The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 38. The education of women

The great advance in the education of girls and women, which has been a prominent feature of recent educational history, may be traced back to the early activities of the Governesses’ Benevolent institution, founded in 1843. From the first, this advance has been closely connected with movements directed primarily to make teaching a profession for women. The institution soon found that it could be most helpful to governesses by making them capable of the work they undertook. For this purpose, it secured the gratuitous co-operation of F. D. Maurice and other professors of King’s college, London, who began by examining women as to their fitness to teach and then, as the result of experience, conducted classes in which women could receive the necessary instruction. Queen’s college, London, was founded in 1848 as a home for these classes and others for the education of girls and women; among the first teacher-pupils were Frances Mary Buss and Dorothea Beale, who afterwards became the leaders of reform in girls’ education. The relationship between King’s college and Queen’s college was repeated between University college and Bedford college for Women by the foundation of the latter in 1849, with a distinguished body of professors from the former as teachers, and Harriet Martineau as secretary. A committee of ladies, of which Emily Davies was secretary, induced the Taunton or Endowed Schools commission of 1864–7 to enquire into the condition of girls’ schools; the commission’s report stated that, in the education of girls, there were a want of thoroughness and of system, slovenliness and showy superficiality, inattention to rudiments and waste of time on accomplishments which were badly taught. The remedy, obviously, was to educate the teachers and to make possible a higher education for women, for which purpose the energetic women who had the cause at heart turned to the universities. In 1865, girls were allowed to present themselves at the “Local” examinations of Cambridge, and, in this way, periodical authoritative statements as to girls’ education were made possible. In 1869, Cambridge and London universities instituted examinations for women. Emily Davies then started the college at Hitchin which, in 1873, was removed to Girton; in 1869, courses of lectures were begun in Cambridge, which led to the foundation of Newnham college. A period of great expansion followed. With the help of the Endowed Schools commissioners, many girls’ schools were opened or revived, many endowments on revision were divided between boys’ schools and girls’ schools. In 1871, “The National Union for improving the education of women of all classes” (among whose founders lady Stanley of Alderley and Emily Shirreff, Mistress of Girton College, were prominent) took up the concurrent policy of starting good, cheap day-schools for girls and of making teaching by women a profession. The policy was realised in the creation of The Girls’ Public Day School company in 1872 and of The Maria Grey Training college in 1878. The university of London threw open its degree examinations to women in 1878, Cambridge opened the triposes to them in 1881, and, three years later, Oxford allowed women to pass the examinations of certain of its “schools.” Colleges for women had been instituted at Oxford in 1879. The new universities made no distinction of sex in respect of teaching, emoluments or degrees. The project of a women’s university which animates Tennyson’s Princess (1847) has failed to secure favour; but the less unsubstantial elements of the poet’s “medley” have come near to realisation.

No doubt, girls’ schools, at the beginning, voluntarily handicapped themselves by trying to teach most of the things taught in boys’ schools, as well as those things which women either need to know, or are conventionally expected to know, or to be skilled in. But this mistake was not slow to disclose itself and be corrected. On the other hand, they were not handicapped by traditional methods; and the professional bent encouraged by the advocates of a better education for girls gave the teachers a critical attitude towards educational principles and their own work which has resulted in a high level of teaching and of organisation, and a freedom from routine. If this professional bias also tended to present teaching as the most appropriate occupation of women—which could scarcely fail to affect courses of study—later experience has reduced these early tendencies to their due proportion.