Women’s Education

Newnham College was founded in 1871 by a group of radicals. Their radical beliefs? They argued that women were every bit as intelligent as men, and that women, too, deserved a first class education. With determination and courage, they created the Cambridge college we see today. This short history of women’s education in Britain explores the challenges our founders faced.

Education has always been influenced by gender, class, religion and nationality. Historically, women’s education in Britain was designed to teach middle class and upper class girls enough to make them attractive marriage material for men, and lessons were often taught in the home by poorly educated governesses.

Education was seen as a way of making women better wives and mothers, not as a way of transforming their lives. One parliamentary report in the 19th century said girls should be educated to be ‘decorative, modest, marriageable beings’. Lessons often included music, Latin, Greek and classes in social graces and etiquette. Only the very privileged few were taught to a high level in subjects such as mathematics and this was usually alongside their brothers.

Women’s education always conformed to class expectations. Working class girls, if they were educated at all, were taught the very basics of reading, writing, arithmetic and domestic skills such as needlework. They were taught in elementary schools, often dame schools – small schools run by working class women in their own home – or Sunday schools run by the church or charities. Women were not encouraged to have academic aspirations in case it undermined their attachment to the home and it was believed that academic study was against women’s nature and that too much knowledge could affect women’s fertility. Church leaders were often against the higher education of women because they said it went against the teachings of the Bible.

The painfully slow process of education reform began in the 1840s after it was acknowledged that if women were the first educators of children, then they needed a solid education. Educational opportunity was still in the gift of men and by 1864, it was noted that only 12 public secondary schools for girls existed in England and Wales. These early schools for women supported the findings of a report by the Taunton Commission which said, in the 1860s, that men and women had the same mental capacity.

Momentum was gathering and organisations such as The Langham Place Group, which campaigned for women’s rights, were founded. The National Union for Improving the Education of Women started in 1871 and by 1900 there were more than 30 fee-paying boarding schools for women. Opportunities for working class girls, however, were limited well into the 20th century.

Pioneering headmistresses at the early schools for girls switched the focus from domestic accomplishments to academic excellence and Anne Jemima Clough, Newnham’s first principal, made allowances for women who had gaps in their education and tailored the curriculum to her female students to allow them to take longer to prepare for Cambridge exams if necessary.

The founders of Girton College, Cambridge’s first women’s college, and Newnham, its second, recognised and campaigned for the standards of higher education to be improved so that women could compete with men at the highest level.

It wasn’t until 1918 that The Education Act raised the compulsory school leaving age to 14 for both boys and girls.

In the 21st century, Newnham College continues to challenge stereotypes and limitations. We pride ourselves on being a place at which people can fulfill their potential, wherever that journey may lead us.

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