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Higher Education for Women

Page history last edited by Christo Whelan 10 years, 1 month ago

The struggle for equality for women had its beginnings in the Victorian Age, involving many talented and determined women.  The article with advertisement below addresses the growing movement for higher education for women and the accompanying text looks at the conditions women faced and provides a brief history of the movement, including profiles of some of the major players.


"The Higher Education of Women." The Aberdeen Journal 28 October 1868. Print.



We observe with pleasure that one of the Professors in our University has announced his intention of having a class for Ladies during the present session. We presume this is an indication that in Aberdeen, as in many other places, there is a growing desire to place within the reach of women higher educational advantages than they have hitherto enjoyed, and we hope the example of Professor Milligan will in due time be followed by his colleagues, and prove the commencement of a permanent institution which would be a boon of the most important kind to the female part of our community.  There is an immense amount of nonsense talked and written about women at present, their rights and deprivations, their powers and possibilities; but whatever difference of opinion may exist as to many points that might be raised, there can surely be no question that a woman, no less than a man, will be happier, better, and safer in every way in cultivating assiduously, as circumstances permit, whatever mental powers she may possess.  The great mischief of female education is its superficiality.  A certain amount of acquirement, especially of a kind which can be made available for display, is of course considered indispensable, but of knowledge in the real sense, or of any idea of having faculties that should be conscientiously developed by her own exertions, we fancy the average young lady just finished at a fashionable boarding school, is for the most part supremely innocent. There is, however, a considerable leaven of better things fast spreading in society now, and in contradistinction to “the girl of the period,” and also the more amiable namby-pamby miss, we have an increasing class of intelligent and thoughtful women, who, recognizing fully every home and domestic duty, feel themselves capable besides of sharing in wider interests, and of appreciating and benefiting by intercourse with the best minds. It is women of this class who may be expected to welcome the offer of a wider culture, and experience has already shown their readiness to do so. In Edinburgh and Glasgow, and in many parts of England, Associations have recently been formed with the view of promoting higher female education, and have met with marked success. We possess, in common with Edinburgh and Glasgow, the very great advantage of having in our University Professors a staff of teachers already in our midst of the highest class, and if it once became evident that the ladies of Aberdeen were not behind the ladies in other parts of the country in the desire for, and the appreciation of, the instruction these gentlemen could bestow, we can see no serious impracticability in the way of their doing what has been done elsewhere, and extending the benefits of their teaching to women. It is admitted that the Professors in this University work harder than Professors elsewhere, but they have never shown themselves backward in doing what they could beyond the usual University work. Several of them gave their services willingly to lecture the Mechanics Institute a few years ago, and at least one of them, Professor Struthers, has for a succession of winters, given evening lectures in his own class-room. We congratulate Dr. Milligan on being the first to offer a class to ladies; and it will be an evidence of indifference on the part of the ladies themselves, if his attempt is not the commencement of a more enlarged scheme. We hope, for the credit of our city, that it will be so.




Notes on the Text


University: The University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland


Dr. William Milligan: (1821-1982) A Scottish theologian and professor at the University of Aberdeen who lead the class for women at the University.


Boarding Schools: Around the 16th century, women began to be admitted to boarding schools. The collective viewpoint in England changed to reflect the fact that children could be educated together and still thrive in a boarding school environment.


“The Girl of the Period”: A piece published in 1868 in the Saturday Review by Eliza Lynn Linton. It was an essay that attacked feminism and the idea of the “New Woman” or the feminist idea of the 19th century in which women fought against the limits of a society dominated by men.


Namby-pamby: Childish and weakly sentimental. Feeble or effeminate in behavior or expression.


Edinburgh Assocation for the University Education of Women: Also known as EAUEW (formerly known as Edinburgh Ladies’ Educational Association), was one of the leading foundations advocating for higher education of women during the Victorian era. It ran from 1867-1892, the year when women began to be admitted to Scottish Universities. For over twenty-five years it put on its own classes for women before they were admitted to colleges.


Glasgow Assocation for the Higher Education of Women: The equivalent organization in Glasgow to the EAUEW that helped bring about the formation of Queen Margaret College, a womens-only college based in Glasgow, Scotland.


