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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?


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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Show comments
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  • rtj1211

    There will come a time fairly soon when the Spectator will have to run an article asking how boys can be educated to be the equal of girls. The signs are already unmistakable, particularly in the most deprived areas and the traits of ill-educated men are usually a greater propensity toward foul language, aggressive thuggery, violence, racism, misogyny and ill-health.

    Perhaps the more fundamental discussion concerns how society allows well-educated men and women to reproduce at a time when biology has decreed is most healthy without destroying their wider life chances or living a life of penury??

    • Kennybhoy

      “There will come a time fairly soon when the Spectator will have to run an article asking how boys can be educated to be the equal of girls. ”

      It’s all the boys fault dontchaknow…

  • Bonkim

    Women’s property and educational rights and other notions of equality have only come into Western culture during the past century and half – the Pope’s views in 1868 were no different from those of the Taliban today – it is for the oppressed people in Islamic and other lands to rise up and change their backward cultural, and religious baggage.

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  • Smithersjones2013

    Perhaps Guinness would like to comment on the treatment of Christian students of both genders by Boko Haram. You see their tendency is to execute the boys. How about a bit of outrage at the genocide of young christians instead of this trivial piece of faux intellectual gender obsessed feminist drivel

    Who gives a toss what the Pope thought about women in 1868!

  • McClane

    I think this is just about the worst blog post I’ve read on Coffee House. Is there no blog editor? Or did he say, Molly, it’s Saturday, I’m just nipping round the pub, here are the keys, if the phone rings tell them I’ll be back soon. But above all, *don’t* touch the keyboard.

    But she did. And the result is, basically, a Molly selfie.

    Doesn’t she know that boys have been kidnapped, and killed, in Nigeria, as well as girls? It’s not about girls’ education, it’s about the freedom to go to school.

    So maybe a bit less of the celebrity #BringBackOurGirls and maybe a bit more of #FreeToGoToSchool.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    ‘Debate’ is such an innappropriate term to use. BH are not engaged in a ‘debate’ nor is education the only issue at play here. If it was, destruction of the school would suffice. The central motivations and guidances are from the k0r@n – not misreadings of it, not misinterpretations, not ‘!$lamist’ distortions. BH are not extremists – the K0ran, the perfect book, is.

  • balance_and_reason

    Actually this is nothing of the sort…please don’t turn this into some ridiculous guardianesque boys against the girls playground tousle.

    The North and South have been taking turns to be running Nigeria until recently when the south decided to hold on. The lever for power for the South were the delta people trashing the oil output, the lever for the north is Boko. They are being allowed to run riot because the politicians/power brokers in the North are outraged at the sheer level of theft by the southern regime, loot that they feel is theirs.

    Simple as that.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Oh.That’s all right then.

      • balance_and_reason

        I didn’t imply it was alright….just that people are barking up the wrong tree…it is outright , venal corruption to the highest level on both side’s….the recent performance has been mind blowing in terms of the level of theft from the state by its senior ‘elected’ officials.

        • cartimandua

          The north has cultural habits which guarantee a failed state (child marriage high birth rate etc).

          • balance_and_reason

            Possibly they are cultural habits that worked well in a medieval context of super high death rates, especially amongst children; constant low level warfare; regular famine and no law other local war lord summary justice…..we may go back to those conditions if Milliband manages to continue the gerrymandering of the UK state to a constant labour win.

            • cartimandua

              They never “worked well” for just the reasons you listed. The problem for us now is high death rate cultures export their nasty via the Internet or via mass travel and migration.

  • Adam Carter

    How do you manage it? Are you neither embarrassed nor ashamed?
    You manage to name and quote a Pope, the leader on earth of the Roman Catholics, but without saying that is not now the position of the Catholic church, but all you can say about the situation in Nigeria is one mention of ‘Islamist’ and saying that an ‘extremist ideology means that girls in Nigeria and Pakistan find it harder and harder to go to school.’
    ‘Islamist’ is a dishonest word. Islam sees itself as a complete system that encompasses civil and political life as well as religion. Do you not know that? Face facts.
    And what is this nonsense about why ‘it is thought they were kidnapped’ ?
    We know why they were kidnapped. The clue is in the name Boko Haram. ‘Haram’ means ‘forbidden by Allah’. It’s often translated as ‘sinful’ but it really is stronger than that. There are 5 categories of behaviour in Islam : mandatory, recommended, neutral, disapproved of and forbidden., (haram) and it means ‘forbidden by Allah. There is an Arabic word ‘mamnoua’ (liberal , imprecise transliteration) that means ‘not allowed’. but ‘haram’ is sigbnificantly stronger than that.
    So, we KNOW why the girls were kidnapped, and we KNOW what the problem is. The problem is the RoP, wherever it is either dominant or ambitious.

  • Peter Stroud

    It should be remembered that throughout time, upper and upper middle class women did receive good educations, at home. One only has to remember the women authors who ‘made it’ in the nineteenth century. And not forget that Florence Nightingale, not only excelled in nursing and hygiene, but was very knowledgeable about statistics. It was the education of women from the lower middle and working class, that made a marked improvement to western civilisation.

    Nigeria, and every part of Africa needs women to be educated if it is to prosper. The dead, and filthy hand of Islamic extremism Islam must be amputated. This is really a case worth fighting for: unlike Iraq, and perhaps Afghanistan.

  • cartimandua

    Actually they pinched them because northern Nigeria is one of the worlds hotspots for child marriage and is missing women at a population level.

  • James

    “It’s thought they were kidnapped because the Islamist Boko Haram doesn’t approve of girls’ education”

    Well, it’s actually because “western education is sinful”, the translation of Boko Haram. They also oppose western education for boys, as evidenced by the killings of boys some months ago. Of course abduction is worse than killing, specifically being burned alive, so it’s no wonder the BBC didn’t mention it.

    • Ron Todd

      What other type of education is there? it is like proper medicine or alternative medicine only one of them is actual medicine.

      • James

        Studying the Koran I guess. They aren’t keen on music either, specifically western stuff but the bongos are haram too.

    • cartimandua

      yes being raped to death is a doddle. Why we care is because a place going all Taliban means its a failed State and Nigeria exports oil.