Female Education in 18th and 19th Century Britain

Term Paper, 2011

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents


1 GenderDifferences
1.1 Mental Differences between Men and Women
1.2 Women's Roles in Society

2 Challenging the Old System
2.1 The Eighteenth Century
2.1.1 The Bluestocking Circle
2.1.2 Mary Wollstonecraft
2.1.3 Catherine Macaulay Graham
2.2 The Nineteenth Century
2.2.1 EmilyDavies
2.2.2 Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy

3 Schooling Opportunities
3.1 The Governess
3.2 Traditional Private Girl's Schools
3.3 New Educational Institutions


Works Cited


Let your children be brought up together; let their sports and studies be the same; let them enjoy, in the constant presence of those who are set over them, all that freedom which innocence renders harmless, andinwhichNaturerejoices.(Macaulay1790: 32)

Eighteenth Century England was a time in which women had little to say in society. They did not have the right to vote, they were not allowed to own properties, when married and as the husband was the chiefbreadwinner, they were not supposed to work. As they could not leave the house alone without being considered a prostitute, they were confined to the home where they would have to take care of the children and the household, “a subordinate role [...] in society”(Augustin2005: 2). As a consequence, as girls did not need to go to school to learn their future tasks as housewives, they were educated at home by their mothers who acted as a role model.

The entire eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century there was little change in how girls and women were educated. The old system of patriarchy was still well established but it began to crumble little by little. Women began to fight for their rights getting more and more supporters.

This work is trying to shed light on this period's progression from girls being educated poorly to girls having the same education as their brothers. The fist chapter is going to show how gender differences were tried to be justified from a psyco medical point of view, transferring the scientific findings to women's roles in society.

The second chapter will show how important women were beginning to challenge the old system, disproving the validity of the scientific findings. Here a subdivision between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century is necessary to properly cover a timespan of roughly 150 years. The Bluestocking Circle as one of the first organizations of women will be shown as the point of departure for women's disapproval of the old system. In this context Mary Wollstonecraft as the leading character of the eighteenth century is going to be the center of attention as well as other important writers such as Catherine Macaulay Graham, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy. Of course there were many more women who would need to be mentioned, but due to limited space of this work, cannot be analyzed.

Having shown progressive views on how the education of girls should be adapted, the last chapter is going to give some insights on what schooling opportunities girls actually had, starting out with the governess as one of the main figures and then analyzing the private and public school system before and after 1870.

1 Gender Differences

Throughout the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century gender roles were well established in England. The conformist point of view was that the man was the chief breadwinner and the women the housekeeper: “belong[ing] at home, raising the children, and catering to the needs of her husband”(Augustin2005: 3). This standpoint made it clear, that women did not need that much of an education to fulfill their role in society.

Although this was one of the main, if not the biggest reason for women being educated badly, it is worth the effort, having a look at other arguments that were trying to justify not letting girls and women have an equal share of education.

1.1 Mental Differences between Men and Women

It is a biological fact that women have a smaller body than men, but in the eighteenth and also in the nineteenth century, this “was considered the external sign of a smaller brain, that is to say an emotional rather than an intellectual equipment rendering them incapable of intellectual activity” (ibid. 3). Science has already proven, that this is not the case, but as science is seen now as the background for thinking and living in a certain way, so it was seen in earlier periods, only that science back then said different things.

Scientists in the eighteenth century had already found out, that the average brain of a women weighed about 140 grams less than the average male brain, and saw that as a reason to believe, that women were inferior to men in whatever intellectual activity their were put to. This, and their weaker body, lead to the opinion that women would not sustain longer periods ofbrain action and thus marked them as less intelligent than men (cf.Romanes1887: 11).

These thoughts were de facto only assumptions, which were possibly based on a work of “Paul Broca, a famous neurologist in the late 1800s, [who] claimed that there was a relationship between brain size and intelligence”(Gouldas cited byPlotnikandKouyoumjian2011: 284). In our times we know, that there is no significant correlation between the two but as people of that time believed in it, they lived by it and treated women differently.

Controversially enough it was further argued, that girls, up to a certain age, exceeded boys in acquiring new knowledge, only to be outmatched by them in adolescence. By this time the brain had reached it's full development and in their line of argumentation, the male brain got bigger and thus more powerful. Here comparisons were made between the most brilliant of men and women at that time, only to state, that even the most intelligent women was outmatched by a man (cf.Romanes1887: 11).