Mechanics’ Institutes: Establishments created for working men in order to provide them a technical education.


Professor Struthers: (1823-1899) The Chair of Anatomy at the University of Aberdeen. He is provided as an example of the professors at the University working harder than other professors, in particular that he was willing to address the Mechanics Institute.



Commentary on the Text


The Woman’s Place


The anonymous writer of the article from the Aberdeen Journal mentions that “[t]here is an immense amount of nonsense talked and written about women at present, their rights and deprivations, their powers and possibilities,” noting the growing feminist movement of the nineteenth century in Britain and its backlash.  He was referring perhaps to writers like William Rathbone Greg, who argued that the woman’s place was in the home, performing their “natural duties and labours” (Purvis 2) as wives and mothers, and therefore, faced no compelling need for higher education.  This concept of the woman’s place is in the home developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a result of the growth of industrialization and was commonly known as separate spheres.  The men of Victorian England existed in the mercantile or industrial sphere, while the women ruled the domestic sphere.  Jane Purvis points out in A History of Women’s Education in England that this “middle-class ideology embodied three major assumptions which were frequently emphasised in the writings and sayings of middle-class commentators” (2).  The first assumption was that separate spheres was the “natural” state, because of the differences in men’s and women’s biology; the second was that women are not autonomous, but relative, because their identity is governed by their relationship to their husbands and children; and the third is that women were subordinate to men because they were inferior.  It was thought “by practitioners in the medical profession…that women had a fixed stock of energy which would be rapidly depleted, with disastrous consequences for childbearing, if women’s weak brains were taxed with a lot of mental work” (2, 3).


Twenty years earlier, women writers like Sarah Stickney Ellis and Harriet Martineau certainly supported the first two assumptions, but not the last.  Ellis wrote a series of behavior books aimed at the Wives, Women, Mothers, and Daughters of England.  Davidoff and Hall say of her work:  “A tension between the notion of women as ‘relative creatures’ and a celebratory view of their potential power lies at the heart of Mrs. Ellis’ writing and helps to explain her popularity” (311).  Her justification for her point-of-view came from “the idea of female satisfaction being achieved through selflessness” (312).  Harriet Martineau, on the other hand, took a pragmatic view to get to the same conclusion.  She saw the reality of the separate spheres for men and women and made the best of it.  “Her demand for women was for individual fulfillment.  For married women this meant as wives and mothers.”   Indeed, she once wrote that “No true woman…married or single, can be happy without some sort of domestic life; —without having somebody’s happiness dependent on her” (314).  The pragmatic Martineau further argued that “[a] woman of superior mind knew better than an ignorant one what to require of servants and how to deal with tradespeople” (314) and progressively advocated for higher education for women.


The push for higher education for women began during the Victorian Age, according to Purvis, because of four explanations: as an extension of the wider move toward democratic rights and liberty for individuals (mostly men’s rights and liberties) as a result of the American and French Revolutions; as a reaction to increased job opportunities for women due to industrialization (but most new industrial opportunities were for lower class women); as an alternative occupation for the numerous middle-class women unable to find husbands, due to a shortage of suitably marriageable men (see William Rathbone Greg’s “Why Are Women Redundant?); and as an adjunct to the broader feminist movement of the century.


Women like Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon, profiled below, campaigned for and eventually upgraded the state of women’s higher education.  When they began their quest, the best an intelligent woman could hope to achieve by her education was a favorable position as a governess to a nouveau riche family.  Yet, the two diametrically opposed ideologues (Bodichon was Radical, Davies was Conservative) managed to establish the first residential woman’s college (Girton College) in England that still exists today.


It should be noted that the two large Universities, Cambridge and Oxford, unlike Aberdeen University, did not grant degrees for women well into the twentieth century.



