Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Women and education

Chronology of change

Early nineteenth century

  • Importance of ‘maternal education’

  • Important element of women’s self education

  • Widespread agreement on the failings of girls’ and women’s education

  • Importance of female education recognised by very different groups

  • Early pioneers of female education

  • Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Hamilton, Hannah More, Harriet Martineau


Mid nineteenth century

1840s ‘outburst of activity’ in women’s education

  • 1843 Governesses’ Benevolent Association founded

  • new types of schools for (middle-class) women – 1848: Queen’s College, Bedford College

  • late 1830s teacher training colleges (intended for able  working-class) – e.g. Home and Colonial Training Colleges

1850s ‘notable shift’ in ideas about women’s roles – first wave feminism

1860s official enquiries into educational provision in Britain (both sexes)

  • 1863 Cambridge Local Examinations – girls allowed to enter

  • importance = standard criteria for academic assessment irrespective of sex

  • showed that

girls could stand rigours of testing
more girls’ schools with high academic standards were needed

late 1860s ‘opening up’ of higher education to women


  • 1870 Education Act – national system of state-funded elementary education for boys and girls of all classes but aimed at working class

  • sex-specific curriculum

  • 1870 Education Act also offered opportunities for women to influence state schooling as members of school boards – how successful?


Feminism and education

New ideas about women’s roles in 1850s but considerable differences between feminist supporters and campaigners

  • equal rights

  • women’s special qualities

Emily Davies – parity of assessment and curriculum – Girton College, Cambridge
Anna Jemima Clough – women’s special qualities – Newnham College, Cambridge

  • Issues of ‘double conformity’


Employment and education

  •  Were changes in women’s education an ‘open sesame’?


Case studies on women and the medical profession


  • Reform in nursing practice, standards and status grew out of 19c traditions of philanthropy

  • Became a profession with entry requirements, examinations and national registration scheme

  • By early 20c, nursing had a standardised hierarchy and was professional, secular, and salaried

  • Social hierarchies of class transferred into hospitals

Upper and middle-class ladies filled higher ranks of profession

Women doctors

  • Long battle by women to qualify as doctors

Considerable hostility to women medical students from male students
Male prejudice against women doctors
Fears of ‘deskilling’?
Fewer than 180 women doctors by 1894

  • 1858 Medical Act – new legislation

formalised medical education

abolition of old system of apprenticeships and private study
this had been Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s route to qualification
All future medical training at hospital-based medical schools
1874, 1886 Sophia Jex Blake opened women-only medical schools in London and Edinburgh
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson campaigned for women doctors to be admitted to the same qualifications as men

  • 1876 Medical (Qualification) Act – all suitably-qualified candidates could be admitted to the medical profession irrespective of their sex



  • No linear progress towards public acceptance of women’s rights to a full education nor of their abilities to undertake it

  • issues such as where women’s education should take place, its purpose, its structure and content  remained largely unresolved and contentious

  • widespread and long-lasting arguments that serious, academic education would ‘unsex’ girls and women

    • Levine shows that criticisms of girls’ education included

-  Mental exertion would damage their child-bearing capacities

-  Female pupils and students would, if in a co-educational environment, unnerve or distract male teachers and students

-  Women’s focus on matters of the mind rather than domestic matters would undermine family life

  • debates about female education within the British Isles were influenced by gender, class, religion and nationality

  • middle-class girls and women

considerable progress in the provision, quality, curriculum, and accessibility of secondary and higher education, delivered mostly in single-sex institutions. 

  • working-class girls

their curriculum in state-funded schools became more limited 
re-inforced assumptions that more academic study was irrelevant for members of their class
Only those working-class girls who intended to become teachers likely to study a wider syllabus. 
Most parents, teachers and officials agreed that ‘over-education’ of girls was  unnecessary and dangerous 

Good wives and mothers, and even domestic servants, should not prefer reading novels to reading cookery books nor see domestic work as demeaning.