Secondary Education: a middle class preoccupation?
Some historians have argued that the improvement in girls’ schooling was consonant with a more general attempt at reforming secondary education and owed more to the attention of government through such bodies as the Taunton Commission than to feminist lobbying. This view neglects the role of feminists to widen the concerns of that commission to include girls’ education. Had Emily Davies and other feminists not pursued their case, the Commission would have looked only at the state of boys’ education. Various explanations have been suggested.
Some historians have stressed that the demand for improved educational opportunities for women was part of a wider extension of democratic rights and liberty for individuals. There are certain problems with this position especially the fact that the individuals who gained legal and political rights before the 1880s were both middle class and male. Middle class men, more than any other social group, were opposed to the extension of legal or any other sort of rights to middle class women. A second explanation suggests that industrialisation, which brought increased job opportunities for women, in turn created a need for more education. This too is problematic. Industrialisation and the entrenching of capitalist values led to a focus upon separate spheres and upon domestic respectability. A third explanation focuses on the demographic consequences of growing numbers of unmarried middle class women. Many writers of the new women’s history such as Delamont, Dyhouse, Vicinus and Pedersen favour this view. The final explanation relates the emergence of the women’s educational reform movement much more centrally to the wider women’s movement. This focus was established by Ray Stratchey in her 1928 classic The Cause, A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain and has been particularly continued by Olive Banks, Jane Rendall, Philippa Levine and June Purvis. Women saw education as the key to a broad range of activities and freedoms: as a means of training for paid employment, of alleviating the vacuity and boredom of everyday idleness and of improving their ability to fight for the extension of female opportunities in other areas.
The Governesses’ Benevolent Institution was formed in 1843 to help active governesses seek positions and aged ones to live in retirement. The central problems of education were addressed by founding two women’s colleges in London that were to play an important role as pioneer institutions. The first, Queen’s College, was founded in 1848 as an Anglican institution run by men sympathetic to the need for women’s education with an academic curriculum that developed sciences and languages as well as basic subjects and accomplishments [drawing, music, dancing, needlework]. A similar institution, Bedford College, was opened in 1849. It differed from Queen’s in one crucial respect; its founder was Elizabeth Jesser Reid, a woman committed not merely to the extension of educational provision for women but to granting them institutional autonomy.
Both took girls of 12 years and upwards, and though their academic structure hinted at a higher education with their appointment of professors, they in act fulfilled a rather less elevated need, providing a thorough if basic grounding for their students. Pupils from these colleges influenced many areas of feminist life in the 1860s and 1870s: The English Woman’s Journal, the Social Science Association, the early suffrage and married women’s property movements all stemmed from them. Ex-Queen’s students dominated many areas of feminist development, for example, Sophia Jex Blake, the first English doctor and Octavia Hill, the social work pioneer. But most important were Miss Beale and Miss Buss.
Dorothea Beale and her friend Frances Mary Buss created respectively the girls’ public boarding school and the girls’ grammar school. In 1858 Miss Beale took over the recently founded Cheltenham Ladies College [she remained as principal until 1904] and turned it into the model of the high-quality girls’ boarding school. St Leonards and Roedean were founded after 1870 based on its example. The North London Collegiate School began in 1845 as a fairly typical small private school in Camden Town to meet the problem of the lack of education for middle class girls. Frances Buss remodelled the school along the lines of Queen’s and it rapidly became an academic success story. She believed in the important of home life in the upbringing of girls and it deliberately remained a day school. In both institutions the curriculum included subjects like science and Latin. Both institutions might have remained unique in their own areas had not feminist educators brought other powerful factors into play.
Public examinations were opened to girls. Oxford and Cambridge had started Local Examinations for boys’ schools in 1858 providing an external common standard. The Victorians placed great stress on examinations as a means of raising academic performance and deciding the fitness of candidates for public office. Feminists saw that without the standard demanded of boys the new academic girls’ education would not be taken seriously. Emily Davies, the future founder of Girton College and sister of a Principal of Queen’s College, urged Cambridge to admit girls to its Locals, which it did experimentally in 1863. Miss Buss sent 25 candidates and following this success Local school examinations were formally opened to girls by Cambridge and London universities in 1865 and 1868 and Oxford in 1870. Edinburgh and Durham soon followed. The success of this campaign had two longer term results: it was proof that women could undertake the rigours of academic testing without compromising their ‘femininity’; and, it underlined the need for a greater number of schools serving the more academically-oriented girl.
As a result in 1871 the National Union for the Improvement of the Education of Women of All Classes -- rapidly known as the Women’s Education Union -- was founded by two sisters, Maria Georgina Grey and Emily Anne Shirreff. The union had broad aims both in its commitment to raising academic standards and increasing provision, and in its attempts to standardise and raise the status of women teachers. It offered a variety of financial incentives, financing teacher trainees, though its Teacher Education Loan Committee and offering various scholarships to women students. The most ambitious and long-lasting of its activities was the foundation of the Girls’ Public Day School Company in 1872, later known as the Girls’ Public Day School Trust. Though the union was disbanded in 1882, the company continued to expand its operations and by 1900 was administering more than thirty schools.
