A Suitable Education for Girls

In an age when a woman’s greatest responsibility was to marry and bear children, education largely centered around the preparation for those roles. Working class women learned from their mothers or from other working class women how to ply their trades, with focus on those skills that would allow them to supply for the necessities of the home. If they were lucky, they might have some rudimentary education in reading, writing, and maths, depending on the necessity and practicality of learning such.

For women of more means, the daughters of gentlemen, a governess was often brought in to offer a smattering of lessons in basic Latin and possibly Greek with a greater emphasis being placed on skills associated with etiquette and the social graces. The greatest focus, however, was on “accomplishments”, those subtle skills and charms meant to entice a man to consider what she, as a potential wife, would add to his home in the way of charming and entertaining their social peers. Music, drawing, painting, flower arranging, singing and dancing were the aspiring qualities to be obtained by the “angel of the home”. With so much to learn and practice, she was rarely truly gifted at any of it. It was also true that some accomplishments were given higher rank than others.

The subject of education has been a subtle focus of my own thoughts as I have been working on the Less is More Series (but also, in a smaller way, on Absinthe Absolute and the role of women at the Absinthe Moon, including the necessity of providing husbands to the city’s Chosen sphere). In Fearless, our heroine is considered to be a woman who has neglected to become truly accomplished. She is reluctant of society and rather than peacocking her collection of poorly learned talents for the approval (and judgment) of her peers, she would rather focus her attentions on more fulfilling pursuits, like that of being a suitable companion to her aging father, and of her true passion, writing and storytelling into which she invests most of her idle time. In Guileless, the focus of Antonia’s plight is on education and how she longs to study those things her father, a former educator of young men, supplies to her brothers. By the men she shares her home with , she is considered silly and unintelligent, but these qualities are preferable to a woman who boasts her opinions to the irritation of her future husband and children. The desire of the men in her family is that their only sister and daughter be agreeable and free of the burden of wearying information which will only risk the stability of her own mind and sensibilities and remove the subtle beauties of unadulterated innocence and femininity fro her countenance.

Such were the arguments of the men around her, and, at least in many quarters, the men of that day. And so it had been for generations. The coronation of a Queen who had quickly become a super power began to show its influence in society, and by 1840, arguments began to arise in certain circles in favor of the higher education of women. These, after all, were to be the inevitable and primary educators of their own children, and how much more of an advantage would those children have if their mothers were possessed of solid educations themselves? And yet, in 1860, the fact remained that only 12 public secondary schools were in existence in the whole of England and Wales. This despite the fact that the Taunton Commission found that women had an equal capacity for learning as did men–a conclusion that rattled the firm and confident assumptions of many members of the patriarchal caste system that was (and in many ways still is) English society.

One particularly enterprising woman named Anne Jemima Clough began to take matters into her own hands when she switched the focus in her own school from that of domestic skills toward those of academic achievement. Miss Clough would go on to become the first principal of Cambridge’s Newnham College.

Cambridge’s first school dedicated to the education of women was Girton College, established in 1869 when it welcomed its first five students. The school, located 2.5 miles outside of the city, was not actually part of Cambridge (and would not be recognized as such until 1948). The accomplishment of the industry, hard work, and fundraising efforts of Emily Davies, the intent was to provide women with an education on the same level as that received by Cambridge men, despite the fact that most women who wished for such an education had not been prepared for it, their own educations, deprived of the benefit of proper preparatory and secondary schools, having left their educations sorely lacking.

In 1871, Henry Sidgewick, a fellow of Trinity, rented a house in which he offered a series of lectures to those who held an interest in hearing them. Many of these women did not live in Cambridge, however, and had to commute, and so facilities were acquired to house them. Newnham thus came into formal existence in 1881, but its methods were different than Girton, for it understood the necessity of providing a more flexible curriculum based on the needs of its students to be brought up to the same level as the men who were entering Cambridge just out of secondary school. Eventually, however, it was those first women of Newnham who returned home to become educators in secondary schools and who had the training to likewise prepare young women to enter the female colleges of Cambridge if they so chose. By 1890, women at Cambridge were outranking their male counterparts and entering the skilled labor force. Even still, there were no degrees to be offered to reward these women for their accomplishments.

