Women and Schooling

In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft attacked the educational restrictions that kept women in a "state of ignorance and dependent on men. Feminists in the 1880s agreed with Wollstonecraft that girls should have the same educational opportunities as boys. However, this was very difficult as there were few schools in the country that provided a good academic education for girls. Some feminists like Marie Corbett were forced to educate their daughters, Margery Corbett Ashby and Cicely Corbett Fisher at home.

Others like Louisa Martindale, tried to start her own school for girls in her home town of Lewes. She experienced so much opposition from the people in the town she decided to abandon the project. Mary Francis Buss had more success than Martindale at forming a new school. At the age of twenty-three she founded the North London Collegiate School for Ladies. Over the next forty-four years Buss provided the kind of education that enabled her students to have academic careers.

Other women improved existing schools. In 1858 Dorothea Beale became principal of Cheltenham Ladies College. At the time the school had only a moderate reputation but under Beale's leadership it became one of the most highly regarded schools in the country. The traditional education of girls had emphasized the development of accomplishments such as music and drawing. Beale, however, was determined to provide a much more academic education.

Dorothea Beale used her success at Cheltenham Ladies College to demonstrate what a good school could achieve. Dorothea Beale was also involved in trying to improve the national standard of education and played a prominent role in the Head Mistresses' Association and The Teachers' Guild.

Postcard published in 1906.
Postcard published in 1906.

Primary Sources

(1) Josephine Butler was initially taught by her mother. She describes her early educational experiences in her book An Autobiographical Memoir.

In the pre-educational era (for women at least), we had none of the advantages which girls of the present day have. We owed much to our dear mother, who was very firm in requiring from us that whatever we did should be thoroughly done… This was a moral discipline, which perhaps compensated in value for the lack of a great store of knowledge. She would assemble us daily for the reading aloud of some solid book, and by a kind of examination following the reading assured herself that we had mastered the subject. She urged us to aim at excellence, if not perfection, in at least one thing… For two years my sister and I were together at a school in Newcastle. The lady at the school was not a good disciplinarian, and gave us much liberty, which we appreciated. In spite of the imperfectly learned lessons… the woman had a large heart and a ready sympathy.

(2) In 1840 Dorothea Beale's mother decided it was time that her nine-year-old daughter had a governess. Dorothea Beale described how her mother approached the problem in her autobiography.

My mother advertised and hundreds of answers were sent. She began by eliminating all those in which bad spelling occurred (a proceeding, which as a spelling reform I must now condemn), next the wording and composition were criticised, and lastly a few of the writers were interviewed and a selection was made. But alas! An inspection was made of our exercise-books revealed so many uncorrected faults, that a dismissal followed, and another search resulted in the same way. I can remember only one really clever and competent teacher; she had been educated in a good French school.

(3) Mrs. Beale was unable to find a good governess and eventually Dorothea was sent away to school. Dorothea Beale described her experiences in her autobiography.

It was a school considered much above average for sound instruction; our mistresses had taken pains to arrange various schemes of knowledge; yet what miserable teaching we had in many subjects; history was learned by committing to memory little manuals; rules of arithmetic were taught, but the principles were never explained. Instead of reading and learning the masterpieces of literature, we repeated week by week the 'Lamentations of King Hezekiah', the pretty but somewhat weak 'Mother's Picture'.

Ill-health compelled me to leave at thirteen, and then began a valuable time of education under the direction of myself, during which I expended a great deal of energy in useless directions, but gained more than I should have probably done at any existing school. I had access to two large libraries; the London Institution and Crosby Hall; besides which the Medical Book Club circulated many books of general interest, which were read by all and talked over at meal-times and in the evening, when my father used often to read aloud to us.

(4) In 1939, Louisa Garrett Anderson, the daughter of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, wrote about attitudes towards girls' education in the 19th century.

Men were believed to dislike 'blue-stockings', so that parents thought the serious education of their daughters superfluous: deportment, music and a little French would see them through. 'To learn arithmetic will not help my daughter to find a husband was a common point of view. A governess at home, for a short period, was the usual fate of the girls. Their brothers might go to public schools and university but home was considered the right place for their sisters. Some parents sent their daughters to a finishing school, but good schools for girls did not exist. Their teachers were untrained and ill-educated. No public examinations accepted female candidates.

To his daughters, Newson Garrett opened up the windows of the world by sending them to boarding school… He took trouble in the choice of school. Finally it was decided that Louie and Elizabeth should go on to an 'Academy for the Daughters of Gentlemen' at Blackheath, kept by Miss Browning and her sister… After two years at Blackheath, Louie and Elizabeth left, their education considered to be at an end.

