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The traditional ideas discussed in previous chapters retained their dominance throughout much of the 19th century, notably, that women were, by nature, not fit to study, and might even fall ill or die from the strain of acquiring an education; and that those few women who could benefit from formal education would lose their femininity in doing so, and become less desirable as wives. These ideas were propagated not only by men, but, as in previous centuries, by many mothers who believed that their daughters should concentrate on preparing for marriage rather than risk their health or their social status by seeking education. However, it was in the 19th century that the counterarguments in favour of education for women began, at long last, to make an impact on western societies, with the founding of more and more schools for girls and of the first institutions of higher education for women. Chapte r 7 R School and University Reforms in the 19th Century 0014_Frize_5x8_B_v09_16_11_2009.indd 107 16/11/09 6:19 PM 108 THE BOLD AND THE BRAVE School Reform in England Between 1864 and 1868, a royal commission, known by the name of its chairman as the Taunton Commission, examined the provision of formal education for boys and girls in both “endowed schools” (the Victorian term for schools that where wholly or partly funded by public money) and “proprietary schools” (privately owned establishments, also known as “independent schools”). Its report tells us a great deal about the state of formal education in England at that time, as well as the prevailing attitudes to education. Interestingly, in their chapter on girls’ schools (see Schools Inquiry Commission 1867–68), the commissioners directly address the social prejudices that shaped the education of girls at that time. They begin by quoting Ralph Lingen, the chief official of the government’s Education Office: If one looks to the enormous number of unmarried women in the middle class, who have to earn their own bread, at the great drain of the male population of this country for the army, for India, and for the colonies, at the expensiveness of living here, and consequent lateness of marriage, it seems to me that the instruction of the girls of a middle-class family, for any one who thinks much of it, is important to the very last degree. They then point out, We have had much evidence showing the general indifference of parents to girls’ education, both in itself and as compared to that of boys . . . There is a long-established and inveterate prejudice, though it may not often be distinctly expressed, that girls are less capable of mental cultivation, and less in need of it, than boys; that accomplishments, and what is showy and superficially attractive, are what is really essential for them; and, in 0014_Frize_5x8_B_v09_16_11_2009.indd 108 16/11/09 6:19 PM School and University Reforms in the 19th Century 109 particular, that as regards their relations to the other sex and the probabilities of marriage, more solid attainments are actually disadvantageous rather than the reverse. On the one hand, they respond by agreeing with such parents, to an extent that now seems startling but was then conventional: Such ideas . . . have a very strong root in human nature, and with respect to the average, nay, to the great majority of mankind, it would be idle to suppose that they would ever cease to have a powerful operation. Parents who have daughters will always look to their being provided for in marriage, will always believe that the gentler graces and winning qualities of character will be their best passports to marriage, and will always expect their husbands to take on themselves the intellectual toil and the active exertions needed for the support of the family. On the other hand, they then challenge such prejudices, apparently without noticing any contradiction: There is weighty evidence to the effect that the essential capacity for learning is the same, or nearly the same, in the two sexes. This is the universal and undoubting belief . . . throughout the United States; and it is affirmed, both generally and in respect to several of the most crucial subjects, by many of our best authorities. . . . [Also,] on the special point of the health of women, both in youth and in after-life, . . . so far from its being true that they are likely to suffer from increased and more systematic intellectual exercise and attainment, the very opposite view is maintained, both as the result of experience...


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