The 7th October marks 102 years since women were given the right to earn a degree from Oxford University. This fact alone demonstrates the long and difficult journey towards education equality that women in Britain have struggled with.
For a long time, girls’ education was limited to members of the upper and middle class. In Medieval times, the sons of wealthy families were often educated through the church by monks and nuns who could read and write in Latin, but it was rare that daughters also received this education, unless they were to become nuns themselves. Any education that girls received was most likely done at home where they would be taught by their family about matters that would enable them to run a household. Hoping to develop the skills required to make them an engaging wife, the daughters of royalty and members of the aristocracy may have been provided with a tutor who would teach them languages, music, dancing, and needlework. Towards the latter part of the Middle Ages, girls began to enjoy more educational opportunities as the rising merchant class of people wished to educate both their sons and daughters in the hope that they might run the family business in the future.
In the 17th century, numerous boarding schools for girls were established in England where girls were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and music, and the 18th century saw the rise of Blue Coat charity schools. Despite these advancements, the Georgian period saw educational opportunities for women restricted as the ‘Separate Spheres’ ideology began to take hold throughout society. This patriarchal theory held that men should be in charge outside of the home whilst women should be in charge inside the home. This meant that most upper and middle class girls were taught by governesses or sent to dame schools to learn how to manage servants and be good wives and mothers.
By the beginning of the 19th century, women had grown frustrated at the poor education available to them, especially as the Industrial Revolution gave rise to increased opportunities on offer to men. And so, women became active in seeking out these same opportunities. Many girls’ boarding schools were established in the mid-to-late-1800s, and the first women’s colleges at Oxford and Cambridge University were founded in the 1860s and 70s. Whilst women could attend university at this time, they could not earn a degree and were instead awarded a ‘Certificate of Proficiency’. The first women to gain full degrees did so in 1878, awarded by the University of London – Oxford and Cambridge would not grant degrees to women until 1920 and 1948 respectively.
In 1870, the government began to provide schooling in Britain (prior to this, most schools were established by wealthy benefactors) and in 1880, the Education Act made it compulsory for all children aged five to ten to attend school. However, as school wasn’t free for most families, many parents opted to send their children to work instead. In 1891 school fees were abolished and in 1899 the age at which children could leave school was raised to 12 – this would rise again to 14 in 1918, 15 in 1948, and to 16 in 1973.
A huge expansion of universities in the 1960s provided even more training and education opportunities for both men and women, and the Sex Discrimination Act of 1972 meant that women could no longer be discriminated against in areas such as housing, employment, and education.
Today in the UK, girls generally outperform boys at school and women outnumber men at university, and yet only 20% of UK professors are women. Whilst equality in education has come a long way since the Middle Ages, there’s still a way to go before women’s employment equality catches up.