The History of the Higher Education Movement


The Institutions


The Higher Education Movement for Women was most active in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The interest in women’s education reform was sparked by the opening of two colleges, Queen’s College (1848) and Bedford College (1849), which were originally founded to train a new oversupply of governesses in the British population, due to the “overpopulation” of women in the mid-nineteenth century: “the oversupply of poorly qualified governesses lowered both the prestige and the wages of the profession”  (Green 11).  However, the opening of the two colleges had an interesting side-effect on both its students and its faculty: “By producing a small group of women who began to reform and reorganize girls’ secondary schools…they created a self-perpetuating constituency for the reform of women’s education” (Green 12).  Women were newly interested in improving their own educations for the betterment of both their careers and themselves.


The movement made rapid advances in the span of approximately fifty years, considering that “in 1837, when Queen Victoria came to the throne, no institution of higher education was open to women” (Green 4) and “by the late 1880s and 1890s, B.A. degrees for women on the same terms as men were common at the newer universities in England and universities in Scotland and Wales” (Green 5).  Universities such as the University of Oxford, “the oldest university in the English-speaking world” (Oxford) and the University of Cambridge, founded in the early thirteenth century (Cambridge), were the most conservative of higher education schools in Great Britain and the most resistant to the Higher Education Movement: Oxford did not grant degrees to women until 1919, and Cambridge did not grant degrees to women until 1948 (Green 5). Aberdeen University (see article above), founded in 1495 (Aberdeen), was among the “newer universities” that was open to women in the late nineteenth century.  Although Professor Milligan (see article above) was opening classes to women in 1868, “all faculties” opened to women in 1892 (Aberdeen). 


The Activists


Around the same time that Milligan was offering classes to women, education activist Emily Davies (1830-1921) was organizing and preparing to open “the first residential college for women”, Girton College at Cambridge (Girton).  Established in 1869, Girton -- at the time, called Hitchin College -- was the first opportunity women in Great Britain had to receive an education equal to that of a male undergraduate (Green 1).  Davies first became interested in higher education reform for women in the 1850s, when she began campaigning for her friend, Elizabeth Garrett, to be the first British woman to sit for medical exams (Green 16).  Davies founded Girton on the principle that it would be identically equal in every way to the education that a male undergraduate would receive.  Although it received much criticism from educators who wanted the Movement to make progressive change to the university curriculum, Davies was firm in her decision that the girls of Girton College would learn the classics and mathematics to prepare for exams in the same way men did (Green 79). 


Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827-1891) was responsible for introducing both Davies and Garrett to the Movement through the Langham Place Group, a “cousin-based feminist network” which was established by female political activists, including Bodichon, in the 1850s (Martin and Goodman 1, 85-95).  Bodichon was active, outspoken and radical in political and higher social circles.  Her financial independence and social status allowed her to be liberal in her support for her passions.  In 1858, Bodichon co-founded and funded the English Woman’s Journal, a feminist political magazine, with fellow activist and writer, Bessie Rayner Parkes.  Bodichon was also a strong advocate and financial supporter of Girton College from its founding to her death in 1891, when she left 10,000 pounds of her will to the college (Girton).


In the 1860s, Davies, Bodichon, Garrett and other activists, such as Josephine Butler (1808-1906), wrote pamphlets and lectures to convince public figures and policy makers to support the Movement (Green 68).  Each woman had her own personal approach to persuasive writing.  While Davies relied on rhetorical strategy and wit, Butler appealed to the emotions of her readers (Green 19).  Bodichon, however, used a more radical and passionate approach to her writing (Girton).


Through her activism, both Davies and Bodichon formed relationships with author George Eliot.  While Eliot and Bodichon felt more comfortable with radical proposals for change in education reform and women’s rights, Davies preferred a more conservative approach and understood that “change is a process of adjustment and cooperation” (Green 99).  For example, while Eliot supported the concepts of self-mastery, and was suspicious of institutional education, Davies chose to participate actively in established political and educational systems to alter Victorian institutions from within (Green 73).  Davies’s style has been called “traditionally feminine” because of her passive approach to “influence and persuade [her] male colleagues” (Martin and Goodman 92). 


Ideology and Controversy


Before the opening of Girton College, women had been barred from all higher education institutions and their educations confined, if not to their “husband’s guardianship” (Green 2), than strictly to a “household education” (Green 6).  However, when women began to campaign for a proper institutional higher education, it received resistance from conservatives who believed that a formal education for women challenged the Victorian ideal of “separate spheres” (Green 2).