(5) Hilda Martindale wrote about her experiences of schooling in her book From One Generation to Another (1944)

From the point of view of children, Lewes, where we settled, was a delightful place to live in. It was impossible to forget the old rambling house in the High Street and the great green Downs rising so steeply above the little town, and the wide meadows below. It had not the same appeal for my mother. Lewes was a Conservative town in those days, narrow in outlook both socially and religiously, and unfortunately not interested in education. My mother approved neither of the old-fashioned private schools nor of half-taught governesses… She tried hard to get a High School for Girls established in Lewes but was met with opposition on all sides. At Brighton there was such a school, so, in 1885, she decided to move there.

Mother forecast the time when every boy or girl would be trained for his or her vocation without regard to sex, so that it would seem equally natural to train a boy for cooking and housework and a girl for carpentry as vice versa, and the only unnatural thing would be to refuse training to any of one's children, or to consider the domestic arts as "menial work".

(6) Charlotte Despard did not enjoy her experiences at boarding-school in the 1850s.

I was continually seeking to find expression for the force that was in me, trying to learn, asking to serve with my life in my hand ready to offer, and no one wanting it. I must not, I was told, pursue certain studies - they were for boys - I must not be so downright, it was unladylike. Heaven had decreed that I should be a woman and (it would be sometimes be added) a privileged woman. I must prove my gratitude by gentleness, obedience and submission.

(7) Elizabeth Wolstenholme believed that improvements in education would increase women's economic independence. Elizabeth Wolstenholme explained her views in an article that she wrote in 1869 entitled the Education of Girls.

Nothing is more plainly to be seen by those who will open their eyes than three things - 1. That a very large proportion of women do not marry. 2. That of those who do marry, a very considerable proportion are not supported by their husbands. 3. That upon a very large number of widows… the burden of self-maintenance and of the maintenance of their children is thrown.

(8) Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence wrote about her education in her book My Part in a Changing World.

The idea of the higher education had not, when I was young, reached as far as our small seaside town. I never knew of any girl in Weston-Super-Mare who aspired to go to College or University… It was my mother's wish that I should be sent, when fifteen years of age, for a year or two to what in those days was called a "Finishing School". She thought that my manners and my deportment needed polishing up, as no doubt they did.

(9) Teresa Billington's parents were Roman Catholics and so in 1884 she was sent to the Blackburn Convent School. Teresa Billington recalled her impressions of school in her unpublished autobiography.

We were taught to be Catholic young ladies on the lines of the education given to our grandmothers. There were no oral lessons, no demonstrations, no analysis or breaking down of problems. We sat quietly in rows of desks, learned from books, and our work was corrected by the nun who was mistress of the moment from the answers at the back of a similar book…. We had long periods of religious instruction… Friday afternoon was devoted entirely to behaviour. 'Manners make the lady,' we were taught, 'not money or learning, not beauty.' So we were practised opening a door, entering and leaving a room, bringing in a letter, a message, a tray or a gift, asking the mothers of girl friends to permit their daughters to attend a party, receiving a caller in the absence of parents, and so on!

(10) Annie Kenney wrote about her school experiences in her book, Memories of a Militant.

I went to the village school when I was five…. When I was ten years of age a change came into my life. My mother announced to me that I was to work in a factory. I was to join the army of half-timers; to work in the factory half the day and attend school the other half. I received the news with mixed feelings. I was glad to escape the hated school lessons, which were a burden to me, but I had a fear of the new life… When I arrived at the factory I was met by a group of girls… who stared at me. Every new girl was critically examined by the older girls. Your clogs were examined; thick or thin made a difference; your petticoat, your pinafore, the quality, the colour, stamped you accordingly in the eyes of these girl students of ten and thirteen.

(11) Margery Corbett Ashby wrote about her childhood in the 1970s. Her account was included in her Memoirs published after her death in 1997.

We were educated at home. Lessons were divided. Mother took scripture and music… My father taught us history, geography, mathematics and Latin. From the age of four I read everything I could lay my hands on. I remember lying on the floor reading contemporary accounts of the Indian Mutiny and the Crimean War in my grandfather's library, where there was a complete set of Illustrated London News. He had bookshelves to the ceiling… In my father's library the big bookcases also went up to the ceiling.

(12) Emily Pankhurst was sent to a local girl's school in Manchester. At the age of fifteen she went to a finishing school in Paris. This account appeared in her autobiography, My Own Life, in 1914.

