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The Higher Education of Woman

October 1873 — First Woman’s Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, Union League Theater, New York City


No one can spend a week in England without perceiving that the lowest class of English people is below the lowest class of American; no one can remain some months and deny that there are scholars even among the women, perhaps not numerous enough to form a class, whose scholarship is above ours.

Some fifteen years since I was told by Robert Chambers that one-third of all the women of England who married, signed their marriage certificate with a cross, because they could not write, and yet there are instances in England of young women who stand examinations such as no American girl has yet passed. This degradation of the lowest class we are ready to admit; of the higher learning of the best scholars, we are not so easily convinced.

I  made the educational opportunities of the English women a subject of special consideration during a brief sojourn this summer, and I think we may learn something from their height with no fear of descending to their depths.

Although girls’ colleges were established some 25 years since in London (boys’ colleges having been established some 600 years ago), a movement which has resulted in the founding of a college of the highest grade, began with what are called “Local Examinations.”

In 1858 the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford established “Local Examinations,” or “Middle Class Examinations,” with a view to the improvement of boys’ schools.

Certain towns were selected as centres, and in these towns local committees were appointed, a local secretary chosen, and upon their request, examiners were sent from the universities. The boys from the neighboring towns then came together and the examinations were held. They were largely attended, and the effect upon the schools was seen at once; better and better scholars came up to these examinations from year to year.

A few English women, prominent among them Miss Emily Davies and Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, supposing that these examinations might be extended to girls’ schools, applied to the Local Committees to permit the girls to present themselves. The Local Committees decided that they had no power to grant such a request. It was seen that the question must come before the college authorities.

An application was then made to the Cambridge Syndicate. The secretary of this body reported that the Syndicate would direct their examiners in London to give out extra copies of the questions to some responsible persons appointed by the ladies, and they left it to the ladies to appoint the examiners.

The university examiners then kindly offered to receive the papers from the girls and to report upon them.

It was so late when the permission of the Syndicate was given, wanting only six weeks of the time of the examination, that the ladies most interested felt that if only six girls presented themselves they should be satisfied. To their surprise eighty-three girls came forward. The examination was considered as experimental. The failure of the girls in arithmetic was very decided, but in all other things they stood well. The ladies’ committee now canvassed the country and obtained the names of about 1000 teachers of girls’ schools, who signed a Memorial, which they presented to the University of Cambridge, asking that body to extend its Local Examinations to girls.

Of course the question whether it was best to give the same examination to the girls as to the boys came up for consideration. It was discussed at a meeting of the “National Association for the Promotion of Social Science,” and the opposing opinions are presented in a report of a meeting held April 29th, 1864. Certainly these Englishmen in their discussion took, on one side at least, an extreme position which is unknown on our side the water.

After the Rev. F.D. Maurice had expressed his satisfaction at the honesty of the examiners in telling the failings of the girls and not passing over mistakes because they were female mistakes, and the Rev. E. H. Plumptre had expressed his belief that the girls desired examinations not for the sake of obtaining positions, but from a desire for solid and substantial learning, the Rev. C. Lee said that he would dissent from the views of those who had taken a prominent part in the movement, and who desired the same examinations for girls as for boys, as he felt that two main features of a girl’s education had been left out, “music and needle-work,” and he “attached the greatest importance to needle-work.” A Mr. Eliot followed, holding similar views, but added that girls should be taught to write plainly and not to cross their letters, and that the examiners should not fly after chemistry and political economy, but adhere to those things which are “suitable for the female brain.” He said also that he “thought ladies ought to be able to count.” Strange as these views seem to some of us, they are yet, in a measure, the views of the majority even among the most civilized people. The work of a woman’s hand has always been rated above that of a woman’s head.

It is not uncommon to hear, even in social circles of considerable intelligence, the remark, “She is a very smart woman; can do anything with her needle.”

The Senate of Cambridge, to whom the Memorial asking that “the Local Examinations should be extended to the girls” was presented, referred the subject to a special Syndicate, who reported in favor of extending to the girls the same examinations which were given to the boys; the vote was, however, very close, being 55 to 51.

The failure in arithmetic in the first examination was most disheartening, and those interested feared that both girls and teachers would be discouraged and that no more students would come forward. But the next year a larger and a better prepared class came to be examined, and in 1872, for the Cambridge examinations, 2,228 boys and 847 girls entered. These examinations were for boys and girls from 16 to 18 years old.

“Examinations for women” or for those over 18 years of age,” were instituted in 1869. These, too, were upon the appeal of women.

They were called for by women who desired a better education than they could find in the ordinary schools for girls; women who were above the Local’ Examinations, and who sincerely believed that something different from the Cambridge undergraduate course was what they needed. These “Examinations for women” are very similar to those instituted by Harvard College. They are without doubt useful. Although they require no profound learning, they necessitate a considerable variety of attainment in one who could pass the greater part of them. They have made known the existence in quiet homes of a class of women who are students without hope of recognition as such.

In Edinburgh, where the University has instituted similar examinations, married ladies have competed for prizes, and a prize in one department was taken by a married lady, and in another by her married daughter.

Without a doubt these “Examinations for women” have awakened public interest in the subject.

But one is tempted to ask, “Why for women?” The subjects are Latin, Mathematics, German, etc.

And another question is, Why “Examinations for women,” if no instructors can be found for women? If a woman has the energy and perseverance sufficient to educate herself and prepare herself for examination, the verdict of the examiner is not very important, and if she has not this uncommon power, there is something a little cruel in offering “Examinations,” but no “ Instruction.”

