Select Page

On the Education of Women

May 31, 1871 — Society of Arts, London, England


Some time ago, the Pall Mall Gazette said that “the world was vexing itself to distraction over woman’s health, woman’s rights, woman’s wrongs, woman’s work, and woman’s education,” and it is undoubtedly true that the women’s question, as it is called, has assumed of late a very prominent place among those which occupy the attention of the public. A wit once remarked that the best way to get rid of a temptation was to yield to it; and I would suggest to those who are distanced by the various pleas advanced on behalf of women, that the best way to be rid of hearing of their wrongs would be to right them.

The grievance I have specially to call your attention to this evening is the loc condition of women’s education, the inadequate provision made for it out of the endowments of the country, and the difficulty of obtaining support from the general public for any scheme having for its object their higher education.

In what I have to say, I shall only touch very slightly on the classes which come under the Elementary Education Act, and for this reason, that in those classes girls do, on the whole, share all the educational advantages equally with the boys. They receive the same instruction, with the addition of sewing; they are examined by the same inspectors and by the same standards; their teachers undergo the same special training for their work, and receive the same certificates of efficiency. In their case, therefore, there is no special grievance to complain of. the inferiority of girls’ schools of that class, and of the results obtained in them, is due, where it exists, to the general cause which affect women’s education as a whole, causes, which I propose to point out further on, and which can be removed, only by a chance in the public opinion whence they spring. It is, then, to the education given to girls in all schools above the elementary schools, that I propose to dwell this evening. I shall leave theories aside, and bring before you facts resting upon authority which cannot be questioned; and the main source I have drawn upon is the volume before you, containing “Reports of the Schools Inquiry Commission on the Education of Girls,” together with the evidence given before the Commissioners by ladies of tried ability and great experience in the education of their own sex. To these I have added extracts from the evidence given before the Commissioners by various gentlemen interested in education. The reports were collected and reprinted in the convenient shape you see here, with the sanction of her Majesty’s commissioners, by Miss [Dorothea] Beale, who is at the head of a most successful educational institution for girls — the Ladies’ College at Cheltenham — one of the very few proprietary schools for girls in the country; and Miss Beale has added to the volume a very valuable preface, giving the results of her own large experience, and adding all the weight of her testimony to the truth of the sad picture presented by the reports. 

The Commissioners, in their General Report, sum up the result of the assistant-Commissioners’ inquiries in the following words: — “Want of thoroughness and foundation; want of system; slovenliness and showy superficiality; inattention to rudiments; undue time given to accomplishments, and those not taught intelligently, or in any scientific manner; want of organisation.”

Mr. Norris’s evidence, quoted in the above report as the most concise and accurate view of the state of girls’ schools, is to this effect: — “We find, as a rule, a very small amount of professional skill, an inferior set of school books, a vast deal of dry, uninteresting taste work, rules put into the memory with no explanation of their principles, no system of examination worthy of the name, a very false estimate of the relative value of the several kinds of acquirement, a reference to effect rather tan solid worth, a tendency to fill or adorn rather than to strengthen the mind.” Taking these points more in detail, I will try to reproduce, in slight but accurate outline, the picture given in this volume of the education by which the future wives and mothers of the lower and upper middle-classes of this country, and the large and ever-increasing number of single women who have to earn their own bread, and often the bread of others, are trained for their work in life. I must first, however, remind you that the standard of comparison by which the inspectors judged the education of girls was not any standard of ideal or theoretical perfection, but that of the education given to boys in the same grades of society, — an education which, according to Mr. Matthew Arnold, leaves our young men of the upper classes barbarians; of the middle class, Philistines; of the lower class, heathens. Without accepting this extreme view, it is abundantly evident, from the reports of the Schools Inquiry commission, that the standard s not a hight one, and that nothing can give so deplorable a measure of the low condition of girls’ education as the fact that it is unanimously pronounced, on the best authority, to be very inferior to that of boys. 

The only points on which this judgment is reversed in favour of the girls are reading and spelling. The reading is almost innariablyspoken of as good. As regards religious knowledge, again, the evidence is not unfavourable, and it is worth noticing that the religious difficulty is even less felt in girls’ schools than in boys’ schools. The religious knowledge, however, for which the girls get credit seems too e little more than a tolerably accurate acquaintance with the facts of Scripture history and the outlines of the Christian faith, and cannot therefore rank high as an element of education. As regards the mere facts of history and geography the girls are sometimes better than the boys; but, with rare exceptions, the teaching is superficial, and from miserable catechisms or compendiums of knowledge, such as “Mangnall’s Questions,” and others of the same type.

