Economics of Downton Abbey: A Place for Ms. Bunting

Sarah Bunting
Sarah Bunting, played by actress Daisy Lewis, on Season Five of Downton Abbey

(Season Five, Episode Five)

On Episode Five we watch Sarah Bunting say her goodbyes. A polarizing figure in the Downton universe, she deserves her own post for her final appearance on the show. So today, I’m making my case for her to join a teachers’ union.

First, a little background: In the 1920s women’s employment opportunities rested in a narrow band of job options.Ms. Bunting was one of the lucky women who made it into the professional ranks. The majority of women worked in the service industry – mainly in domestic service – and those lucky enough to join professional fields were pushed toward “caring positions;” 90% of female professionals worked as teachers, nurses and midwives (Horn 2010 [1995]).  

Discrimination in the Teaching Profession

Teaching was an opportunity for women (particularly those in the working or lower-middle classes) to enter a profession and have a career (Kean and Oram, 1990). That is, if they were able to get the education necessary to become a teacher. We can see through Daisy’s plot line this season that education levels were low for the majority of working class women – and this lack of education conditioned their social status and employment opportunities later in life.

Many women remained disenfranchised during the 1920s; only women over the age of 30 who met the property requirements were able to vote between 1918 and 1928. And so, women who taught faced a peculiar scenario with the State as their employer, as historians Hilda Kean and Alison Oram write: “[The State] ultimately determined the education policy they were required to implement in their classrooms yet denied them, as disenfranchised women, even the influence possible through the parliamentary process” (1990, p. 150).

Women teachers faced discrimination in many forms: unequal pay, marriage bars, and relegation to primary school classrooms where pay was lowest (and lower still for women). Ms. Bunting’s opportunity to teach in a grammar school is indeed a “step up” – she joins the very few women who taught in secondary schools. When she gets there, however, she’ll very likely be paid less than her male counterparts, and if she marries she might be asked to leave her position.

National Union of Women Teachers

While Downton Abbey makes no mention of Ms. Bunting being part of a teacher’s union, her strong leftist views echo those of teachers’ unions that were present in the 1920s. The National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT) in particular had a political, feminist outlook that closely aligns with Ms. Bunting’s views on the show.

I think she should join them.

NUWT fostered a community of women teachers that embraced strong political identity (Kean and Oram 1990). This seems like something Ms. Bunting would appreciate. On Downton she is constantly fighting her political battles by herself – not even Tom fully measures up to her ideological standards. NUWT took on issues of equal pay, marriage bans, and general discrimination against women in the profession, and the union was not afraid to be vocal.  Ms. Bunting would fit right in.

Members of NUWT took a broader view of education that pairs well with Ms. Bunting’s personal endeavors. The union saw self-education as a path towards equality and members often took up private study to increase their own qualifications. They believed in equal provisions for girls and opposed the idea that girls’ education should be focused on domestic knowledge. Ms. Bunting’s encouragement of Daisy’s studies echoes these views. She urges Daisy to continue private study of math and other subjects, and gives her a goal of taking matriculation exams – something I’m sure no one had ever said to Daisy before. While Mrs. Hughes tells Daisy to go “as far in life as God and luck allow,” Ms. Bunting reminds her that she has the brains to do so as well.

Unlike many of the characters on Downton Abbey, Ms. Bunting is always ready to embrace change. Joining a union of strong, independent women at the forefront of the battle for equality in the teaching profession seems perfect for her.

Further Reading

For additional information on the Nation Union of Women Teachers, there is a great blog about the ongoing archival efforts for the NUWT collection at the University of London’s Institute of Education.

Heath, A.  and C. Payne. 1999. “Twentieth Century Trend in Social Mobility in Britain.” Center for Research into Elections and Social Trends Working Paper No. 70.

Horn, P. 2010 [1995]. Women in the 1920sAmberley Publishing: Gloucestershire UK.

Kean, H. and A. Oram. 1990. “‘Men Must be Educated and Women Must Do It’: The National Federation (Later Union) of Women Teachers and Contemporary Feminism  1910 – 1930.” Gender & Education 2(2) pp. 147 – 167.

Image retrieved from the Sarah Bunting character page on on February 2, 2015. 



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