Because these movements have done something but have not done enough, Girton College has risen. The most noticeable thing in all these efforts is the fact that the women have worked for themselves. Throwing aside the old Eastern idea, which English women hold strongly to-day, and which we have not thrown off, that a woman must not be seen or heard, heard of or from, a few women have dared to bring forward the idea of a College for girls, with precisely the same course as that for boys; have given their money to found it, which American women have not yet learned to do; have accepted positions as trustees and managers, which American women really [rarely?] do; have collected funds and have founded scholarships, and are erecting a very fine building just outside of Cambridge. of Cambridge.

More than half of the Executive Committee is made up of women. As I look over the names of donors, I see that the largest gifts are from women. The first name is that of Mrs. Bodichon for $5,000; then follow the names of twelve women who gave $500 each, and then of nine women who gave $300 each — the last for a scholarship.

I know no such thing in this country. I know several noble-minded women who help their young friends to a collegiate education, who year after year seek out those who will become useful members of society, and on whom training is well bestowed, but I have yet to hear of the first woman who founds a scholarship for a girl. With the exception of Swarthmore, I know of no col lege, even for girls alone, where women are on the Board of Trustees, while University College (England), although a boys’ college, admits women to its Board of Governors, and Emily Davies has recently been elected, on the same day with John Bright.

They are beyond us in another respect. By a recent act of Parliament, women may serve on School Boards and they may vote for the members of the School Board. I found a great interest on this subject in Edinburgh, and in London I attended a meeting of the Board, with one of the lady members; at Guildhall, too, where Gog and Magog looked down upon her as she entered. Even in this the women had worked for themselves, and had held themselves candidates in the English way, defining their position in regard to the “Bible “in Schools,” “Compulsory Education,” and other points on which different  views are held.

Dr. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson addressed a circular to the rate-payers of the parishes of Marylebone, Pancras, Paddington, and Hampstead, and says: “I beg to offer myself as one of the Representatives of the Marylebone‘ Division of the School Board for London. If elected, I will use every effort to discover effectual methods of enforcing the attendance of children at the schools,” etc.

Miss Emily Davies addressed a similar circular to the electors of the Greenwich Division.

I think this is not at all improper. I wish the women in the small towns of Massachusetts, who are generally well educated, and who could so well attend to the duties of School Committees, would offer themselves as candidates for the position.

Girton College not only aims at a higher education for women, but it aims at the highest, and I think American women should be careful that their aim falls no lower than the highest.

The students at Girton College are taught by the Professors of Cambridge, and no Professor is employed who has not attained the highest honor. The course of education for the girls of Girton is precisely the same as that for the boys at Cambridge; the same examination papers are presented to the one as to the other.

But while the University of Cambridge recognizes in its calendar the “ Local Examinations,” and the “Examinations for women,” which were established by its own authority, it does not yet accept Girton and give its degree to the graduates.

Already three students have passed such examinations as would have given a boy a degree from the University of Cambridge. One of these takes the second rank on the mathematical tripos, and another has the marks which would place her on the classical tripos paper. These examinations last through nine days. For the mathematical tripos, the first three days are given to comparatively simple questions, “the fourth day to the easier parts of the higher subjects, and the last five days to the higher parts of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy.” The questions of these nine days extend over thirty pages of the University calendar. The candidates who are reported as deserving mathematical honors are divided into three classes, Wranglers, Senior Optimes, and Junior Optimes. The list of “Wranglers” includes the names best known in mathematical science, Herschel, Airy, and Adams.

I am no advocate for the adoption or the continuance, where it is adopted, of the system of prizes, which seems so dear to the English heart, but I hope we may reach their high learning without using their methods of stimulating the ambition.

In a short time Qirton College will be well funded; its students will have made its name well known, and then the University of Cambridge, which counts its seventeen colleges of Kings and Queens and Saints, etc., will be glad to count that of the girls, as the Royal Society was glad to count on its roll the name of Mary Somerville.

The plan for the building of Girton College is in some respects better than that of any in this country. Each student has parlor and sleeping-room; the sleeping-room being nearly as large as the sitting-room, the builders evidently believing in breathing good air throughout the twenty-four hours. The kitchen is nearly as large as the dining-room — certainly not a common arrangement in this country. We can learn in our future building some of these lessons — we can learn in our college courses to work for a still higher learning: they may well learn some things from us, and especially to extend this higher learning to a more numerous class. They are planning for the few — we are wiser in remembering the many.

Miss Davies says in a note:

“The magnificent scale on which you carry on your operations at Vassar makes Girton look a very tiny speck, requiring to be seen through the micro scope of faith to entitle it to the serious investigation you have bestowed upon it; and again, “It is wonderful to see the high standard fixed for so large a body of students. We are a long way behind you in England.”

Perhaps I was thrown very much among educational people, but it seems to me that there was more interest in the subject among those outside of Educational Institutions than with us. I rarely meet a woman in my own country who is interested in the education of women, unless she is herself an educator, and the mass of our people do not believe in the education of women. They believe that women should know no more of mathematics than just to be “able to count ;” but do not most persons, even of the intelligent classes, believe that above all other things a woman’s first duty is to be useful in the kitchen and ornamental in the parlor? It belongs to women themselves to introduce a better order of things.

I wish that every society of women, every Sorosis, every Woman’s Club, would accept, as one of its chief duties, the investigations of the schools around with a view to the encouragement of solid learning and the founding of aids for its attainment. Painful as it may be to admit it, we have very few thoroughly educated women. Public sentiment does not yet require learning in women, and “society” is decidedly opposed to it, and however public sentiment may be constructed. “Society” is certainly fashioned by women.



Source: Papers and Letters Presented at the First Woman’s Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women, held in the Union League Theatre, Corner of 26th Street and Madison Avenue, New York, October 1873, (NY: Mrs. Wm Ballard, Book and Job Printer), 1874, pp. 89-93.