Educating women

Educating women

An understanding of both the class and gender aspects of women's education can be drawn out from what has been called the 'domestic ideology'. This ideology structured particular ideals of 'femininity'. Clearly 'femininity' has to be understood as a 'socially constructed' category.

During the period from the late 18th to the mid 19th century it has been argued that a domestic ideology became established within the dominant bourgeois culture. The ideal location for women was seen as within the private sphere of the family as full-time wives and mothers. Men inhabited the public sphere of waged work. Women and children came to be seen as economic dependants.

Educating women

Few records exist expressing the views of members of the working class on this matter, although there is some evidence that working class men began to take up the domestic ideology through the organization of the trade union movement.

The domestic ideology contained three major assumptions:

  1. The notion of separate spheres was frequently advocated in biological terms as being a natural division between the sexes.
  2. Women were defined in relation to men and children rather than as individual beings with their own autonomous existence.
  3. Women were regarded as inferior to men.

Such assumptions were a reflection of the patriarchal nature of 19th century society. It was argued that the biological inferiority of women made them unsuitable as recipients of Higher Education. Religion provided a second judgement on women's inferiority. Their subordination within the conjugal relationship being justified by reference to the 'divine order'. Thus the dominant culture established a social construction of femininity that was identified with domesticity, and this was something that both middle class and working class women had in common. However, there were also class specific bourgeois ideals concerning what was appropriate, relevant and attainable, defined by reference to a woman's class location.

The form of femininity appropriate for the middle class woman was that of the 'perfect wife and mother', and this femininity was displayed through the virtues of self-denial, patience, resignation and silent suffering. These virtues were also associated with certain forms of behaviour characterised as 'ladylike'.

Educating women

Being a lady involved three major assumptions. First, a lady managed a household but did not engage in routine manual work. Second, a lady would often get involved in unpaid philanthropic work, but never in waged labour. Third, a lady had to wear the right clothes and have the right manners.

The ideal for working class women was that of the 'good woman'. Like the 'perfect wife and mother', the 'good woman' was also located within the home, but there was an emphasis on the practical skills of housekeeping and mothering. The working class woman should not aspire to the ladylike behaviour of the middle class woman.

The ideal for working class women was seen as a solution to many of the perceived problems of the working class family. It was the deficiency of the working class woman that was seen as the root cause of a host of social problems - alcoholism, crime, infant mortality and the spread of disease.

Educating women

The explanation of disharmony and malfunction in society was explained in relation to the failure of the working class family, and especially the working class wife. One of the chief causes of this failure was working women. By attacking the working woman as an inadequate wife and mother the ideology of domesticity was reaffirmed. Thus the idea of the 'good woman' was a bourgeois attempt to transport the ideology of domesticity into a form that would fit the constraints of working class family life - a form of class cultural control.

The two ideals of femininity formed part of the context within which educational institutions were founded and reformed. First, because most of the formal education provided in the 19th century was the result of middle class voluntary effort, and second, because when the state did get involved in educational provision, the policy makers were themselves drawn from the middle class.

Within the educational context the bourgeois definition of femininity held a number of contradictions and dilemmas for both working class and middle class women. For middle class women the linking of femininity with domesticity posed a contradiction in that seeking education they were unsexing themselves, particularly if they sought admission to previously exclusively male institutions. As is so frequently found in studying changes in social consciousness, there were underlying economic changes that helped women gain access to higher education.

Industrialisation was creating new types of jobs in which women might participate, and the process of political democratization was placing greater emphasis on the individual. In fighting to gain access to higher education middle class women were engaged in a gender, not a class struggle as few working class women fought to gain access to university.

Working class women had to engage in both a gender and a class struggle. The bourgeois ideology insisted that social stability and social order necessitated that working class women should be full-time wives and mothers. In this way they would support a capitalist economy by supporting and nurturing a healthy workforce. There was an obvious tension between the demands of such an ideology and the realities of a capitalist economy, which utilised women as a cheap source of labour. Most working class women were forced at some time in their lives to engage in paid labour just to survive. In addition, those working class women who did attempt to gain an education had to contend with the rhetoric and content of an education provided by their 'social superiors'.

Educating women

In addition to a class based education, working class women also had to contend with the working class men who began to take up aspects of the bourgeois ideology of domesticity. This is highlighted in the trade union demands for a 'family wage'. There was also trade union opposition to the admission of women to certain trades. So working class women had to contend with opposition from both the sexes of the bourgeoisie and from working class men, with exhaustive demands made on them for family responsibility, and endless childbearing. These demands made entry to any form of adult education extremely difficult.

Middle class girls were educated in a closed environment, a preparation for a separate and different life style from that of boys. Thus most middle class girls were educated at home or in small private schools . Since middle class girls were defined as potential wives and mothers, who would be economically supported by a man, the content of their education tended to stress ornamental knowledge that might attract a husband. This resulted in a low standard of education compared to that received by middle class boys and meant that women were largely denied access to HE and were not really prepared for it anyway.

An alternative form of educational provision was offered by the Mechanics Institutes, first established during the 1820s. The aims of the institutes were both sex and class specific-they were aimed at working class men. Gradually however there was some admission of women. It is likely that the women were of middle class origin, although more working class women were found in the northern institutes.

However, the subordinate status of women is indicated by their position within such institutes where they were given membership status akin to that of apprentices and youths. Additionally, men were always classified by the achieved status of occupation while women were classified by the ascribed status of their sex.

In the institutes the classes were usually segregated on the basis of sex, and classes for women rarely offered the curriculum range enjoyed by the men. The ideal of middle class femininity influenced the curriculum content.

Nevertheless, at least women had gained admission to Mechanics Institutes, far more than the few who gained admission to HE. This is a reflection of the greater resistance put up by men to female admission to full-time HE that leads to greater academic status. The route into HE for women was that of the extension college, attached to, but not part of, the universities. The danger here was the idea that part-time education would become a substitute for full-time study.

Eventually women were admitted onto full-time degree courses although Oxford and Cambridge refused to award them degrees until 1919 and 1947 respectively. And this experience of HE facilitated the passage of women into certain forms of waged labour, and paid work became a legitimate area of activity for middle class women. However, the majority of this new female elite entered an area traditionally linked with women - teaching.

Before the 1870 Act, which made full-time elementary education a possibility for girls, a working class girl might experience co-education in a variety of forms such as Dame Schools, Charity schools or religious schools. Working class girls were offered a curriculum that emphasised utilitarian skills, rather than the middle class girls diet of social accomplishments. The standards in such schools were probably quite low. A result of poor schooling was that the literacy rate of women, particularly working class women, was, for most of the 19th century, lower than that for men.

Source: J. Purvis, Westminster Studies in education, Vol 4, 1981