In SN 35.133 Verahaccāni we find a brahmin teacher who encounters the Dhamma. Not unusual in itself, except she’s a woman. While the later brahmanical ideology excluded women from teaching (at least in the law books of the men), this was not the case in the Buddha’s time, as is amply shown in the Upanishads.
The translation is tricky, because it refers to her in two different ways.
We first hear of her through the mention of “a boy who was a student of the brahmin lady of the Verahaccāni clan”. This is entirely explicit, he is clearly her student (antevāsī).
Later, she is referred to as ācariyabhariyāya verahaccānigottāya brāhmaṇiyā. The most obvious translation of this would be, “my teacher’s wife, the brahmin lady of the Verahaccāni clan”. And that is how I have translated it so far.
Yet the context supports the idea that it refers to her as the teacher, not as the teacher’s wife. So there is some tension there.
Critical Pali Dictionary, Ven Bodhi, and Cone’s Dictionary of Pali all adopt a “normalized” reading, assuming that the passage is coherent. They therefore say that ācariyabhariyā in this context means “female teacher” (Bodhi has “our revered teacher”). As a rule, I tend to normalize passages less than Ven Bodhi; if the text appears incoherent I let the translation remain so. Obviously this is not an absolute, but it is why I did not reconcile these two senses here.
Now, there are two problems here. The first is, I am unable to find any contextual support for the idea that ācariyabhariyā means “teacher’s wife”. The compound obviously reads this, but in context the meaning is unestablished. The only context that implies a particular meaning is our current one. This suggests that we might eliminate the reading “teacher’s wife” altogether.
Some support for this is offered by the only regular passage that includes this term.
Yasmā ca kho, bhikkhave, ime dve sukkā dhammā lokaṁ pālenti tasmā paññāyati mātāti vā mātucchāti vā mātulānīti vā ācariyabhariyāti vā garūnaṁ dārāti vāti.
But because the two bright things protect the world, there is recognition of the status of mother, aunts, and wives and partners of teachers and respected people.
Given that each item in the list is different, perhaps I have been mistaken in treating ācariyabhariyā and garūnaṁ dārā as synonyms. Perhaps it means “female teachers and wives of teachers”. This is not clear contextual support, but it seems at least as plausible as two different terms for “teacher’s wives”.
The problem with this is: how do we construe the actual word? Ācariyabhariyā seems pretty definitive. Are we to simply ignore the fact that it actually says “wife” right there? I’m not aware of any passage that supports another sense.
FWIW Sanskrit has ācāryajāyā and gurudāra, among other terms in this sense. So clearly the notion that a “teacher’s wife” was someone of note is a prevalent idea.
An understanding that would make sense of this is if she was the widow of a teacher who took over her husband’s work after he died. That way she would be both the teacher and the teacher’s wife. But that seems overly specific for what appears to be quite a general term.
Perhaps we should after all set aside qualms about the literal meaning and translate as “female teachers” everywhere.