The problem that lay in this line of reasoning was that many girls stayed at home to help out in the household, and thus were being educated by their mother, while “[b]oys were much more likely to leave home to go to school (from the age of six or seven)”(Shoemaker1998: 131). Even if girls got the chance to go to school, their education “was often interrupted by the need to contribute to the family economy” (ibid. 132). Hence, whether the supposedly low intelligence was caused by their smaller brains, or really by girls not going to school for an equal amount of time, was not a point of discussion and simply ignored.

As mentioned earlier, women were also seen as more emotional than rational which supposedly influenced theirjudgment, “where the female mind stands considerably below the male”(Romanes1887: 12). In the same paragraph it is stated though, that “it would be easy to find multitudes of instances where women display[ed] better judgement than men, just as in the analogous cases of learning and creative work” (ibid. 12). Nevertheless, this was thoroughly ignored always coming back to women being too emotional, crying more than men and being hysterical, making them “more apt to break away [...] from the restraint of reason” (ibid. 13).

To someone of the 21st century this seems kind of provoking, but back then, many people took this as a fact and did not argue against it. Of course there were some that fully disagreed. The most famous of them was probably Mary Wollstonecraft who did not see women as less intelligent but rather handicapped by society:

As a proof that education gives this appearance of weakness to females, we may instance the example of military men, who are, like them, sent into the world before their minds have been stored with knowledge or fortified by principles. The consequences are similar; soldiers acquire a little superficial knowledge, snatched from the muddy current of conversation, and, from continually mixing with society, they gain, what is termed a knowledge of the world; and this acquaintance with manners and customs has frequently been confounded with a knowledge of the human heart. But can the crude fruit of casual observation, never brought to the test of judgment, formed by comparing speculation and experience, deserve such a distinction? Soldiers, as well as women, practise the minor virtues with punctilious politeness.Where is then the sexual difference, when the education has been the same?[emphasis added] All the difference that I can discern, arises from the superior advantage of liberty, which enables the former to see more of life.(Wollstonecraft1792)

1.2 Women's Roles in Society

Women were, generally speaking, “excluded from public life and concentrated their attention on their domestic responsibilities which were increasingly viewed as moral duties”(Shoemaker1998: 6). As has already been stated above, they were not likely to leave the house to work and if they did, there were not many professions were they would be employed. They could work as a cleaning lady or a nurse, carrying out what they already did at home; household chores and looking after someone, the things, they had been “educated” for.

These professions did not require much of an education and as women were destined to do only these kind of jobs, they were practically raised to do just that. Women were basically not supposed to work for the family income; “ it was believed that the purpose of educating women was to prepare them for marriage by inculcating the practical skills and moral values which would enable them to be good and dutiful wives”(Laurence1994: 165).

As a result of this, it was “argued that as the two sexes have different roles to play in society they therefore have very different needs and that these should be reflected in very different educational provision”(Spender200: 1). Boys were thus educated, amongst others, in old languages, arithmetic, job related skills, reading and writing, while girls were “usually confined to the three Rs [reading, wRiting and aRithmetic]”(Augustin2005: 4). These poor qualifications did not leave them much choice in what to do, and looking at the society at that time, they did not need much more of an education if they were to stay at home their entire life.

The only other profession that did not have to do directly with carrying out household chores was teaching, even though one could argue that, as women were supposed to educate their children, educating children of others is not that different. Being a governess1 was, at least, a respectable profession for a women even though it was only “a half step above being a servant” (ibid. 18).

Looking at women's role in society and at what education did, or rather did not do for them, one can without a doubt say, that it “was instrumental in bringing them to accept their subordination” (ibid. 5), making marriage the only save harbor where a women could live and be accepted as a normal member of society. Marriage also brought economic security which, with those little chances of earning money, was the only way to survive.


1 see chapter 3.1

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Female Education in 18th and 19th Century Britain
Martin Luther University  (Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
Women in 18th and 19th Century Britain
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ISBN (Book)
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Female, Education, 18th, 19th, Great Britain
Quote paper
Nico Hübner (Author), 2011, Female Education in 18th and 19th Century Britain, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/180532


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