A History of Women’s Education in the UK

You might know that the first women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge were founded in the 1860s and 70s, and conclude that there weren’t many educational opportunities for women available before then.

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It’s certainly the case that the quality of education available for women in the UK has generally been worse than the education available for men, there have nonetheless been some opportunities available through most of history, and intelligent women have grasped them whenever possible. `
At many times there was a shortage of formal education for either sex, which makes it hard for historians to assess levels of education such as literacy. This instead has to be reconstructed from evidence such as women leaving books in their wills, which excludes women who couldn’t afford anything as costly as a library of their own, but who may still have had some informal education.  
In this article, we take a look at the education available for women over time in the UK, and how new education opportunities were fought for and won, up to the present day.

1. Medieval women: mental maths and life in the nunnery

Educational opportunities for most people in medieval England were slim, and educational priorities were different. For instance, King Alfred’s biographer wrote that Alfred only learned to read at the age of 12; while his biographer considered this to be negligent on the part of his parents and tutors, it was clearly not unthinkable even for the younger son of a king to lack this kind of ability.

The Church was often the only source of education for Medieval families

For the vast majority of people, there were two sources of education: the Church and their immediate family. Monks and nuns would usually be able to read and write in Latin, and they were paid to teach the sons of wealthy families. Daughters were not usually included unless they were to become nuns themselves (though there were exceptions). However, teaching within the family home frequently included daughters as well as sons. This didn’t amount to much among the peasantry when they had no education of their own, but middle-class women could be highly educated and would pass that knowledge onto their daughters, so that they would be better able to run their own households.
There’s evidence of this literacy in the form of women’s writing from this time period, such as ‘Why I Can’t Be a Nun’, a fourteenth-century poem about a young woman whose father won’t let her enter a nunnery, although she dearly wishes to do so, because nunneries have become corrupt places of sin rather than the place of holy devotion that the writer would prefer. We don’t know who the author was, but it makes sense to assume it was a woman like her choice of narrator.
Even uneducated peasant women wouldn’t have been stupid. For instance, as the smallest denomination of coinage was worth a lot more than some of the purchases a woman might be expected to make, her life would be full of calculations of bartering and debts – which, without the knowledge or materials to make notes, would all have to be calculated in her head; an impressive feat both of mental maths and of memory.

2. Early modern women: the freedom of an education

Behn’s best-known works include Oroonoko and The Rover

It’s tempting to think of history as moving steadily forwards in the direction of progress, but in fact it was often a case of two steps forward, one step back. The early modern period was a time of two steps forward, when women enjoyed a greater measure of freedom and, by consequence, of education. A growing merchant class meant a growing number of people seeking to educate their daughters, so that they could help out in the family business. It’s not unusual in this time period to see merchants leaving their businesses to their wives in their wills, which demonstrates that women were well enough educated to fulfill these roles – and also that education in a wife might be an advantage.
One remarkable example of a highly educated woman in the early modern period is Aphra Behn, a playwright, poet, translator and spy. Very little is known of her early life (her own stories of it are highly embroidered) but she managed to attract the attention of people in powerful places, such that Charles II employed her as a spy in Antwerp in 1666, during the time of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. When she returned to England, she wrote plays for a living, which were often racy, and is now recognised as one of the finest playwrights of the time. Virginia Woolf wrote of her, “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

3. Georgian women: dame schools and governesses

Education became even more inaccessible for women during this period.

The Georgian period has been seen as a step back in the freedoms and education available to women in Britain. It was a time of some bright sparks in women’s education, such as the beginnings of the Bluestocking movement – a loose alliance of mostly upper-class women sharing educational pursuits – or the writings of thinkers such as Mary Wollstonecraft. However, this was also the time when the more equitable role of women in society began to give way to the ‘separate spheres’ theory, which held that men should be in charge outside the home, in the world of work, and women should be in charge within the home, in the world of childcare and household management.
While female literacy rates continued to increase, the separate spheres theory meant that wealthy families were no longer educating their daughters alongside their sons, and consequently teaching them much the same things. While boys might be sent to boarding schools, girls were sent to ‘dame schools’ or taught by governesses, and their education was tailored towards their role as wives and mothers. How to make delicate conversation, sew or manage servants was taught instead of anything more intellectually challenging; a restriction that many young women found chafing. Those who managed to get access to education despite the trends of the time accessed it in much the same way as their predecessors; usually by being taught by understanding parents or siblings, or teaching themselves from their libraries.