With regard to grammar, Mr. Bryce’s statement expresses the substance of all the reports on the subject. He says: — “I four-fifths of the schools, both higher and lower, English grammar means the committal to memory of Lindley Murray or of some one o f his less illustrious brethren, and it was surprising to see how little notion even intelligent teachers had of handling the subject in a rational way.”

The arithmetic is even more unsatisfactory than the grammar. The Commissioners, in their general report, refer to it as the “weak point” in women teachers. Mr. Bryce says “the teaching in this subject is poor, slow, unintelligent; to speak more correctly, there is no teaching, only a languid working of sums.” “I feel quite certain,” says Mr. Fearon, “That if the girls in half a dozen of the best national schools, formerly under my inspection, were tried in elementary arithmetic against the young ladies of an equal age in half a dozen of the best schools that I examined, the national schools would produce better results. It would be tedious to multiply quotations all repeating the same testimony. I would only remark, that this arithmetical deficiency in girls’ schools does not appear to be owing to any natural ineptitude, for where the teaching was good, the girls proved themselves equal and even superior to the boys.

Physical science has a place in girls’ schools, but Mr. Bompas found it only “a subject for lectures.” Mr. Giffard reports it “as read only from text-books;” and Mr. Fitc says that “it is nowhere taught systematically ,and that it is commonly unintelligible.” After mentioning that astronomy and the use of the globes, by some curious law, seem to be recognised as constituting the one department of science especially interesting to girls, he adds, “few things are sadder than to find how the sublimest of all physical sciences is vulgarsed in ladies’ schools.”

Modern languages and music, to which, according to Mr. Fitch, one-this of a girl’s school life is devoted, fare little better.

“In fashionable schools,” says Mr. Bryce, “girls of good abilities, when they leave school at 17, can usually translate an ordinary author with some facility, and turn an easy phrase of English into French, which, if neither idiomatic for accurate, is at least intelligible.” . . . . “I is quite exceptional to find them able to do more than this that is to say, to write a them in French, or to show such a familiarity with words and phrases as would enable them to keep up a conversation for ten minutes.”

Mr. Fearon says: — “Young ladies of 16 or 18, who’s parents were paying from £100 to £150 a year for their education, were found ignorant f the inflections of the most common irregular verbs, and unable to turn a simple sentence into French without blunders.”

The specimens given are almost incredible, and, for that reason, I should have been glad to quote them verbatim, but must refrain from want of time. Two of the assistant-commissioners class French with arithmetic as the weak points in the school teaching of girls, a result not a little astonishing, considering that it is one of the two subjects (music being the other) which are considered by parents all-important in a girl’s education.

But thought such stress is laid upon music, though commissioner after commissioner complains of the manner in which it interferes with other studies by the time it requires, and with the discipline of a school by the impossibility of teaching it in class, music is apparently no better taught, as a rule, than French.

Mr. Bryce says he was assured that the common way of teaching it was not “only unscientific but irrational and wasteful.” The same opinion is given by other inspectors, yet Mr. Bryce adds: — “At present music occupies pretty nearly as much of a girl’s life as classics do of a boy’s.”

Drawing, of course, is taught with an equal disregard to thoroughness, to scientific principles, and to the cultivation of artistic feeling and taste, and it has, besides, this disadvantage, that the common practice of masters in touching up their pupils’ performances for exhibition at home fosters a habit of dishonesty, and that too prevalent tendency running through the whole of female education, the tendency to care more for appearance than reality, to seem rather than to be. I will now give you some of the general results of their inspection of girls’ schools expressed by the different assistant-commissioners. 

“It is no exaggeration to say,” states Mr. Fitch, “that in the mass of girls’ schools the intellectual aims are very low, and the attainments lower than the aims. The course of instruction is ver narrow. It leaves many of the pupils’ best faculties unused . . . If the reproach be just that women do not reason accurately, and that their knowledge, even when they possess it, is deficient in organic unity, in coherence, and in depth, there is no need to loo for any recondite explanation of the fact. The state of the schools in which they are educated sufficiently explains it.”

