Students on Strike?

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

One of the unique aspects of an education at Oshawa’s Demill Ladies’ College (DLC) was the concept of the students performing the domestic chores at the college to keep the costs of tuition and upkeep down.  The school opened in 1876, and, as stated in the 1881-1882 school calendar, the purpose of the school was to bring the higher branches of education within the reach of the largest possible number of young girls. Although Reverend De Mille touted the advantages of an advanced education for females, he also emphasized the domestic roles the girls would assume upon graduation and stressed an education at DLC would properly prepare girls for this role. He suggested unhappy households were the fault of women because they lacked specific domestic training. He further claimed 90% of girls returning home from boarding school were useless.[1] “What good would it do to have a daughter educated at a fancy academy if she couldn’t cook a meal for her family when she was finished?” asked Reverend De Mille.[2]    De Mille’s  vision was based on the philosophies of Mary Lyon of Mount Holyoke Seminary in Massachusetts, the first of the Seven Sister schools and a leader in female education during the nineteenth century. 

De Mille included domestic training at the college level because he felt they complemented one another; “the home influence, the domestic knowledge with the necessity of being able to do all that is necessary in a well-kept home can be so interwoven in the college training.”[3] As students performed the necessary domestic chores at the college, De Mille argued, they were gaining meaningful experience in running a household, and this, combined with courses in domestic economy, digestion, food, health and habits of life, ensured students were adequately prepared to assume their roles in the domestic sphere.[4] Having the student perform the domestic work also cut down on the number of staff needed to run a school this size and in turn keep the tuition costs down.

Rev. De Mille

I always wondered how well this philosophy worked in an educational setting like DLC and how receptive the students were to assisting in this respect. Recently I came across a clue that perhaps some of the students were not happy about the idea of performing the domestic chores necessary to keep the school operating.  In the fall of 1879, just three years into its existence, newspaper reports of a student strike at the school started to appear.  As noted in the news brief the students “stopped short and never more were they going to wash the dishes necessary for the successful running of the institution.”[5]   The unrest appears to have roots in the fact that “some of the young ladies’ who were more advanced objected to the rudimentary branches of washing dishes in which they claimed they were already proficient.”[6]  The story of the Demill strike appeared in newspapers across the US including Ohio, Nevada, California, New York, Massachusetts, Kansas and Indiana.  Students at DLC came from all over Canada and the US leading me to think this was not the kind of publicity that De Mille would have wished. The strike seems to have been short lived as there were no further reports in the newspapers, and De Mille did not appear to adjust his educational philosophy to any great extent.  Interestingly enough, in November 1879 the Montreal Daily Witness reported an unnamed ex-student of DLC wrote to them to say stories of a strike were untrue and merely rumours. The ex-student claimed she was not opposed to the system of education and the idea of a strike “existed in imagination only.”[7]

Demill Ladies’ College as seen in Reverend de Mille’s book, In the Net.

The student strike, if indeed it did happen, was a small blip in the history of DLC. The school continued to educate young ladies until 1896 when it was destroyed by fire.


[1] Oshawa’s Female College, Oshawa Vindicator, August 12, 1873

[2] Reverend A. B. De Mille, In the Net  (London: Morgan and Scott Ltd., 1910), pg 23

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid.

[5] St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri) · 30 Oct 1879.

[6] Montreal Daily Witness, November 15, 1879.

[7] Ibid.

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