The education of women and girls had been an issue in England since the 1790s. Certain social pressures gave the claims of writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, that equality of education with boys was a means of securing independence for women, an extra urgency by 1850:
- Women were still less educated than men. Female literacy rates in 1851 were still only 55 per cent compared to nearly 70 per cent for men.
- The proportion of women in the population was steadily rising from 1,036 females per 1,000 males in 1821 to 1,054 per 1,000 in 1871. This meant that there was a surplus of women over men and accordingly over a quarter of a million women had little expectation of marriage and the lifetime protection of husband and home. This situation was exacerbated by the rising age of marriage that also left more single women waiting for, and often not achieving, marriage.
- With more women detached in their expectations from reliance on parents or putative husbands and children, they were forced to think in terms of earning their own living in a career. This brought the education issue to the forefront of feminist thinking.
The education of women was a class-based as that of boys.
- Well-to-do girls were educated at home or in small academies in 1830. The academic content was low and, with the transformation of the grammar schools, girls found themselves excluded from establishments they had attended in the eighteenth century.
- Lower class girls attended the National or British schools along with boys and were destined, if not for the drudgery of a working class marriage, then for factory work or the vast army of domestic service. The education girls received before 1870 was very similar to that followed by boys, with the probable addition of some sewing and knitting. The concern to develop a more distinctive curriculum with a focus on domestic science, cooking, laundry and needlework came after 1870 and especially in the 1880s and 1890s.
- The problem in the 1840-70 period was largely a middle class one of finding careers for unmarried middle class ladies and of fashioning an education that would fit them for it. Existing careers were limited in 1850 and becoming a governess was the only means of earning a living for women of gentle birth. In 1851 there were some 25,000 governesses in England but they had no proper training and often an education barely above the accomplishments. Moreover there were uneasy status incongruities: hired to impart ladylike qualities to her charges, the governess by taking paid employment forfeited her own status as a lady.
- The gender nature of elementary education can be seen after the 1870 Education Act with the curriculum for girls stressing 'domestic skills’.
The Governesses’ Benevolent Institution was formed in 1843 to help active governesses seek positions and aged ones to live in retirement. They tackled the central problem of education by founding Queen’s College in 1848 with an academic curriculum that developed sciences and languages as well as basic subjects and accomplishments [drawing, music, dancing, and needlework]. A similar institution, Bedford College, was opened in 1849. 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 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. Miss Buss’ North London Collegiate School began in 1850 in Camden Town to meet the problem of the lack of education for middle class girls. 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 two 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, that it did experimentally in 1863. Miss Buss sent 25 candidates and following this success Local school examinations were formally opened to girls by Cambridge, Edinburgh and Durham universities in 1865 and 1866 and Oxford followed suit in 1870.
- Girls’ education was 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 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. This was followed by London in 1878 and Oxford in 1879. These events were of great importance in their timing since when the civic university movement began in the 1870s they accepted the admission of women as a normal policy.
 June Purvis A History of Women's Education in England, Open University Press, 1991 covers the period between 1800 and 1914 and is the best introduction to the subject.