Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Women and education

Frances Mary Buss,
pioneer of girls' education
Public Domain
From the 1870 Act working-class girls received the same education as boys. It was among the wealthier social groups that educational provision differed.

Boarding schools

Eighteenth-century boarding schools usually aimed to take girls for no more than a couple of years during their mid-teens. They were housed in the proprietress’s own home. Their prospectuses advertised that they taught modern languages, music, dancing and painting. They varied in quality and by the mid-nineteenth century they were widely thought to be inadequate. However, there were some excellent schools. One of these was the Miss Franklin's school at Coventry, where George Eliot (Marian Evans) was a pupil. 


The census of 1861 lists 24,770 governesses living in England and Wales. While boarding schools could charge £70 - £80 p.a., a governess might cost as little as £25 p.a. (though her upkeep included board and lodging).  This put governesses within the reach of families of relatively modest means.

The reform of the education of middle-class girls began in the 1840s, stimulated by a variety of factors, including the rising wealth and expectations of the middle class, the belief that the mother as the first educator of her children needed a sound education and an increase in the number of middle-class unmarried women.

In 1847 Queen’s College in Harley Street became the first institution in the world to grant academic qualifications to women. 

Dorothea Beale
Wikimedia Common

1850 saw the foundation of the North London Collegiate School by Miss Frances Buss (1827-94); in 1854 Cheltenham Ladies College was founded; the second principal was Miss Dorothea Beale (1831-1906). In 1871: Maria Grey set up the National Union for Improving the Education of Women. In 1872 the Girls’ Public Day School Trust established.

Universities: There were tremendous obstacles, both social and cultural in the way of higher education for women. In 1849  Bedford College was founded by the Unitarian, Elizabeth Reid). This was the first university for women in the United Kingdom.

In 1879 the Victorian entrepreneur and philanthropist, Thomas Holloway, founded a university for women at Egham in Surrey. It was officially opened in 1886 by Queen Victoria as Royal Holloway College and became a member of the University of London in 1900.

The statue of Thomas and Mary Holloway
Royal Holloway
University of London

Opposition to the higher education of women was much more intense at Oxford and Cambridge. In the early 1860s Emily Davies and Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (Florence Nightingale's cousin)  founded a college at Hitchin, where the initial five students took exactly the same Cambridge exams as the men (the Little-Go followed by the Tripos).  In May 1872 the articles of association for Girton College were founded, and Emily Davies was nominated Secretary. In October 1873 the students arrived at a half finished building.

Others contested the Girton argument that the women should take the same exams as the men. At Leeds in 1867 Anne Jemima Clough (1820-92) helped establish the North of England Council for Promoting the Higher Education of Women. The Council developed the system that came to be known as ‘university extension’ - a lecture programme for women and special university-based examinations which would give an entry into teaching. When she became the first principal of Newnham College (1871) she was prepared to accept special provisions for women. As a result, Newnham attracted more students than Girton - though Emily Davies also insisted that they had sold the pass.

In 1879 Somerville College and Lady Margaret Hall were founded at Oxford. In 1884 Oxford voted to admit women to examinations but not degrees.

The resistance to the higher education of women came from a number of groups including (a) doctors who insisted that female students’ health would suffer from serious study (b) parents who feared that their daughters’ lives would be radically transformed.

But in spite of these arguments, higher education for women expanded. In 1878 London University admitted women to degrees on the same terms as men and none of the newly chartered  universities, such as the Victoria University of Manchester, drew sexual distinctions. By 1900 there were 1,476 full-time female students in England and another 1,194 in Scotland and Wales – to say nothing of the hundreds enrolled in teachers’ training colleges. Yet in 1881 women at Cambridge University were allowed only to sit the degree examinations on the same terms as men, but not be awarded degrees.

In 1890, there was a great sensation when Philippa Fawcett was ranked above the Senior Wrangler - but she was not awarded the honour! 

Philippa Garrett Fawcett
Public Domain

(In 1897 the proposal to admit women to degrees was rejected. It was only in 1947 that women in Cambridge were awarded degrees on the same terms as men.) Three years late Alice Cooke became the first woman to be appointed to a university teaching post – at Owen’s College, Manchester.


  1. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries most middle-class girls were educated at home.  
  2. A small number of elite schools began to give girls a more formal education on the lines offered to boys. By the end of the nineteenth century most universities accepted them on the same terms as man.
  3. However, this type of education was available only to the privileged few. There was still considerable opposition to higher education for women.

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