says

    I grew up going to Tauranga Historic Village (which no longer exists and its collections are packed up as the Council fights about whether they should pay for a new museum) and I remember that notice! There was a historic school room in the village and this was hung over a doorway.

    I always thought the sign was historically hinky and assumed that it was a bit of added colour.

    I have seen the same text floating around the internet since but it’s a shame that its appearing on museum websites (like Puke Ariki’s) without context.

    Thank you for your blog 🙂

  4. etsy.comThese must have been some sort of universal rule. Because many old school houses here in California, which are now museums, have pamphlets with the same exact rules. They sound a little extreme even for 1915.

    • It’s clearly a widely distributed fake, but it’s definitely fake. I’m guessing it was probably written sometime between the late 30s & the 60s, and somehow became widely spread.

  5. Barbara Stevens says

    I read this list when it was first put up at MOTAT and thought then it was shonky. But having seen some of the recent court cases involving stupid female teachers (and as a former teacher myself) I wonder whether there is any code of behaviour for teachers these days. We were told most sternly during training that it was all right to be friendly with pupils, but that we could not be their friends, and that was as far as any relationship should ever go. Very sensible advice.

    • I think the thing about the recent court cases is that they make headlines because they ARE so rare. The vast majority of teachers are female, and the vast majority of teachers behave with perfect propriety towards their students. And the things that make court cases aren’t remotely covered in lists like this, because they are so outrageous.

      There is absolutely codes of behaviour for teachers – I’m sure that conduct is covered during training, and every school will have their own rules. These days they cover not just conduct in school, but at many schools that I am aware of, also dictate what teachers can put on social media and what their privacy settings should be etc. I know of at least two girls colleges in NZ that even list what stores teachers cannot wear clothes from (Glassons, Supre etc) because students are also likely to shop there, and the school wants there to be clear demarcations between what students wear and what teachers wear. In some ways the rules are getting stricter!

  6. Bess Chilver says

    Very interesting cos the EXACT same list was shown as “truth” for Victorian teachers in England…the very same. I was reading it in a recreated school room in Lincoln just 2 months ago and it didn’t ring true to me then either.

    Just goes to show how “history” can be so very distorted that it then becomes “fact” in the popular mind.

  7. Sharon says

    Dyeing hair was forbidden because of those dance hall girls who colored their hair! Hair dyeing was here in America in the 1800s. Probably earlier than that. Actresses were encouraged to dye their hair in the 1930s. They were also encouraged to stay single.

    Teachers were single because if married there would be other responsibilities at home. In those days the men had control over their wives unlike today. Also a baby usually arrived within one year. So they lost the teacher. A male teacher could be married in America. They were the breadwinner.

  8. Telise Maquaire says

    Actually, I am a substitute teacher and I follow all the rules above except for the length of skirt/petticoats, I wear skorts, and room maintenance. I wear black as a type of uniform. I am not married, I’m a widow, nor do I travel. I am home by 8 and up by 6. I wouldn’t say a jackass wrote these rules. I think someone who had been teaching and understood the all encompassing commitment it takes, wrote these rules. During those times, of wild west type behavior with men, carrying guns, drinking etc.I’m sure many of these rules were meant to protect vulnerable women. Context is everything.

    • Telise, these are fake. They were written in the 1950s, based on a very warped idea of how women lived in the past. Please don’t pass them on as a period accuracy, because they aren’t!

      There can be no context without research, logic, and critical thinking 🙂

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