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% compared to nearly 70% 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.
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.
19th century School group: Bedfordshire Record Office Z50/101/12
With more middle-class women relying 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 problem between 1840 and 1870 was 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 gendered nature of elementary education can be seen after the 1870 Education Act with the curriculum for girls stressing ‘domestic skills’. 
The governess: Rebecca Solomon, c1858
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 founding 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. The timing of these events coincided with the development of civic universities in the 1870s that admitted women as a normal policy.
Some historians have argued that the improvement in middle-class girls’ schooling was linked to the 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 in widening 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. Some historians stress that the demand for improved educational opportunities for women was part of a wider extension of democratic rights and liberty for individuals especially the call for women’s suffrage after 1865. A second explanation suggests that industrialisation 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 and to a marginalising of the economic role of especially working-class women. A final explanation sees the emergence of the women’s educational reform movement much more centrally to the wider women’s movement. 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.
 Purvis, June, 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. It should be supplemented by the following: Bryant, Margaret, The Unexpected Revolution: A study of the history of the education of women and girls in the nineteenth century, (NFER), 1979, Dyhouse, Carol, Girls Growing up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, (Routledge), 1981, Gorman, Deborah, The Victorian Girl and the Feminist Ideal, (Croom Helm), 1982, Burstyn, Joan, Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood, (Croom Helm), 1980 and Fletcher, Sheila, Feminists and Bureaucrats: A study in the development of girls’ education in the nineteenth century, (Cambridge University Press), 1984, 2008. Bennett, Daphne, Emily Davies and the Liberation of Women 1830-1921, (André Deutsch), 1990 provides a detailed biography, for a brief study see the relevant section of Caine, Barbara, Victorian Feminists, (Oxford University Press), 1992. Hunt, Felicity, (ed.), Lessons for Life: The Schooling of Girls and Women, (Basil Blackwell), 1987 contains some useful papers. Spender, Dale, (ed.), The education papers: women’s quest for equality in Britain 1850-1912, (Routledge), 1987 is a valuable selection of documents on women’s education.
 Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters with Reflections of Female Conduct in the More Important Duties of Life, (J. Johnson), 1787.
 See, Roach, John, ‘Boys and girls at school, 1800-70’, History of Education, Vol. 15, (1986), pp. 147-159.
 Gomersall, Meg, ‘Ideals and realities: the education of working-class girls, 1800-1870’, History of Education, Vol. 17, (1988), pp. 37-53, Horn, Pamela, ‘The education and employment of working-class girls, 1870-1914’, History of Education, Vol. 17, (1988), pp. 71-82.
 Kaye, Elaine, A History of Queen’s College, London 1848-1972, (Chatto and Windus), 1972
 Tuke, D.M.J. and Tuke, M.J., A History of Bedford College for women, 1849-1937, (Oxford University Press), 1939.
 Dyhouse, Carol, ‘Miss Buss and Miss Beale: gender and authority in the history of education’, in Hunt, Felicity, (ed.), Lessons for life, the schooling of girls and women 1850-1950, (Basil Blackwell), 1987, pp. 22-38.
 Clarke, A. K., A history of the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, 1853-1953, (Faber), 1953. See also, Raikes, E., Dorothea Beale of Cheltenham, (A. Constable), 1908.
 Scrimgeour, Ruby Margaret, (ed.), The North London Collegiate School, 1850-1950: a hundred years of girls’ education, (Oxford University Press), 1950. See also, Ridley, A.E., Frances Mary Buss and her work for education, (Longmans), 1986.
 Sondheimer, Janet and Bodington, P.R. (eds.), The Girls’ Public Day School Trust, 1872-1972: a centenary review, (Girls’ Public Day School Trust), 1972 and Kamm, Josephine, Indicative Past: A Hundred Years of the Girls’ Public Day School Trust, (Allen & Unwin), 1971.
 Bennett, Daphne, Emily Davies and the Liberation of Women, 1830-1921, (Andre Deutsch), 1990 remains the best study; Davies, Emily, The Higher Education of Women, (Portrayer), 2002 facsimile reprint of 1866 edition. See also, Robinson, Jane, Bluestocking: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education, (Viking), 2009.
 See Stephens, B.N., Emily Davies and Girton College, (Constable & Co.), 1927.
 Clough, B.A., A memoir of Anne Jemima Clough, (E.Arnold), 1897 and Gardner, Alice, A Short History of Newnham College, Cambridge, (Bowes & Bowes), 1921.
 Stevenson, Julie, ‘Women in higher education, with special reference to University College, London, 1873-1913’, in Blanchard, I., (ed.), New directions in economic and social history, (Newlees), 1995, pp. 101-109.
 Moore, Lindy, ‘Young ladies’ institutions: the development of secondary schools for girls in Scotland, 1833-c.1870’, History of Education, Vol. 32, (2003), pp. 249-272, Sperandio, Jill, ‘Secondary schools for Norwich girls, 1850-1910: demanded or benevolently supplied?’, Gender & Education, Vol. 14, (2002), pp. 391-410.
 See, Jordan, Ellen, The women’s movement and women’s employment in nineteenth century Britain, (Routledge), 1999, pp. 107-122 and Delamont, Sara, ‘The Domestic Ideology and Women’s Education’, in Delamont, Sara and Duffin, Lorna, (eds.), The Nineteenth Century Woman, (Croom Helm), 1978 pp. 164-187.
 See, Aldrich, Richard, ‘Pioneers of female education in Victorian Britain’, History of Education Society Bulletin, Vol. 54, (1994), pp. 56-61.