Mr. Stanton says: — “The ignorance in many of these lower and middle class schools was most profound, and I cannot but remember that i probably only saw the meter specimens””

Mr. Gifford sums up the impressions he derived from his visits to girls’ schools thus: — “That the mental training of the best girls’ schools is unmistakably inferior to that of the best boys’ schools; and the great and obvious feature of all girls’ schools, except those of the very humblest, is the enormous preponderance given to accomplishments.”

I might multiply these extracts to any extent, but, my time being limited, I will add only a few passages from the Reports of Mr. Fearon and Mr. Gifford, whose districts, embracing London and its neighbourhood, and Surrey and Sussex, contains the highest grade girls schools in the country. Mr. Fearon concludes, as regards schools of the first grade: — (1.) “The provisioning London is most inadequate.” (2.) “The cost of education is very high.” (3.) “The buildings and premises of almost all these schools, whether day or boarding, is most unsatisfactory.” “Except Queen’s and Bedford Colleges, where gentlemen and employed in teaching, and at a very few private schools whose principals have determined to make a stand against the frivolous character of girls’ education ,the quality of the visiting teachers of language and science is very inferior in girls’ schools of the first grade.” Further on, after stating that he thought it advisable to pitch his standard in judging of the elementary work in secondary girls’ schools not quite so high as he had been used to pitch it in reporting on elementary girls’ schools, he says: — “I have no record of any class of girls about twelve years old, in any first grade school that I examined, reaching the standard of good.”

I will complete this picture of the state of women’s education by some extras from the evidence given before the Schools Enquiry Commissioners. Mr. Sargant stated in his evidence— “That the education of girls n Birmingham, of what he terms the middle class, is disgracefully bad; that they are very much worse educated than their brothers — very much worse than those who go to any school under Her Majesty’s Inspectors.”

Mr. Roche, whose classes in Cadogan-gardens have been attended for years by girls of the higher classes, says — “The defects which I have observed in my pupils, as the result of their previous education, are, a want of grammatical knowledge, even in English, and an indistinct pronunciation of the mother-tongue. Everything is done by memory, with abominable books of exercises and keys for grammar, of questions and dry answers for history, geography, and astronomy. There is very little development of intellectual faculties.”

Miss Emily Davie, now a member of the London School board, and well known as having devoted herself to the cause of female education, says: — “I have come across the best school-mistresses. They always speak a great deal of the bad preparation often girls who come to them. They say they are perfectly ignorant. Their ignorance is unfathomable.”

Miss Beale, the editor of these reports, states of female education in the class of life to which her pupils belong, i.e. of independent gentlemen and professional men, that “it is defective in an extraordinary degree. That it is worse than that received by persons of a much humbler condition at the national schools; and, in a note to page 198, she says: — “Some, who produced papers almost inconceivably bad, have, to my knowledge, spent many years at school. . . . . Evidence is afforded that there are expensive schools where pupils who have naturally fair abilities may remain for years without obtaining the rudiments of education. . . . . I mean, leave them incapable of writing, spelling, or composing fairly in their own language; almost ignorant of French grammar, and scarcely able to work the simplest sum correctly.”

Miss Wolstenholme, herself the mistress of a young ladies’ school, says “that from what she hears, she should imagine that, in spite of external accomplishments, the girls of the middle-class really are not very much better educated than the girls of the same age in the National Schools. They have external accomplishments, but no solid information.”

Miss Buss, the principal of the North London collegiate School for Girls, which she has raised to an endowed school by investing in trust for its benefit the earnings of her 20 years’ work there, says, in answer to the question whether she thought that the girls who came there from the preparatory schools were in a better or worse state of instruction than boys similarly circumstanced, “I do not know about the boys, I  know that the girls could not be worse prepared than they are.”

Some tables which have been furnished to me by the head of a large secondary day-school, attended by daughters of tradesmen, clerks, and a few of independent means, give the following results of entrance examinations: — Of 26 girls, whose ages averaged 12 1/2 , the number of faults in an easy English dictation of ten lines were about nine to each girl. Out of ten questions in easy arithmetic given to each girl, there was an average of nine incorrect answers. The reading generally was bad. One pupil, not reckoned among the above, who was entered as the daughter of a gentlewoman, could not do anything. She had not been to school, and implied she had not least anything.