Even though the women who had access to higher education were an exclusive group of middle and upper class women, those women were marginalized and discriminated against in colleges.  Women were separated from men in classes, exams, libraries and laboratories, and they were deliberately discriminated against for scholarships, academic research funding, and credentials (Green 8).  Some female students withdrew from their studies due to “familial objections”, when their families accused their pursuit of education as pure “self-indulgence (Green 6). 


Davies, however, tried to use conservatism to her advantage in her arguments in support of the Movement.  Davies argued that intellectual ambition and domestic ideology were not necessarily mutually exclusive; instead, Davies believed that education for women could only make them better wives and mothers, because they would be more intellectually compatible to their husbands and better able to serve their needs (Green 84). 



Important People, Places and Things


Sarah Emily Davies (1830-1921)  – Davies was brought up with traditional parents. Although her three brothers were sent to boarding school for education, she was taught at home; her brothers were given the opportunity to experience college education, while she didn't. Davies believed she was denied an equal opportunity for education. Davies fought for the higher education of women throughout the latter half of the 19th century. She believed all professions should be made available for both sexes. She led campaigns for the higher education of women, which resulted in writing her book The Higher Education of Women. Davies later found herself in disagreement with most of the other members of the London Suffrage Committee. Members associated with the Radical Party, such as Barbara Bodichon and Helen Taylor, wanted votes for women on the same terms as men. Davies thought that they had more chance of success if they only asked for votes for unmarried women.


Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon (1827- 1891) - Bodichon, the eldest of a Radical MP's illegitamate chidren, was an advocator of the advancement of women's education. At the age of 21, with the financial help of her father, she opened an infant school (elementary school) in London. She was naturally progressive in her outlook and wanted to establish a non-denominational, co-educational school for children of different class backgrounds. She and Davies collaborated on opening the first residential college for women in England, Girton College, a remarkable feat, considering she and Davies held very different political views.  Besides being an advocate for women's education, she also advocated protecting married women's property while writing and organizing petitions to bring awareness of the unfair laws against women (typically married or divorced women.)


Girton College: Bodichon joined with Emily Davies for the first women's college, Girton College, at the University of Cambridge. Girton College opened in 1869 but women students at Girton were not admitted to full membership of the University of Cambridge until April 1948.


Josephine Butler (1826-1906) - Butler's main activism was fighting against the immoral use of women, such as prostitution. However, she advocated the higher education of women because she believed education would eliminate prostitution. Like some other advocates for women's education, Butler wanted to make changes within the pre-existing Victorian social system instead of radically overthrowing it. Butler believed single women should have the ability to pursue careers and an education.


English Woman's Journal- Established in 1858 by Barbara Bodichon, as a monthly magazine it advocated for the general advancement of women in society. Parkes and Bodichon both edited this journal, which was devoted specifically to women's affairs, mostly to fight against the married women's property laws and to win women's suffrage. The English Woman's Journal merged with Alexandra Magazine in 1864 to become Alexandra Magazine and Englishwoman's Journal.  In 1865, it became the Englishwoman's Review and lasted until 1910.


Langham Place Circle- Langham Place Circle (or Langham Place Group) was the general headquarters for the women's rights movement in London. Victorian Press, the Female Middle Class Emigration Society and SPEW (The Society for Promoting the Employment of Women) were all organizations that were housed at Langham Place Circle. In 1870, the circle stopped meeting due to personal differences.


Bessie Rayner Parkes (1829-1925) - Parkes played an essential role for the women's rights movement for higher education. Parkes was one of few women who had personal access to higher education. Her radical and political father gave her the ability to attend a progressive boarding school. While meeting with other women to discuss women's education reform, she wrote Remarks on the Education of Girls, which proposed reforms in education. Parkes was one of the first women to speak at the National Association for the Promotion of Social Sciences on behalf of women’s education reform. Ironically, after marrying, Parkes completely stopped her participation in the higher education movement; however, she continued to write articles and books for the remainder of her life.



Higher Education Movement Timeline


1837 – Queen Victoria comes to the throne.  At this time, no higher education institutions are open to women.


1840s – Many single (mainly middle-class) women begin to take positions as governesses.


