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The Victorian Woman and Education

The Victorian period revolved around the teachings of the church and the definition of masculinity and femininity was as much a part of the delineation of the two as the biological difference. Hence furthering the education of women was seen as the key to opening up additional freedoms to them including training for employment, a way of eliminating the boredom of every day idleness and the ability to fight for additional rights.

Well after the successful openings of schools and women's colleges, the arguments still persisted; that it would impact severely the concept of Victorian family life and cause friction between the male and female students and within the female group itself as to exactly what should women be taught and to what degree.

Up until the late 1840s women's schools were small and the academics leaned more towards the role they would eventually in the family. The findings of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education (the Taunton Commission) in 1864 showed a lack of thoroughness and foundation, the need of organization and a broader curriculum. Astronomer Mary Somerville was quoted as saying about her experience at a Scottish boarding school for girls that "the chief thing I had to do was learn by heart a page of Johnson's dictionary."1 Frances Power Cobbe regarding her own expensive boarding school education was that whatever they were taught was de-emphasized in its importance.2

Stories abound of the women who sought an education in Victorian England. Annie Rogers whose education was obtained mostly through the teaching of governesses received an offer to study at Worcester College which was withdrawn when her sex was discovered and given to a male who tested six places below her in exams. Many women of the time lacking the opportunity of formal education organized their own education through small interest groups or alone. The cry for education was more than just for the sake of eliminating boredom, but rather for the opportunity of escaping dependence on the male population.

Social class also played a part in women's education as mixing children from different social classes was frowned upon and women such as Dorothea Beale, principal of the Cheltenham Ladies College, told the Taunton Commission in 1866 that her school admitted only the daughters of independent gentlemen or professional men."3

Many argued that the improvement in women's education resulted from the efforts of the Taunton Commission, however, the Commission was pressured by female lobbying to take action. This can be seen in a comment made by Matthew Arnold when asked to include girls' schools: "I can hardly think that the new Commission, with all it will have on its hands will be willing to undertake the enquiry into girls' schools as well as that into boys.""3 Had Emily davies and other feminists not addressed the issue, the commission would have attended only to the secondary education of boys.

Despite the national education system established through the Education Acts of 1870 and 1876, girls attending public/state schools received essentially the same skills related to the domestic role, classes in laundry, home management, needlework, etc. whereas those schools principally run by women provided a curriculum similar to what was being taught to boys. It was still the purpose in educating women to keep them in their role as the domestic middle-class wife and mother. John Ruskin, a writer during this period, believed that a woman's education should be such that it "take into consideration a husband's need to share his interest with his wife and conduct intelligent conversation with her."3

Two women's colleges were opened in the late 1840s in London, the first, in 1848, Queen's College, an Anglican foundation run by men who were sympathetic to the need in educating women and Ladies College, Bedford Square which quickly adopted the name of Bedford College. Bedford differed from Queen's College in that it was founded by a woman and run by women. The school provided an education to those women who were considered non-conformists and shut out of the Anglican school. Both admitted girls from the age of 12 upward including Frances Buss, age 21 and Adelaide Proctor, age 23. The education of many of the young women who came from radical families who moved on to join the feminist movement became a major factor in the role feminists played in educational reform.

North London Collegiate School and Cheltenham Ladies College also became prominent schools of the times. Frances Buss, began her teaching career at the age of 14. After gaining her diploma from a reorganized North London Collegiate School, brought it to academic success. The school offered an academic education at nine guineas per annum to the "families of professional men, the leading tradesmen and so on""3 and although Anglican, religious education was not required. Cheltenham Ladies College rose to a similar academic status but catered to a higher social class.

After the foundation of both of these schools, the push for secondary education for women lulled and it wasn't until the 1860s that it would again see a push, for the education of women in the field of medicine. It wasn't until the establishment of the Taunton Commission however that female education became more widespread with expanded curriculums similar to that which young men had been learning for many years.

The fight to gain admittance into schools which were formerly men's schools or take exams that were only allowed to men such as the Church and Mechanics Institute was difficult and when permitted to do so, the leaders of these men's schools knew that any failure in this area would wreak havoc on the feminist educational movement. Surprisingly however, an initial 91 females were enrolled to take the exam with only eight dropping out prior to it. And although there was a greater percentage of women who failed the math portion than men, overall performance was impressive. This success to a small degree showed that women did not sacrifice their femininity in the course of the studies and that schools were needed for the academically-oriented female.

This resulted in the formation in 1871 of the National Union for the Improvement of Education of Women of All Classes, which shortly changed its name to the Women's Education Union. The organization was led by two sisters, Maria Grey and Emily Sherriff. Both women were active not only in the education movement but also in the suffrage movement. It was their goal to fight for raising the educational standards for women as well as improve the status of female teachers. This organization provided financial incentives for women studying to become teachers. They also founded the Girls Public Day School Trust in 1872. The trust provided for school financing through the sale of shares in the company. The schools charged moderate fees and provided an academic curriculum without religion. The first school began with only 20 students but by the end of the decade there were 17 schools accommodating 2800 students. Tuition at the schools was between four to eight guineas and was guaranteed through the student's stay. It included school supplies and lunch as well and was not divided up by age groups, but rather by individual academic ability.

While the Education Acts which took place in 1870 and 1878 required compulsory education for girls, they only served to widen the gap between the education received by boys and girls. If a girl came from a working class family she was educated in domestic skills, while some middle class girls had a chance at receiving a higher education more in line with their male peers. It was still believed that girls had no need of the advanced skills as their role would eventually be that of wife, mother and supervising domestic staff. Also, women were being allowed positions in government offices and in Helen Blackburn's Handbook for Women Engaged in Social and Political Work, it showed 128 women having been elected to English and welsh School Boars between 1892 and 1895.

There were two camps of educational theory in Victorian England, the "liberal humanists" favoring a broad education and "ulitarians" who favored specific vocational education. Women choosing to go into the professions (law, medicine, etc.) were believed would "lower" the prices for this type of work and were often condemned by their male peers. Despite inroads that had been made, women were enrolled in similar course materials; however, did not have university recognition.

By the 1890s universal elementary schooling had been in effect for two decades and while the old established universities, Oxford and Cambridge, were not admitting women to degrees, they were obtaining their education and exams through schools such as the University of London and Victoria University in Manchester. They were also now training in the field of medicine. Teachers colleges were also turning out excellent graduates and though the battle not over, significant strides had been made. And while much progress had been made in educating women, it still depended upon the class of society the individual came from which would define the type of education received.

  1. Martha Somerville (ed.), Personal Recollections: From Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville, (London, 1874), p. 22.
  2. Life of Frances Power Cobbe by Herself, I (London, 1894), p. 58.
  3. Victorian Feminism 1850-1900, Philippa Levine, Univ. Press of Florida (1994), p. 29, 30, 33, 36
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