It was little wonder, then, that the Women’s Suffrage movement found a place in Cambridge. In 1897, a group of “fanatics” forced a vote to change the policy regarding degrees for women at Cambridge. The resolution was soundly defeated with a vote of 1,707 against and only 661 in favor. While awaiting the vote, a mob gathered outside. Some threw eggs or confetti, while others threw garbage and epithets. “No Gowns for the Girtonites!” some posters shouted. Posters read, “Frustrate the Female Fanatics.” An effigy of a woman on a bicycle was hung outside the third floor windows of the building in which the vote was taking place (now the University Press book shop).

In 1921, a full 24 years later, a second vote was held on the issue of degrees for women, and it, like the last, ended in a mob turnout, and, unlike the 1897 referendum, in vandalism. It wasn’t until 1948 that women were at last awarded degrees at Cambridge and the two schools were formally recognized as part of the institution. Perhaps it was in an effort to cushion the blow to their male colleagues that a limit was placed on the number of women allowed to graduate, capping the matricular population for female students at just 20%, a limitation that endured until 1987.

It should be noted that the Cambridge resistance to female education was not universal. The London School of Medicine for Women opened in 1871, and the London University (now University College) awarded its first degrees to women 1882.

From the 1860’s into the turn-of-the-century, arguments for and against the higher education of women took up space in the magazines and newspapers of the day. For your pleasure and enlightenment, we offer the following examples:

“It is well known that a woman’s physique is not equal to a man’s, and that the brain power depends very much on the physique which nourishes the brain—ergo, the average woman will never equal the average man on his own ground. We do not deny that a clever woman can equal or surpass an average man; nor that the present system of education is infinitely superior to the old dreary round of lessons. But even to that there are two sides. While girls are learning Greek and mathematics, they have little time for needlework, which used to be a part of every girl’s education, and which they will want to understand at some period of their lives. It is the fashion now rather to sneer at darning, mending, and other trifling household duties; but if a woman is to be a wife and other, she will need a good deal of such knowledge. It is a great thing to know the relation of one angle to another; but it is not every mathematician who brings her knowledge to a particular issue with regard to tables and chairs, or can tell whether a room has been properly dusted or not.”

From “M.P.S.” as found in Girl’s Own Paper, 1882 and available in its entirety here (including a clever rebuttal from a 14 year-old reader.)

Also from the Girl’s Own Paper of 1889 and attributed to “Beatus”

“Women vie with men in the higher branches of the exact sciences, and, as a matter of course, the victory is not always with the strong. But it is more than probable that these individual cases of success are achieved at a terribly disproportionate expense to the ex as a whole. A woman may indeed attain a high place in the mathematical tripos, but in the course of her three years of close and unremitting study, how many sweet visions of life’s springtime have been lost; in the pursuit of those mental gymnastics so appropriate to the male intellect, how many natural feminine faculties have been thwarted and crushed!”

Beatus (we can only assume he is a man) is referencing Philippa Fawcett, the daughter of Suffragist Millicent Fawcett, who, in 1890, became the first woman to obtain the top score in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams, receiving a score 13% higher than the next highest, which, had she been a man, would have awarded her the title of Senior Wrangler. Clearly the author felt that Ms. Fawcett had given up a great deal in the way of marriageable qualities with her achievement. Perhaps she did, for she never married, but she improved the lives of countless individuals in her professional and humanitarian work. Read her biography here.

Beatus goes on to say: “It is difficult to exaggerate the harm which has already resulted from the so-called higher education of women. The earnest sincerity which formerly characterized all good women is gradually being replaced by a light, easy infidelity of high and noble things. The drawing-room conversation of women who have suffered most from this educational scourge, is seldom more than a series of cynical criticism and grotesque perversions, which may sometimes be witty, but are always more or less antagonistic to the cause of truth.”

Read the entire passage here.

And, finally, this argument for, which we feel summarizes the root of all inequality, lack of access and then gaslighting of the disenfranchised (ableism).

“There is a vast deal which women have taught men, and men have then taught the world, and which the men alone have had the credit for, because the woman’s share is untraceable. But, cry some of our modern ladies, this is exactly what we wish to avoid; we can teach the world directly, and we insist on being allowed to do so. If our sphere has been hitherto more personal, it is because you have forced seclusion and restriction upon us. Educate us like yourselves, and we shall be competent to fill the same places as you do, and discharge the same duties.”

From Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1863. Read it here.

Many thanks to VictorianVoices.net for their collection of original sources.

For a fictionalized account of the plight of women who sought higher education in the late Victorian era, we invite you to read Guileless.