Mr. Carleton Tufnell, in answer to my request that he would give me the results of his experience, wrote me a letter, of which the following are extracts: — “Every teacher appointed to a school under the Poor-Law Board must undergo an examination, and in this way I have come to know the sort of education which many of the women who apply for these situations have received. The examination is extremely slight . . . . . The questions are not at all more difficult than could be ready answered by any pupil in the first class of an ordinary village school. A first class in a really good village school would go far beyond them . . . . . The papers are sometimes so bad that we are only justified in passing the writers at all by the consideration that if we do not accept them we should get no candidates for the places at all. The candidates are always respectable women of the middle-class, and have sometimes been governesses in private families, yet their writing is often hardly intelligible, and deformed with such mistakes in spelling as will puck them any examination for the lowest Civil Service examination. Their Biblical knowledge is excessively meagre, and their arithmetic worst of all, generally not going further than the simple rules, and if they try a sum in multiplication of money, the working commonly shows fatal blunders. Sometimes, seeing that candidates know nothing of these elementary branches of education, I have asked what they do know, and what they have been accustomed to teach in private families. The answer is crochet, the piano, French, Italian. Of course, it is obvious that their knowledge of all these subjects must be extremely limited.”

The evidence I have given applies mainly to the middle-class in its three strata, lower, middle, and upper; but I have reason to believe that in the higher classes, the gentry and aristocracy, who are mostly educated at home, although the instruction given may be better, and the standard of information somewhat higher, there is just as little systematic training of the intellectual powers, of reason and imagination, just as little appreciation of knowledge, of the higher forms of literature, or of real excellence in the pursuit of any art.

It should be noted that the education given to girls, the results of which I have just laid before you, is exceedingly expensive; the Commissioners in their general report, state that the cost of girls’ schooling, where it varies from that of boys of the same class, varies on the side of more expense. Mr. Bryce says “that the charges in first-rate schools in Manchester seem moderate compared with those of the most fashionable London or Brighton schools, but they make a girl’s education nearly twice as expensive as that far more solid and practically useful education which a boy receives.” So that the practical British aren’t not only procures for his daughter a very and article but pays very highly for it. 

It would be gross unfairness to lay the blame of the miserably low standard of equation given in girls’ schools upon the mistresses. The number of proprietary or endowed schools fir girls is very small. The immense majority are private schools, kept by ladies who must live by them, who cannot afford to refuse pupils on the ground of their insufficient preparation, and who must supply the kind of education the pupils’ parents are willing to pay for. As Miss Buss says, in her evidence given before the Commissioners, “It is so entirely a matter of necessity for the mistress to live, that she is obliged to allow the children to do as they like, and the parents too.” Miss Davies, after saying that many of those she had had to do with were intelligent and conscientious, added: — “They complain very much of their difficulties, and explained their difficulties to be that they have had very imperfect training themselves, and they are hampered by want of money. Very often, too, they are al the mercy of very ignorant parents.”

This is the root of the whole matter; there is no demand for a better education for girls. “Although the world has existed several thousand years, ” says Mr. Bryce, “the notion that women have minds as cultivable and as well worth cultivating as men’s minds is still regarded by the ordinary British parents as an offensive, not to say a revolutionary, pardon.” The same commissioner says, “that he lost no opportunity of inquiring from schoolmistresses their experience in this matter. Their answer was invariably the same. Mothers are acutely sensitive to anything which may affect their daughter’s social success, whether it be the “selectness” of the school or its situation, or the fame of the music and dancing masters. They are profoundly indifferent to their diligence (as a moral quality), or to their progress in the more solid branches of an English education. If a girl begins to get interested in the school work, and is seen in the evening busy over her theme, her mother comes to me and says, ‘Now, Miss, you must not make Augusta a blue.'”

It would be tedious, even if I had time, to repeat the opinion of each inspector. Suffice it to say that their testimony, and that of the ladies examined before the commissioners, is unanimous upon the point that the indifference of parents to the education of their daughters, beyond the conventional standard of the society they live in, and the accomplishments which may promote their success in it, is the real stumbling-block in the way of any improvement. This holds good even in the class who receive their education in the national schools. If we seek for the cause of this indifference, we shall find it in that fatal view of education which regards only its money value, and estimates it solely as a means of “getting on.” “The knowledge which will pay in the business or pursuits a lad is likely to enter is fully appreciated by the parents,” Says Mr. Fitch; “but 

p. 558



Source: Journal of the Society of Arts, No. 967, Vol. XIX. pp. 515-561.