The rich legacy of childless women

Bess Keller Shervin and Helen Eleanor Keller

Bess Keller Shervin and Helen Eleanor Keller

Rummaging through my family tree, I always feel a bit sad when I come across childless women. In the context of genealogy, it seems regrettable that they lack descendants to honor them. On the other hand, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, if a woman wanted to do anything other than be a wife and mother, childlessness was probably a blessing.

For instance, my great-grandfather, B.F. Keller, Jr., had three sisters, and none of them had children. Edna and Bess taught school, and Helen worked in a bank. Bess married, but she and her husband separated, and she lived with Helen for most of her life, in their father’s house in Hagerstown, Maryland.

Pictures show Bess as a handsome young woman and, later, a confident older woman. Photos from the period of her marriage are missing. I looked her up on Ancestry.com but also found no records from her marriage years. Born in 1877, she was apparently divorced or separated by 1926, when she was listed by her married name, Elizabeth Keller Shervin, on the passenger manifest of a ship arriving in Glasgow. At the age of 49, she was heading to an address in London.

Edna Keller

Edna Keller

One document refers to Bess as not only a teacher but eventually principal of an elementary school. I would bet that few mothers–or even wives–became school principals in the first half of the 20th century.

City directories of the 1940s show Bess and Helen living at the Hagerstown house. Bess’s husband, Wade Shervin, was working at a local bank and living with his sister at a different address.

Edna died in 1901, at the age of 31, from “tuberculosis of the kidneys.” Helen lived into her seventies, until 1955, and Bess died in 1975 at the grand age of 98. I was still in college then, but I never met her.

I am glad to make her acquaintance now. I offer my love and respect to Bess, Helen, and Edna.

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4 Responses to The rich legacy of childless women

  1. Barbara J Carter says:

    As usual a good bit of family history. Write about other women.

  2. visnow77 says:

    Don’t worry, I will!

  3. Judith Singer says:

    Hi –You don’t mention exactly when Bess became a principal of an elementary, but it was exceedingly rare for women to become principals up until just a couple of decades ago and it would have been virtually impossible for a married woman to become a principal until well into the 20th century. I picked up some interesting pieces of data from “The Feminization of Teaching in America” by Elizabeth Boyle ( retrievable at http://web.mit.edu/wgs/prize/eb04.html :). In 1888, an investigator reporting to the Association for the Advancement of Women found that though 67% of the teachers in the country were women, only 4% of principals and others with administrative responsibility were. Though this datum is from years earlier than Bess’ achievement, in the first half of the 1960s, my elementary school had 23 teachers, of whom only one (6th grade, of course) was a man, and the principal was male. I know that this was generally true of the other 6 or 7 elementary school in our city just north of NYC. Regarding married women in education, It was customary from the 1850s (when the proportion of female teachers began to rise rapidly) all the way to the 1920s for most U.S. communities to hire only single women, with the understanding that if they married, they would lose their jobs.

  4. visnow77 says:

    Judith, wow–those are fascinating data you have uncovered! I actually don’t know when Bess became principal because the date isn’t mentioned in the newspaper article that fact came from. I don’t have it at my fingertips, but I believe she retired in the 1940s. Thanks for the great research. I’m trying to think of a magazine I can pitch this topic to, and if I do, I might use your data, if that’s ok.

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