All across America this week, college students are heading back to class, and high school seniors are anxiously completing their college applications and waiting for early admissions results. Just like today, a college education was a rite of passage for 19th century students, but a sharp debate raged about just how much education was appropriate, desirable, or even healthy for girls and young women.
I had visited Schofield College on occasion, mostly for scientific lectures and to avail myself of their capacious library. Being here had always made me feel intellectually stimulated and closer to Mum. I had often pictured myself dashing across the grounds one day, in my black academic robes, from lecture hall to examination, taking up my own university education. – Myrtle in Cold Blooded Myrtle
In Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries #3, Cold-Blooded Myrtle, Myrtle spends some time in her Mum’s old stomping grounds of Schofield College, investigating the mysterious, unsolved disappearance of a student years earlier. Although by the early 1900s only a few thousand Englishwomen had achieved a college education (Mitchell, 1995), it was nonetheless a notion that loomed large in the popular imagination.
The 19th century saw sweeping cultural changes across Britain, thanks in large part to the exploding government bureaucracy required to run the Empire. More and more young men were receiving college educations to prepare them to fill the thousands of jobs in offices across the globe, while their sisters back home watched them head off and began to imagine following in their footsteps.
The growing feminist movement among the middle class prompted major universities like Oxford and Cambridge to crack open their doors to admit a trickling of female students. Although they did not grant full degrees to women until well into the 20th century (1920 for Oxford and 1948 for Cambridge), women’s colleges exposed academically minded girls to fields such as classics, medicine, and advanced mathematics. And throughout England during the 1800s, smaller colleges—like my fictional Schofield College—were established to give both sexes greater educational opportunities.
Even among families with the means to afford a university education, however, college was still out of reach to the vast majority of English girls. And for those who did attend, their educations were often considered a fleeting novelty, to be set aside once they married—not as preparation for a profession. Debate centered on how well a university education would help young women manage their domestic lives, as is illustrated by this lively tete-a-tete from 1882 in “The Girl’s Own Paper.”
Writing as “M.P.S.,” one contributor offered “The Disadvantages of Higher Education:”
While a rebuttal from fourteen-year-old Bertha Mary Jenkinson came the following month in a letter to the editor:
At the same time that women were making inroads, many of their male classmates were becoming ever more entrenched. Female students faced backlash from a male student body resistant to what they felt was an invasion of a traditionally male purview. Student newspapers at Oxford and Cambridge featured editorials and cartoons lampooning female students and criticizing the upending of the “natural” social order. (Deslandes, 2005)
In 1897, the atmosphere at Cambridge grew so heated that a demonstration by female students campaigning for full degree rights turned into a riot, with male students throwing fireworks and eggs at the women.
But advocates for women’s higher education pressed on. It might have taken a world war (or two), but women eventually did earn the right to take classes and receive degrees alongside their fellow male students, and the image of female college students became ever more common—and even expected.
By the time I went to college, a century later, female students outnumbered males at most universities in England and the US—a statistic still the case today around the world.
Although at twelve, Myrtle is a bit young to attend university classes (or lectures, as she would say), thanks to pioneering women and educators, she can well imagine herself studying in the hallowed halls of a distinguished university.
For further reading:
Sally Mitchell, The New Girl: Girl’s Culture in England 1880-1915
Paul R. Deslandes, Oxbridge Men: British Masculinity and the Undergraduate Experience, 1850-1920
VictorianVoices.net: Women’s Higher Education—a magnificent collection of period articles and essays