1848/1849 – Queen’s College and Bedford College open with the aim to educate governesses.


1850s – Emily Davies first gets involved with the Movement by supporting her friend, Elizabeth Garrett, to become the first woman to sit for the medical exam.


1851 – British census reveals a “surplus” of women in comparison to men. 


1858-1864English Woman’s Journal in publication.


1860s – Davies, Josephine Butler and Barbara Bodichon wrote public reading materials to persuade policy and opinion makers to support the Movement.


1868 – Davies opens Girton (Hitchin) College to the first five women students.


1869 – Endowed Schools Act passed, which granted funding to women’s education.


1870s – Newnham at Cambridge and Lady Margaret & Somerville Halls at Oxford started as residence halls for women students.


1878 – University of London opens all degrees to women


1880s/1890s – B.A. degrees granted at many newer universities throughout Britain.


1919 – University of Oxford grants B.A. degrees to women.


1948 – University of Cambridge grants B.A. degrees to women.



Works Cited


“About Us.” The University of Aberdeen, 2010. Web. 14 October 2010. http://www.abdn.ac.uk/about/heritage.php


Bridger, Anne. “A Short History of the Society.” sptw.org. Society for Promoting the Training of Women, March 2004. Web. 1 Oct 2010.


“College House: A History.” College House Organization of Aberdeen, Scotland. Web. 14 October 2010.



Davidoff, Leonore and Catherine Hall. "Separate Spheres." The Victorian Studies Reader. Eds. Kelly Boyd and Roan McWilliam. London: Routledge, 2007. 307-317. Print.


Girton College, University of Cambridge site. Girton College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England. Web design by etianen.com. Copyright 2010. Web. 1 Oct 2010.


Greg, William Rathbone. "Why Are Women Redundant?" Victorian Prose; An Anthology.  Eds. Rosemary J. Mundhenk and LuAnn McCracken Fletcher. New York: Columbia U. P., 1999. 157-163. Print.


Green, Laura Morgan. Educating Women: Cultural Conflict and Victorian Literature.  Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2001. Print.


“Henrik Ibsen ‘Hedda Habler’: The New Woman.” City University of New York-Brooklyn. Web. 14 October 2010.



The Higher Education of Women. 1877. The University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Web. 14 October 2010.


Hirsch, Pam. "Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Feminist Leader and Founder of the First Univewrsity College for Women" Practical Visionaries: Women, Education and Social Progress 1790-1930. Ed. Mary Hilton and Hirsch. London: Pearson Education Ltd., 2000. 84-100. Print.


Linton, Eliza Lynn. The Girl of the Period and Other Social Essays. London, Richard Bentley and Son. 1883. Print.


Martin, Jane and Joyce Goodman. Women and Education, 1800-1980. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.


Mussel, Jim. "English Women's Journal (1858-1864)." NCSE Nineteenth-century Serials Edition. King's College. 18 Oct. 2010 Web http://www.ncse.ac.uk/headnotes/ewj.html 


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“Namby-pamby: Definition.” World Wide Words. Web. 14 October 2010.



“Professor Struthers and the Tay Whale.” The University of Aberdeen. Web. 14 October 2010.



Purvis, Jane. A History of Women's Education in England. Philadelphia: Open U. P. 1991. Print.


“Schools and Universities: Scotland.” The Journal of Education Vol. 15 (1893): 273. Web. 14 October 2010.


University of Cambridge site. University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England. Site maintained by webmaster. Copyright 2010. Web. 5 Oct 2010.


University of Oxford site. University of Oxford, Oxford, England. Web design by Torchbox, last updated 15 Oct 2010. Web. 5 Oct 2010.


“Victorian England: An Introduction.” University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Web. 14 October 2010.



“Victorian London – Education – Professional/Technical Colleges/Institutions – Mechanics’ Institute.” VictorianLondon.org. Web. 14 October 2010.




Project Group Members


Project Completed: Fall 2010



Member Name



Jessie Sight
English 426 
Barbara Varanka  UMKC 
English 5526 
Christo Whelan  UMKC 
English 5526 
Katie Owensby UMKC 
English 426 









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