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  • Girls' Secondary Education in the Western World: From the 18th to the 20th Century
  • Emily Bruce
Girls' Secondary Education in the Western World: From the 18th to the 20th Century. By James C. Albisetti, Joyce Goodman, and Rebecca Rogers, eds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. xii + 223 pp. $85.00 cloth.

When notoriously paternalist Napoleon established schools for soldiers' daughters in 1805, he was hardly motivated by a desire to emancipate women; nevertheless, these institutions did advance the education of the girls who enrolled. Rebecca Rogers's discussion of this example highlights contradictions in the history of girls' secondary education as seen throughout this valuable new collection. Editors Albisetti, Goodman, and Rogers have brought together experts for eleven chapters on most regions or countries in modern Europe, as well as two concluding chapters on transnational dynamics. With a focus primarily on the history of policies and institutions, the authors provide rich details on significant schools and educators, the development of the state system and private education, and the colonial sphere. The editors refuse to flatten regional and temporal differences into a single definition of secondary education, but generally the focus is on formal schooling of middle- and upper-class girls between ages twelve and eighteen. Each chapter is historiographically dense, providing a comprehensive guide for those teaching or researching a topic related to girls' schooling in a particular country. But the book's particular virtue lies in the patterns which emerge from placing the national cases side by side. This comparison reveals not only dramatic differences in girls' secondary schools according to particular historical context, but also the ways in which girls' schooling has served conflicting interests.

Reading these chapters in concert outlines a common trajectory in the history of girls' secondary education. Despite variations in timing and the players involved, a pattern in the Western world developed from Enlightenment debates over the virtue of educating girls, followed by battles between secular and religious educators with state reforms in the late nineteenth century, and eventual demographic changes in the expansion of coeducation after WWII, [End Page 174] though gendered visions of youth and education nevertheless persist. Another almost universal feature is the role of domesticity: advocates for girls' secondary education often made arguments based on the importance of educating mothers for nation and for empire. However, religious, political, and cultural differences created wide variations in how that education was envisioned.

National differences seen in a comparison of the chapters are even more illuminating. For example, pronatalism could work for or against the cause of girls' secondary education depending on the political context. What was emancipatory or desirable in one place was not necessarily true everywhere: Juliane Jacobi's chapter demonstrates that in Germany it was difficult for girls to gain access to the gymnasium, the most elite stratum of secondary education and gateway to the university, while Simonetta Soldani explains that in Italy it has been the vocational schools which particularly excluded girls, making it difficult for them to receive professional qualifications. Consuelo Flecha suggests that the early prohibition of coeducation in Spain effectively shut out girls' schooling since resources first went to boys' schools. And yet, early acceptance of coeducation in the Netherlands largely prevented women from becoming teachers, which, Mineke van Essen and Hilda Amsing argue, also limited secondary education opportunities for girls. Among the most interesting national variables is religion, which did not have predictable results. As might be expected, in Italy, Spain, and Portugal, Catholicism acted as a conservative force often limiting girls' education, while in France, liberal currents within Catholicism as well as the laïcité debates encouraged innovation. However, one crucial intervention the authors make is to caution us against a simpleminded appraisal of northern Protestantism as progressive and southern Catholicism as conservative: for example, in Italy and Spain, some students used the absence of dedicated girls' schools as a loophole to gain admittance to classical schools intended for boys.

Each chapter presents a valuable survey of the defining characteristics, the state of scholarship, and unanswered questions for a particular national historiography, but three deserve special mention. E. Thomas Ewing's essay on Russia is notable for his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1941-3599
Print ISSN
1939-6724
Pages
pp. 174-176
Launched on MUSE
2012-03-31
Open Access
No
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