During the 19th century there were signs in several sectors that women were making improvements in becoming equals in society. The married women’s property act for example gave them some independence as they finally had the right to own some of their money and working opportunities were becoming more acceptable for women. Teaching and clerical work were amongst the jobs that became open to women. Although these advances were though made, there were hidden catches almost, with women having to resign from their jobs when they married being just one of them.
I am going to look at how far the education gave opportunities to women during the 19th century and whether they were as good as it appeared on the surface. One of the first campaigners for Women’s education was Mary Wollstonecraft, she considered women to be in a vicious circle, which seemed to centre around women not being educated, not being taught to develop their minds, appearing less intelligent and the result, that men claimed that women were un-intelligent and therefore not worth educating. She died in 1797 and therefore did not live long into any reforms for women’s education but she be happy with the developments made?
During the 19th century education advances were definitely made but whether this was universal was a big question. There were still very much the three sectors of society during the 19th century and therefore the education for these sectors was very different accordingly. Upper class and some middle class education was restricted in the sense that most girls were taught by governesses in their own home, this did not change a great deal up until 1848 when Queens college was opened to improve and extend the training of governesses. This gave governesses an insight into what could be taught and reduced the inadequacy.
As a result I feel that governesses would have been more confident teaching academic studies to girls and I believe this to be a big advance for upper class women as they were often taught how to be a good wife and not much more. This led to a circle of activity and the governesses being educated resulted in a significant increase in the number of schools being opened by them, specifically for girls. This was a different kind from the traditional girl’s school as it offered girls all the academic subjects that were offered to boys and took on lower middle classes also.
Two such schools were Cheltenham Ladies School and the North London Collegiate School. The lack of faith and availability in these schools though was shown as only 30% of girls were educated in these schools, with 70% opting for the old traditional system. This proved that it would not be as easy to change the minds of many families in Britain. However girls in these classes were quite privileged in the fact that they were receiving any education at all as many working class girls were not offered much.
Many working class girls were offered only Sunday school education, dame schools that were highly under funded and only taught basic literacy or the institutional sector which was run by many factories. They offered half day learning from 1833 but even this education was basic and distinguished between boys and girls. There were also signs of advance in university life. Schools such as North London Collegiate School encouraged girls to enter full time higher education and by 1900 we could see vast increase in the number of women at university.
For example at Manchester there were 861 males and 123 females and at Reading 106 males and 73 females, a much closer gap than seen previously by university establishments. Women however were still restricted here too, a prime example was Agneta Ramsey who gained the highest mark in the university in classics, yet would not be awarded a degree by Cambridge University. This showed that change was not as rapid in some areas; in fact Cambridge did not give women degrees until 1947, proving that there was a long way to go for women pressing for their educational opportunities. Something which was to change this was the education act of 1870.
This changed the face of education by offering everybody the right to an education. This was a massive step forward, crucial in progressing for women’s rights in getting jobs etc . . . Even though it was not fantastic as the act only enforced half day schools; it meant that girls were getting some kind of education that they could hopefully build on in the future. The education act took Britain’s education for girls from patchy provision to universal, the first time this has ever happened, making it the best advance I feel for women’s education throughout the 19th century.
Although there were some advances to women’s education during the 19th century there is also evidence to counter this. A major area in which under the surface reform was not as progressive as it appeared was the 1870 education act. Although as I have mentioned it gave all girls for the first time a right to some kind of education, there was still a major problem, the curriculum was gendered. This was something which many women had been campaigning for several years even before the education act was agreed by parliament. Only teaching women the skills they believed were required was a form of social control on women.
It restricted the jobs women could get and was thought by many to be a way of keeping women in their place, the “angel in the home” idea. Related further to this education act was the fact that girls could be kept off school or taken out of school at a moments notice to help their mothers etc . . . Teachers turned a blind eye to this, they considered it more necessary for girls to help at home than be educated. I feel that this is extremely derogatory towards women; they were seen as the inferior class who shouldn’t really need to work and therefore didn’t need education.
Boys would never be expected to help at home over education as they were seen as the only gender who could be breadwinner of the family. Women who worked were seen as greedy by many, wanting luxuries and not just the essentials, turning their backs on their hardworking husbands. Women definitely seemed to get a much poorer deal than first thought through the education act. Looking at all the evidence I believe that educational opportunities for women in the 19th century did make some advances but I feel that there is a significant way to go to bring educational standards for women equal to that of men’s academic education.
Looking at Mary Wollstonecraft I believe that as with most of the advances I have found in education, on the surface she would be happy at the progression but under the surface she would have been deeply unhappy, mainly because of the heavily gendered education, even by 1900. This was something Mary wanted to get rid of, by giving women academic education and breaking the vicious circle she believed existed.
In the future years the government would definitely need to revise the education act by implementing more equal education rights for women, we know though that this took a while to achieve as at Cambridge degrees were not awarded to women until 1947, only 56 years ago. I believe that the following quote by Dorothea Beale sums up the education advances, “I can remember only one really clever and competent woman teacher” Although some advances were made, there was along way to go and many more women to reach and educate.