Girls’ education was also strengthened and spread after it secured financial aid through endowments. In the 1860s the Taunton Commission examined the issue of endowments for grammar schools. Feminists saw this as another crucial opportunity. Emily Davies insisted the Commission should examine girls’ education and she, and Miss Beale and Miss Buss, gave evidence before it and Miss Beale edited the volume of the report devoted to girls. The result was the Endowed Schools Act 1869 and the creation of the Endowed Schools Commissioners to reform grammar school endowments. They created 47 new grammar schools between 1869 and 1875 and their successors, the Charity Commission, created another 47 after 1875. The North London Collegiate gained an endowment from the reorganisation. The Endowed Schools Commissioners had power to make provision for girls and was widely used by them. By the time of their demise in 1874 they had made schemes creating 27 schools for girls; schemes for another twenty were in the pipeline. The Charity Commissioners proceeded at a much slower pace but as further 45 girls’ schools had been added by 1903. Parallel to these developments went the creation of proprietary schools for girls under the Girls’ Public Day School Company. A handful of new girls’ schools, such as Cheltenham, Wycombe Abbey and Roedean, were boarding, modelling themselves more or less on boys’ public schools; but the vast majority were day schools.
The effect of the 1870 Education Act was to widen the gap between the education of different classes. The Education Department Code of 1878 provided for compulsory domestic education for girls in the state sector. In essence, working class girls were being trained in domestic skills while a proportion of middle class girls were offered at least a route out of that sphere. Feminist philosophies were applied in the many new fee-paying schools rather than in the new state schools.
There was some minor activity in feminist educational provision for working class women and girls. A Working Women’s College was established in London in 1864. The only means, by which women were able to influence government and working class schooling was through membership of School Boards. In the 170s, many women took local government office, a new avenue of political participation opened to them in 1869. Women became eligible for election to Poor Law Guardianship positions and in 1870 to School Boards. Between 1892 and 1895 128 women were elected on to English and Welsh School Boards. However, they were not dealing primarily with girls’ schooling but with the schooling of all working class children and were often allotted to suitably ‘feminine’ committees such as the Needlework Sub-Committee.
The assault on higher education
The early movement for higher education for girls and its outcome occupied the 1860s. The prime mover was Emily Davies. She wanted higher education for women to widen the range of occupations open to them, fit them for public life, raise the standard of teaching in girls’ schools, advance the cause of women’s suffrage and match the experience of France, Germany and Italy where women were accepted into universities. She took a house in Hitchen in 1869 to prepare girls for Cambridge examinations and in 1873 moved to Cambridge itself as Girton College. At the same time Anne Clough moved to Cambridge in 1871 to set up what was to become Newnham College. Owens College in Manchester admitted women in 1869 and this was followed by London in 1878 and Oxford in 1879. These events were of great importance in their timing since when the civic universities movement began in the 1870s they accepted the admission of women as a normal policy.
The feminist role in education
The growing responsibility that the state took upon itself in the provision of education after 1870 did not, however, address in any practical or serious manner the problem of providing women’s education. In effect, compulsory education meant that working class girls attending state schools were educated primarily to a domestic role, with classes in laundry, home management, needle skills and the like, while in the private sector a crop of feminist inspired and feminist managed schools offered middle class girls a curriculum almost identical to that of their brothers. Feminist principles had no impact on the syllabus laid down in state schools. Feminist agitation was far more prominent that state intervention at the tertiary level.
The effective role of feminist agitation was thus limited primarily to the middle classes. Several issues need to be considered. How radical were the feminists? Carol Dyhouse and Sarah Delamont have argued that women educational campaigners perhaps fit more readily into the camp of the liberal reform movement responsible for introducing universal elementary education than into an explicitly feminist mould. They argue that traditional notions of femininity were not challenged in these new establishments, which thus reinforced conventional sex roles rather than seeking to undermine them. There were many who argued that the function of expanding the education of women was to fit them more adequately for domestic middle class wife-and-motherhood. Writers such as John Ruskin felt that female education should take into consideration a husband’s need to share his interests with his wife and conduct intelligent conversation with her.
Others propounded a moral reason for widening women’s education. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, among others, explained the crucial role played by mothers in determining the early education of their children. Conservative thought this thinking was, her argument on this matter was qualified and reflects more a shrewd understanding of women’s common situation rather than a desire simply to perpetuate it, ‘Though it is important to show that higher education would fit women better to perform the duties of married life ... the object of girls’ education should be to produce, not good wives merely, but good women.’ Educational activists can be divided into three categories: instrumentalists, whose goal was equality of opportunity; liberal humanists, for whom the function of female education was to fit them for their wife-and-motherhood role; and, moralists, whose chief interest was the inculcation of youngsters with Christian principles. Educational reformers, feminist or not, were working within strictly bounded areas. The middle class nature of the enterprise, concentrated on private education, forced some measure of caution and compromise on them through their need to establish and maintain a paying clientele. This led to a double conformity: the necessity of enforcing both an appropriate ladylike code of behaviour and an acceptance of cultural values adopted from male definitions.
Both the campaigns and the schools and colleges which succeeded them were constrained to some degree by the practical and pragmatic need to attract a paying clientele and sustain some measure of influential support. The attitude of the feminists to their male supporters strongly suggest that the women understood in clear terms the necessity for tactical modification of their visions on occasion. The consequence of these compromises was to ensure that little activity was undertaken outside the middle classes. Their concentration on the private sector, their need to maintain a ‘moderate’ profile as far as possible, their accent on academic excellence, were all factors that inhibited the percolation of these ideas down the social scale.
By 1900 feminist educational thinking, whatever its class limitations and these cannot be ignored, had established for itself an institutional focus in the new breed of girls’ schools and in the new women’s colleges. It was a movement aimed for the most part neither at the highest nor at the lowest segments of this rigidly stratified society but at the growing middle classes where the vagaries of the economy were seen as more likely to push unprepared and untrained young women into the labour market.