4. Victorian women: the beginnings of formal education

Cheltenham Ladies’ College remains a highly-desirable place to study

By the Victorian era, women’s frustration with the poor quality of the education available to them was starting to show more and more. In 1840, 60% of women were still illiterate, but by 1860, only 40% were. The industrial age meant that education increasingly offered men the opportunity to better themselves, and where educational opportunities were made available to men, they were quickly also sought by women. For instance, in 1823, the Mechanics’ Institute in London was opened to provide educational lectures for working men that they could attend outside of their working hours; by 1830, these had been opened to women as well.
Supply began, slowly, to meet the demand for women’s education. Boarding schools had long been available to teach the boys whose parents could afford them, while girls were given a less academic education at other schools or at home; now, girls’ equivalents of those schools began opening, such as Cheltenham Ladies’ College in 1853, and Roedean School in 1885. In many cases such schools were founded by wealthy women who believed passionately that their fellows deserved an education. While such schools were usually reserved for those who could afford their fees, the 1880 Education Act made education compulsory for all children between the ages of five and ten with government funding available. Though this was often ignored by poorer parents who needed the income from child labour, it did mean that all girls were guaranteed an education in law, if not in fact.

5. The early 20th century: votes and degrees

The Victorian era had seen the establishment not only of schools open to women, but also of universities, and colleges within Oxford and Cambridge. Many of the universities founded in the Victorian era were co-educational from the start, and the red-brick universities of the early 20th century followed suit. The University of London was the first in the UK to award degrees to women, which it did in 1878. This progress moved alongside the campaign to give women the vote. Many women campaigned for both, while others, such as the writer Gertrude Bell, felt that education had to come first, so that when granted the vote, women would be well enough educated to use it wisely.

Effigies of female scholars were burnt in the streets of Cambridge, and fireworks thrown in through their windows.

In 1918, women in the UK were finally given the vote, if not quite on equal terms with men (that came in 1928). In 1920, Oxford became the second-to-last university in the UK to allow women to become full members and take degrees; previously, they had been allowed to study there, but not been given an equivalent award to men. Only in 1948 did Cambridge follow suit; when the idea had first been voted on in 1897, there had been a near-riot in the city, with male undergraduates burning effigies of female scholars, and throwing fireworks at the windows of women’s colleges. Even then, the university was allowed to limit the numbers of female students relative to men, and used that power to the full.

6. 1975 onwards: equal education for boys and girls

A woman would have struggled to find a mortgage provider that would accept her pre-1975.

It seems hard to believe that in 1975, it was still perfectly legal to hire men in preference to women for no other reason than their sex, and until 1971, it was legal to pay them more for the same work as well. The Women’s Liberation Movement had been founded in 1969, holding a series of conferences around the country to demand equal pay, equal educational and job opportunities, and legal and financial independence from men, among other things. It wasn’t just in the job market that women faced discrimination; for instance, it was extremely difficult for a woman to get a mortgage without the signature of a male guarantor.
This all changed in 1975. In the face of both pressure from women and sympathetic men in the UK, and from the European Community (later the EU), which Britain had joined in 1972, the Sex Discrimination Act came into force. This banned discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status in the areas of employment, education, training, harassment, housing and the provision of goods and services. It meant that Cambridge University could no longer prioritise male students over female ones, and also meant that on graduation, women could not legally be refused jobs for which they were qualified on the basis of their sex, or be asked to resign if they married. Many single-sex colleges at Oxford and Cambridge became co-educational around this time, although as the universities as a whole were equally open to both genders, some single-sex colleges remained.

7. The 21st century: girls overtaking boys

In the four decades since the Sex Discrimination Act, the landscape of education in the UK has changed dramatically. Institutional bias against women in higher education still exists, as is shown by the fact that even today, women hold only 20% of professorships in UK universities, and in Cambridge that number is just 15%; some of the very oldest professors may even have started their careers before the Sex Discrimination Act came into force. At Oxford and Cambridge, the majority of students are still male – 54% at Cambridge, and 52% at Oxford. That statistic is particularly noteworthy as girls and boys are neck-and-neck when it comes to the top A-level grades that these universities require; slightly more girls get As than boys, while slightly more boys gets A*s than girls.

If you’re graduating this summer then you have something extra to celebrate.

In university study more generally, girls have comfortably overtaken boys; they are 35% more likely to go to university. Studying medicine was an avenue closed to women for longer than any other subject except theology, but in 2014, there were 5,000 women admitted to medicine and dentistry courses in the UK, compared to just 3,800 men. We’ve come a long way from the young women who could only gain an education by being taught alongside their brothers; from those who were told that they could attend university but not be awarded a degree (and had fireworks thrown at them for daring to ask); and from those countless numbers who were denied an education altogether.

Image credits: woman reading; books; medieval church; aphra behn; library; fire; house; girls graduating


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