Female education  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Female education is a catch-all term for a complex of issues and debates surrounding education (primary education, secondary education, tertiary education and health education in particular) for females. It includes areas of gender equality and access to education, and its connection to the alleviation of poverty. Also involved are the issues of single-sex education and religious education, in that the division of education along gender lines, and religious teachings on education, have been traditionally dominant, and are still highly relevant in contemporary discussion of female education as a global consideration.

While the feminist movement has certainly promoted the importance of the issues attached to female education, discussion is wide-ranging and by no means confined to narrow terms of reference: it includes for example AIDS.


European history

Medieval period

In medieval Europe, education for girls and women was at best patchy, and was controversial in the light of pronouncements of some religious authorities. Shulamith Shahar writes, of the situation in the nobility, that Among girls there was an almost direct transition from childhood to marriage, with all it entails.

Education was also seen as stratified in the way that society itself was: in authors such as Vincent of Beauvais, the emphasis is on educating the daughters of the nobility for their social position to come.

Early modern period, humanist attitudes

In early modern Europe, the question of female education had become a standard commonplace one, in other words a literary topos for discussion. Around 1405 Leonardo Bruni wrote De studies et letteris, addressed to Baptista di Montefeltro, the daughter of Antonio II da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino; it commends the study of Latin, but warns against arithmetic, geometry, astrology and rhetoric. In discussing the classical scholar Isotta Nogarola, however, Lisa Jardine notes that (in the middle of the fifteenth century), ‘Cultivation’ is in order for a noblewoman; formal competence is positively unbecoming. Christine de Pisan's Livre des Trois Vertus is contemporary with Bruni's book, and sets down the things which a lady or baroness living on her estates ought to be able to do.

Erasmus wrote at length about education in De pueris instituendis (1529, written two decades before); not mostly concerned with female education, in this work he does mention with approbation the trouble Thomas More took with teaching his whole family. In 1523 Juan Luis Vives, a follower of Erasmus, wrote in Latin his De institutione foeminae Christianae, translated for the future Queen Mary of England as Education of a Christian Woman. This is in line with traditional didactic literature, taking a strongly religious direction.

Elizabeth I of England had a strong humanist education, and was praised by her tutor Roger Ascham. She fits the pattern of education for leadership, rather than for the generality of women. Schooling for girls was rare; the assumption was still that education would be brought to the home environment. Comenius was an advocate of formal education for women.

Modern period

The issue of female education in the large, as emancipatory and rational, is broached seriously in the Enlightenment. Mary Wollstonecraft is a writer who dealt with it in those terms.

Actual progress in institutional terms, for secular education of women, began in the West in the nineteenth century, with the founding of colleges offering single-sex education to young women. These appeared in the middle of the century. The Princess: A Medley, a narrative poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, is a satire of women's education, still a controversial subject in 1848, when Queen's College first opened in London. Emily Davies campaigned for women's education in the 1860s, and founded Girton College in 1869, as did Anne Clough found Newnham College in 1875.

W. S. Gilbert parodied the poem and treated the themes of women's higher education and feminism in general with The Princess in (1870) and Princess Ida in 1883. Once women began to graduate from institutions of higher education, there steadily developed also a stronger academic stream of schooling, and the teacher training of women in larger numbers, principally to provide primary education. Women's access to traditionally all-male institutions took several generations to become complete.

Educational reform

The interrelated themes of barriers to education and employment continued to form the backbone of feminist thought in the nineteenth century, as described, for instance by Harriet Martineau in her 1859 article “Female Industry” in the Edinburgh Journal. The economy was changing but women’s lot was not. Martineau, however, remained a moderate, for practical reasons, and unlike Cobbe, did not support the emerging call for the vote.

Slowly the efforts of women like Davies and the Langham group started to make inroads. Queen’s College (1848) and Bedford College (1849) in London were starting to offer some education to women from 1848, and by 1862 Davies was establishing a committee to persuade the universities to allow women to sit for the recently established (1858) Local Examinations, with partial success (1865). A year later she published “The Higher Education of Women.” She and Leigh Smith founded the first higher educational institution for women, with 5 students, which became Girton College, Cambridge in 1873, followed by Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford in 1879. Bedford had started awarding degrees the previous year. Despite these measurable advances, few could take advantage of them and life for women students was very difficult.

As part of the continuing dialogue between British and American feminists, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the US to graduate in medicine (1849), lectured in Britain with Langham support. They also supported Elizabeth Garrett’s attempts to assail the walls of British medical education against virulent opposition, eventually taking her degree in France. Garrett’s very successful campaign to run for office on the London School Board in 1870 is another example of a how a small band of very determined women were starting to reach positions of influence at the level of local government and public bodies. That was difficult to preview properly according to laws and regulations and still it has not recommended.

The Catholic tradition

In the Roman Catholic tradition, concern for female education has expressed itself in the foundation of religious orders, with ministries addressing the area. These include the Ursulines (1535) and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (1849)<ref>Others are Society of the Holy Child Jesus, the Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco.</ref>. A convent education is an education for girls by nuns, within a convent building. This was already being practised in England before 1275, and later become more popular in France during the seventeenth century, and thereafter spread world-wide. Contemporary convent schools are not restricted to Catholic pupils. Students in contemporary convent education may be boys (particularly in India).


Historical literature

  • Bathsua Makin (1673), An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen, in Religion, Manners, Arts & Tongues
  • Anna Julia Cooper (1892), The Higher Education of Women
  • Alice Zimmern (1898), Renaissance of Girls' Education in England
  • Thomas Woody (1929), A History of Women's Education in the United States, 2 vols.


  • Barry Turner (1974), Equality for some: The story of girls' education

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