The education of boys was considered a much more serious matter than the education of girls. My parents… discussed the question of my brothers' education as a matter of real importance. My education and that of my sister were scarcely discussed at all. Of course we went to a carefully selected girls' school, but beyond the facts that the headmistress was a good woman and that all the pupils were girls of my own class, nobody seemed concerned. A girl's education at that time seemed to have for its prime object the art of 'making a home attractive'.

When I was fifteen I was sent to school in Paris. The school was under the direction of Marchef Girard… a woman who believed that girls' education should be quite as thorough… as the education of boys. She included chemistry and other sciences in the course, and in addition to embroidery she had her girls taught bookkeeping. When I was nineteen I finally returned from school in Paris and took my place in my father's home as a finished young lady.

(13) Hannah Mitchell only received two weeks of formal education. In her autobiography, The Hard Way Up, she describes her working-class education.

The nearest school was five miles away by the shortest cut over the hill, which made daily attendance impossible… My father and uncle had taught us all to read… My uncle taught me to write and I taught the two younger ones to read and write… It was a long and difficult task as neither of them was keen on learning… My uncle bought exercise books and set lines for me to copy such as 'Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today'.

We had no dictionary, so when I came across a word I didn't understand, or could not pronounce properly, I copied it and listened attentively to the preachers at chapel, until one of them used the doubtful word… I cherished my new word as a pearl of great price. Perhaps the church parson, making his yearly round of a scattered parish, would call at the farm, and over a cup of tea would talk kindly to us children. I sometimes ventured to ask him a few questions about books, but my mother thought this was a reflection on her, and it usually earned me a beating.

(14) Octavia Wilberforce described attitudes towards the education of girls in her book, Octavia Wilberforce: The Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

In my youth education for girls in England was not generally accepted as essential to their background. In the middle classes the main object was for parents to bring up their daughters to be sufficiently attractive to gain a suitable husband, to produce large families and be accomplished in the art of managing servants and the entertainment of guests.

(15) Octavia Wilberforce was the youngest of seven children. Whereas her four brothers were educated at expensive private schools, Octavia did not receive any formal education until she was sixteen. She described how this happened in her autobiography, Octavia Wilberforce: The Autobiography of a Pioneer Woman Doctor.

Miss Lucy Phillimore, my mother's greatest friend, arrived to stay, and strongly disapproved of my spending my time fishing. I was sixteen years old, must really have some education, and was bundled off to St. Hilda's School as a day girl… I was put in a class of girls of similar age and on the very first day in a thoroughly encouraging way the mistress of the scripture lesson said, 'Well, you Octavia, as niece of the Bishop of Chichester, will know the answer to this question.' I was introduced to Arithmetic, and moved into a class of little girls who were all superior to me in this horrible subject… It was not till we played hockey that I gained even a modicum of respect from my school associates.

(16) In 1927 Margaret McMillan later recalled her first experience of schooling in Inverness.

Our mother was possessed by one aim - to give us children a proper education. She spared nothing in the pursuit of this end. The first experience of school was a little disconcerting and in some ways even alarming. The children sat in large room with a desk that looked like a pulpit. This desk contained, as we afterwards learned with horror, a tawse, or leathern strap, with four tongues, which the masters used with energy, not indeed for the punishment of girls, but only of boys. In spite of our immunity, we were filled with anxiety and distress, and had a deep sympathy with the unruly boys.

There were other things that were disturbing. The schools of that day, even for well-to-do children whose parents paid high fees (our mother paid them with difficulty), had a low standard in respect of hygiene. Dusty walls, greasy slates, no hot water and no care of the physical body.

(17) Margaret Haig Thomas, This Was My World (1933)

Until I was thirteen I learnt what trifles I did learn from governesses, first French and later German, but at thirteen. I was sent to Notting Hill High School. It was my father who wanted this. I suppose he realised that there was no serious connection between the governesses and education.

The German governess, however, remained, and conducted me every morning in a four-wheeler from our flat in Westminster to Notting Hill. When school was over she called for me and walked me back through the parks.

Two years later I went to St. Leonards School, St. Andrews. This was at my own wish. I had discovered that at St. Leonards girls were allowed to go out for walks by themselves without attendant mistresses. This spelt freedom, and it was for freedom that I thirsted. I went to my father and told him what I wanted to do. Would he help? He was at first a shade doubtful. He knew little of girls' boarding schools, but his sister Mary had been to one, and he thought she had learnt to be silly there. The girls, he understood, used to flirt with the boys at an army crammer's next door.