Oct 22

Women’s Education in the 19th Century by Caroline Warfield

Carol Roddy - AuthorI am pleased to welcome Caroline Warfield to my blog today. Her topic resonates with us still today.

Good to be here, Anna.

Malala Yousafzai won the world’s admiration—and a Nobel Prize—for the radical and courageous act of demanding education for girls. We in the West reacted in horror at the terrible attack on her for simply seeking an education. Yet, it hasn’t been so very long that formal education for women came to be the expected thing.

In the early 19th century and before, most education was done in the home and only the sons of the wealthy went to school. Women had to be content with a minimal literacy.   A family of moderate means taught their daughters the reading, writing, and figuring she might need to run a household but had room for little else in the need to teach her skills from animal husbandry to weaving. Girls in wealthier families fared little better, though music and social graces took the place of butter making and spinning.

Notable exceptions come to mind. Abigail Adams wrote brilliant letters to her husband while managing their family farm and taking sole responsibility for their children while her man spent years away inventing a country. Abigail Adams was a voracious reader, lucky enough to have access to books, and almost entirely self-taught. Remember also Jane Austen who wrote novels that effectively skewered the social pretenses of her day and presented stories that still resonate with readers two hundred years later. Like many women she kept up a prodigious correspondence. Her work however, does not reflect a broad scholarly background. (She was just naturally brilliant and courageous enough to publish)

Schools for women that did exist tended to be female academies or “seminaries,” most of which reflected the same limitations of subject matter. The curriculum usually did not include “masculine” subjects such as Greek, Latin, higher math and philosophy.

The women’s movement begun at the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848, and with England’s Langham Place Group saw quality education as the key thing that underpinned all other issues of gender equality. With very few exceptions (notably Oberlin College which admitted women from its inception in 1833) college education for women didn’t gain momentum until the last half of the Nineteenth Century.

Students at St. Mary's Female Seminary 1898

Students at St. Mary’s Female Seminary 1898

Soon after the American Civil War in the U.S and at roughly the same time in England, the push for education finally resulted in the establishment of women’s colleges. The famous “seven sisters” colleges, often adjuncts of the more prestigious male-only universities date from this era. Girton College opened in 1869 as an adjunct of Cambridge University. Cambridge did not, however, offer actual degrees to women until 1948. These schools, however, set out to teach those “masculine subjects” to women.

The land-grant colleges were authorized under the Morrill Act signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, an act that would provide federal support to state institutions, made college education possible for the less wealthy. The act had strict requirements that states either show equal admissions policies for blacks for fund equal colleges. In the Midwest, at least, many colleges were multi-racial and coed from the acceptance of land-grant requirements. Michigan State University, for example, graduated women students in 1870. Most, however, struggled to build female faculty and science, medicine, and engineering remained relatively empty of female students throughout the Nineteenth Century.

All those efforts on both sides of the Atlantic opened to criticism and controversy. Widespread belief that an excess of education ruined a girl’s chances of a good marriage worried parents and intimidated young women alike. Clergy preached about the decline of the family. Some members of the medical profession even questioned whether the frailer sex could handle the rigors of serious scholarship without harm to their female functions—seriously! Some believed too much blood to their brains would take vigor from other more vital organs.

None of those early efforts included actual admission of women to the major universities of either country. Did that matter? Think about this: parents still fret about getting their children into a “good” college. While there is some controversy about just what constitutes “good,” studies show that the prestige of the college has a direct impact on lifetime earnings.

Without access to full university degrees women were excluded from access to professions and decent salaries. Harvard University didn’t institute an equal admissions policy for women until 1975. Other universities have similar dismal records.

DangerousWorks_600x900The heroine of my novel Dangerous Works, Georgiana, runs right in to opposition and open ridicule when she proposes to conduct serious scholarly work. She knows enough Greek to translate words but she has a very narrow education with no way to understand the cultural world of the ancient Greeks and the lives of the woman poets whose work she translates. She has no access to a major library. When she finally finds a tutor, she gets more than she bargains for in her old friend and former suitor, Andrew Mallet. A little Greek is one thing…the art of love is another.

To see how I envision the book, check my Pinterest boards.

DANGEROUS WORKS available on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/lsaryjx





1 ping

Skip to comment form

  1. Vicki Batman

    This is very interesting. You really provided depth to an important subject. My mom’s high school only had 11 grades.

  2. Caroline Warfield

    My own mother went only to eight grade, She found my need for college surprising.

  3. Lana Williams

    How interesting! Thank goodness times have changed! So funny that men were worried whether or not we could handle it! LOL Thanks for the great info, Caroline!

    1. Caroline Warfield

      And thank goodness they have! Thanks for commenting.

  4. Becky Lower

    Interesting blog this morning, Caroline, and I love the reference to Oberlin College, since that’s where I live now. I also found it amusing that men thought so much blood going to our brains would take vigor from our female parts. So glad most men are a bit more enlightened these days.

    1. caroline warfield

      Amusing? Yes. But we still have folks so afraid of change they act crazy. Alas! Most men I know are more enlightened but then there’s Malala’s world.

  5. Melissa Keir

    I’m so glad that women have made education a priority for not just girls but for everyone. Only through education can we make changes to impact the world.

    1. Caroline Warfield

      You are absolutely right! Education is the key. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

  6. Linda Andrews

    We owe a lot to those women trailblazers. And just think in 6 years we’ll celebrate the centennial of women’s right to vote in the US.

    1. Caroline Warfield

      We certainly do! It is easy to forget how hard that fight was and how long it took.

  7. Sylvie Grayson

    Hi Caroline,

    It is probably still true in many circles, that women’s education is not imortant. My mother was pulled out of school in grade 8 because she was too ‘ill’ to continue, so she was sent to work instead. It happens, and I’m so glad to see the changes in attitude that allow girls to aspire higher and higher,

    1. Caroline Warfield

      We hold our own in medical and law school that’s for sure. There still aren’t enough girls in STEM–science, technology, engineering, and math. We need to work on that.

    2. Linda McLaughlin

      That makes no sense at all, Sylvie. Working in those days was probably way harder than going to school!

      My mom wanted to be a nurse, but her family couldn’t afford to send her past high school. She ended up working in a factory instead. She’d have been a good nurse. She was very fierce about making sure I went to college.

      1. Caroline Warfield

        You’re very lucky. My mom supported it but didn’t really understand it. She left school at 14 and worked as a waitress much of her life …except a stint as Rosey the Riveter in an airplane plant.

  8. Jill Hughey

    My mom graduated from a women’s college and has been a staunch supporter of it ever since, so I knew a bit of this history, but thanks for the reminder of how far we’ve come. Her alma mater recently went co-ed as a means to survive. In reality, they already were co-ed because of the continuing education role they were fulfilling in our community. Still, there are many alums upset by the change.

    1. Caroline Warfield

      I sympathize. I am a strong supporter of single gender high school. I was lucky enough to attend an all-girl high. I think girls remain more competitive in that environment and tend to succeed better academically. Women’s colleges have been and are excellent, but we want women to have access to the recruiting done at places like MIT or Yale.

  9. Linda McLaughlin

    Great post, Caroline. It’s important to remember our history, to know why education is so important. We owe a debt of gratitude to the early pioneers.

    1. Caroline Warfield

      Thanks Linda. We need to stay vigilant, I think.

  1. Women’s Education in the 19th Century | Caroline Warfield

    […] You can read it here. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>