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Blogs Coffee House From the archive

Britain’s debate on women’s education

10 May 2014

11:52 AM

10 May 2014

11:52 AM

More than 200 Nigerian girls are missing after being abducted from school by Boko Haram militants nearly a month ago. One of the group’s leaders has said he’s planning to sell them as slaves. It’s thought they were kidnapped because the Islamist Boko Haram doesn’t approve of girls’ education. As the evidence mounts that educating girls is one of the best ways of alleviating poverty, extremist ideology means that girls in Nigeria and Pakistan are finding it harder and harder to go to school.

The debate has been tamer in Britain, but The Spectator has followed it for the last 150 years or so. In 1865, the magazine called for more funds for the education of girls.

The standard of English culture will depend far more during the next few generations on the advance in the education of women than on that of men, which last has already reached a respectable standard, and the former is still, take the country as a whole, almost beneath contempt.

The Pope (Pius IX) took a stand against the foundation of a college for women in 1868, saying it would inflate women’s minds with the ‘pride of a vain and impotent science’, instead of fitting them to be good mothers and useful members of society. The Spectator disagreed.

He evidently holds that if the girls of Europe are to be educated; the women of Europe will cease to be Roman Catholics; and if the women of Europe cease to be Roman Catholics, it is all over with the Pope…It is curious to see even the Pope compelled to encounter the modern spirit on its own ground and not on his own. If he said what he evidently in his heart desires, it would be that schools and colleges for men and women alike should be abolished, as tending to inflate the mind with “the pride of a vain and impotent science,” but he is compelled to take the weaker ground of denouncing education for women only. For the ignorance of men it is no longer possible to contend. The ignorance of women is still the stronghold of the Papacy; but would it not be better policy to resist it by secret organization, than thus openly to blurt out the facts?

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A few years later, when people were seriously beginning to consider giving votes to women, an article entitled Educating Our Mistresses argued it was our duty to make sure women were more thoroughly educated.

If women ought to have political equality with men, they ought to have educational equality with men to teach them how to use it; and if they ought not, they ought still more to have educational equality with men, to show them how to make up for the want of the other equality after the fashion of their own nature….How are they to learn to discriminate between the line appropriate to them and the line inappropriate to them, except by education? And how is it possible to prove that we are not keeping them ignorant simply in order to keep them powerless,—how is it possible to clear ourselves from the imputation of showing by our conduct that we like to regard women as mere conditions sine qua non for the existence of men, and without any characteristic destiny of their own, unless we take as much pains to develop their faculties to the utmost, as we take to develop those of our own sex?

These days when some women get angry when strangers make approving remarks about their looks, it’s rather refreshing to read about Lord Granville’s 1878 prize-giving speech at a London school for girls.

He said that the objection was still entertained to such schools that they would turn young ladies into pedants and blue- stockings. For his own part, he had known such ladies, and did not like them; but then he had almost always found that instead of being highly educated, they were very ill-educated…Education made women less pedantic, not more so, and more lovable, not less so. These pleasant remarks Lord Granville concluded by telling his audience, in delicate language, that he sincerely admired the looks of the young ladies, and did not think they had diminished their charms by increasing their knowledge.

In the 20th century, the magazine was still speculating on what the effect of all this education would be. The author Magdalen King-Hall tried to conjure up an image of the Girl of Tomorrow in a 1927 article. She couldn’t quite bring herself to predict the wearing of trousers and she thought a wider knowledge of sex would lead to greater fastidiousness. But the most important factor would be education:

The average girls’ school of the moment does not seem able to impart to its pupils either culture, languages, domestic economy, social acumen or a profession. If education for girls remains as inadequate as it is at present, there is not much chance of the girl of to-morrow being any more fitted to take an important part in the world than her present day predecessor.

It was hard to predict what would happen in the female job market, and King-Hall couldn’t quite decide:

The economic overcrowding of the world’s markets by feminine workers, the fact that some professions (the Army and Navy, for instance) are closed to girls, the undeniable physical unsuitability of many women for work, the difficulty of combining a married menage and a career, all lead to the supposition that in the future, girls will be prepared to earn their living, but will not necessarily do so, except in cases of necessity or exceptional talent.

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