Helena Larsdotter Westerlund is primarily known for being the first woman to gain her qualifications from Folkskoleseminariet (the public-school teacher-training programme) in Gothenburg as well as being the first female public-school teacher in Sweden.
Helena Larsdotter Westerlund came from a simple background. Her father not only farmed the family farm of Hulåkra Yttergård in Svenljunga parish but also earned money as a peddler. She and her twin brother, Elias (who died the year they were both born), were the youngest of five children. In 1810 the family moved to Ambjörnstorp and, following her mother’s death in 1814, her father took her and her youngest siblings to live with her eldest sister in Fällhult, Örsås parish.
Helena Larsdotter Westerlund was confirmed as a member of the Swedish church in 1815 and the next year, aged 17, she began to teach in Örsås parish. She then alternated between working as a maid and a teacher in the surrounding parishes before returning to Fällhult in 1828, where she settled in a ‘backstuga’, a hut built into the side of a hill. She then took over Björkelund croft, which belonged to Fällhult farm, and lived there with another maid-servant called Anna-Lisa Larsdotter. During the bishop’s visit to Svenljunga in 1840 it was noted that Helena Larsdotter Westerlund and Anna-Lisa were responsible for teaching the children of Örsås parish. Two years later, during the bishop’s visit to Tranemo, Helena Larsdotter Westerlund’s teaching activities were again noted and she and another female teacher were both commended for their efforts. Yet further public recognition of her work arrived in 1844 when Helena Larsdotter Westerlund was awarded 100 ‘riksdaler banco’ from King Oscar I as a reward for her teaching efforts. According to Helena Larsdotter Westerlund’s own accounts by that time she had taught between 3,000 and 4,000 children and she had also personally cared for individual children who were orphans, for which she received some compensation from the parish.
From 1845 onwards Helena Larsdotter Westerlund was employed as a teacher in Kalf parish and, from 1847 onwards, she and her niece Christina Hedberg (who was her teaching assistant) were also registered as living at the parish parsonage. The move to Kalf parish can be seen as a consequence of the 1842 public school charter and its requirement that every parish had to ensure they had a school and a teacher. The Kalf parish parson, Cornelius Rahmns, found it hard to provide a form of education which fulfilled the requirements due to the poverty of his parish. Thus Kalf parish, along with Håksvik, Mårdaklef and Frölunda parishes, came to an arrangement to provide a mobile school in which one teacher took it in turn to teach in each parish and Cornelius Rahmns was tasked with finding a suitable teacher for the job. He settled on Helena Larsdotter Westerlund due to the enthusiasm she showed for teaching, and this was considered a precondition of taking on this demanding role.
Given that Helena Larsdotter Westerlund lacked formal qualifications she was initially only employed provisionally as a teacher. The difficulty in gaining teaching qualifications at this time was that all the national teacher-teaching programmes were only accessible to men. Cornelius Rahmns wrote to King Oscar I seeking a dispensation for Helena Larsdotter Westerlund to allow her to gain her teaching qualification at Folkskoleseminariet in Gothenburg. Going by Cornelius Rahmns’ description of Helena Larsdotter Westerlund’s teaching it becomes apparent that she also ran a Sunday School in the parish churches in addition to her work as a mobile public-school teacher. Pastor Rahmns’ request was accepted following a positive decision from the Gothenburg chapter and on 2 September 1846 Helena Larsdotter Westerlund was enrolled in the Gothenburg Folkskoleseminarium. She was not required to stay for more than a month before gaining her qualification as a public-school teacher, with good marks.
Once she finally had her qualifications Helena Larsdotter Westerlund began working as a fulltime teacher and a hard struggle ensued to see that she was paid the requisite salary for her job. Initially the school board only wanted to pay her 250 ‘riksdaler banco’, which was 50 riksdaler less than the statutory pay. After some discussion she was awarded a salary which was in fact 50 riksdaler more than what was required. Meanwhile, it became apparent that it was not always easy for Helena Larsdotter Westerlund to actually obtain her salary and that in some parishes there was a certain ill-will towards both the school and her person.
As far as the rest of Helena Larsdotter Westerlund’s activities in terms of teaching are concerned, it appears that she had to lead what could be described as a nomadic existence. During the academic year she would move between a number of so-called school stations within a given school district where she would teach local children for a brief time. The teaching fulfilled the statutory requirements of what was called a ‘mini-course’, including reading, writing, and arithmetic, Christian studies as well as hymn singing. Only a few children also received tuition in geography and history. The children were divided into different groups which Helena Larsdotter Westerlund took it in turn to teach.
Towards the late 1850s Helena Larsdotter Westerlund began to find it increasingly difficult to fulfil her job due to exhaustion and illness. Parts of the teaching programme had to be cancelled. This led to the query as to whether she should retire but given her recognised efforts through the years the school board was unwilling to take a decision without allowing Helena Larsdotter Westerlund the opportunity to put her point of view across. In a reply to the school board dated the summer of 1860 Helena Larsdotter Westerlund agreed to retire as long as she was provided with a pension of 150 riksdaler ‘riksmynt’ (specie). This request was, however, rejected by two of the parishes which belonged to that school district, meaning that she had to continue teaching. However, the following year a solution was found when those parishes agreed to contribute to Helena Larsdotter Westerlund’s pension. Thus in November 1861 she was able to give up her work with a pension of 125 riksdaler riksmynt.
The life of Helena Larsdotter Westerlund is a telling example of how preconceptions about male and female occupations within society clashed with actual practise as the schooling enterprise expanded throughout the 1800s. Closer regulation of public education through the establishment of specific jobs such as public-school teachers solely for men did not sit well with the fact that in many places teaching was a woman’s task. It was only towards the late 1850s that the problems caused by this regulation found resolution when King Oscar I decided that women should also be able to gain qualifications at teacher-training programmes and thus take up teaching posts in public schools. Helena Larsdotter Westerlund’s career can thus be seen as part of the transformation of the views on the teaching professions which preceded the establishment of special female public-school teacher-training programmes and posts for female public-school teachers.
Following her retirement Helena Larsdotter Westerlund moved in with her niece Christina and her husband who – through financial help from Helena Larsdotter Westerlund – had been able to purchase the Skyarps Öfre farm in Håcksvik parish. Helena Larsdotter Westerlund lived out her days there until November 1865 when she died from consumption.