IT is generally admitted that,
though at first the Reformation seemed to lower the status of women, this
was not the case, and as it became established gradually the position of
It is true that it withdrew the
dignity that the monastic system had conferred upon them, but ultimately
in the diffusion of knowledge, and in the new doctrines promulgated by the
Reformation, a slow but steady alteration for the better took place in the
position of women.
The discovery of printing had given
a great impetus to the output of literature, while the translation of the
Bible and the placing of it in the hands of the masses stimulated in all
classes a desire for education. Great opportunities were opening on all
sides for those who had the courage and the will to seek and find. The
far-reaching changes brought about by the circulation of printed books did
much in opening up new fields in thought and progress. The establishment
of Protestantism did more. It marked the Humanist revolt against
Authority; it acknowledged, it went even further, it encouraged the growth
of individualism. It insisted upon the right of private conscience. Women
took an active share in spreading the doctrines of the Reformation. They
displayed great activity in the cause of religious liberty, and they
learned that if they were to be leaders it would be necessary for them not
only to read the Bible but to understand it. When they realized this, they
kindled a spark that defied extinction. Through all opposition and
obstruction it continued to burn; it illumined the path of the women who
were conscious that something was wrong, who had set themselves seriously
to right that wrong, by obtaining education.
In all directions there were signs
of an intelligent awakening, and women who had too long been held in
subjection were growing restive. At first they dared not voice their
grievances aloud: they whispered their discontent into the ear of a
sympathizer. For a time, then, complaints were directed against the
prevailing system of education, an education that consisted in teaching
them to be ladylike and self-effacing. As soon as consciousness came to
them that ignorance was a handicap, and that it stood in the way of
development and prevented them from participating in that new-born idea,
the rights of the individual, they had begun to advance. The whispers grew
louder, the whisperers more numerous. It was no longer an isolated,
inarticulate woman who sighed because she had a grievance, but a group of
women determined to secure education.
The change came slowly, but in the
two centuries there were many contributory causes that helped in the
emancipation of women. The French Revolution furthered the movement in as
far as it inspired all reformers with new hope. Social and industrial
conditions, too, had their share in the development of women. Up till the
seventeenth century women’s work had all been done in the home, but as the
factory system took hold they were gradually forced out of the home.
A woman could no longer stay at home
and be a wage earner; either she must stay at home and lose her work, or
she must follow her work into the factory.
One of the results of this was to
produce in women the consciousness that they were individuals with
interests and needs apart from men. Hitherto, men had more or less
regarded women as a part of themselves, and in this women had acquiesced.
This outlook was changing—the Reformation instilled the doctrine of
individualism. The French Revolution brought hope to the individual. The
Industrial Revolution taught the working woman that she had a separate
existence from men. Education raised the intellectual standard of all
women and gave them self-respect. First one woman led the way to better
things, then others followed.
In the spring of 1667, the Duchess
of Newcastle came to London to pay her respects at Court. Much interest
was taken in her visit, and wherever she went she was an object of
interest, for this strange Duchess spent her time reading and writing. She
loved learning for its own sake, and was erecting a metaphysic of her own.
Learning for women had long been
deemed unthinkable and absurd, but the fire kindled by the Reformation and
fanned by other causes, smouldered. As the seventeenth century drew to a
close, improvement had set in, and by the eighteenth century real progress
had been made.
In the seventeenth century Mary
Astell was born. She was the author of three books:
Reflections upon Marriage; A Defence of the Female Sex;
and A Serious
Proposal to the Ladies. These books were all
powerful pleas for the equality of the sexes.
"‘Tis certainly no arrogance in a
woman," she says in the preface to her Reflections upon Marriage,
"to conclude that she was made
for the service of God, and that this is her end. Because God made all
things for Himself, and a rational mind is too noble a being to be made
for the sake and service of any creature. The service she at any time
becomes obliged to pay to a man, is only a business by the bye, just as it
may be a man’s business and duty to keep dogs: he was not made for this,
but if he hires himself out to such an employment he ought conscientiously
to perform it.’ " [Reflections
upon Marriage. Mary Astell. Third Edition.]
A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for
the Advancement of their True and Greatest interest, by a Lover of Her
Sex, was an earnest plea for women to demand
education, for she held that it was "Ignorance and a narrow education that
lay at the root of the subjection of women and made them tolerate a low
"The Men," [A
Serious Proposal to the Ladies, by a Lover of her Sex.
First Edition. Watkins. London, 1694.]
she writes, "if they rightly understand their own interest, have no reason
to oppose the ingenuous education of the women.
. . ."
"Learning," she says, "is necessary to render them
(women) more agreeable and useful in company and to furnish them with
becoming entertainments when alone, that so they may not be driven to
these miserable shifts, which too many make use of, to put off their time,
that precious talent that never lies in the hands of a judicious person."
This book was an effort to rouse women to cultivate
She tried without success to found a woman’s college,
in which they might receive a university education. She hoped Queen Anne
would help her, and at first the Queen seemed sympathetic, but as her
college was to have been a religious academy for women, it was too
reminiscent of Popery, and was slain at its birth by Bishop Burnet, who
dissuaded the Queen from countenancing the project. Mary Astell’s dream
remained unfulfilled; had her college materialized, it would have
anticipated the founding of Girton and Newnham by nearly two hundred
About the same period Defoe was doing his best for
women. In his Essay upon Projects, in the year 1697, he wrote some
winged words in defence of the higher education of women. He calls their
exclusion from the advantages of learning one of the most barbarous
customs in the world. "One would wonder, indeed," he writes, "how it
should happen that women are conversable at all, since they are only
beholden to natural parts for their knowledge. Their youth is spent to
teach them to stitch and sew or make baubles. They are taught to read,
indeed, and perhaps to write their names or so; and that is the height of
a woman’s education. And I would but ask any who slight the sex for their
understanding, what is a man (a gentleman, I mean) good for, that is
taught no more."
To deny education to women is cruel, he says: "I have
often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world,
considering us as a civilized and Christian country.
. . . We reproach the sex every
day with folly and impertinence; while I am confident, had they the
advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than
In the early nineteenth century, Sydney Smith continued
the same refrain in a famous essay in the Edinburgh Review. He
urged the training of the mind for women, not merely to make them more
useful and agreeable to men, but for their own sakes as human beings and
citizens. And in this he marks an advance upon any previous writer.
To woman the consciousness of individuality came
slowly; it flickered and seemed at first too feeble a flame to burn, but
it did ignite and, though small, it survived, it had vitality; and as the
century grew it burst into a steady glow, a flame that devoured opposition
and purified and strengthened the torch-bearer.
Woman learnt first to be ashamed of ignorance, next to
feel justly angry that the doors of learning had been so persistently
barred against her, next, she learnt to demand rights, she became
articulate. Man, too, had a lesson to learn, the lesson that women had
rights as well as duties. He learnt the lesson with ill-will and slowly,
but if he was obstinate to recognize and learn that women had minds and
souls as well as men, in the long run he did submit.
The tradition of obedience, docility and ignorance in
which woman had been reared made it hard for an individual to break away.
She had been carefully taught the lesson that ignorance and maidenly
modesty were virtues that adorned her sex. She was enveloped and swaddled
in traditions of servility, and it was peculiarly difficult for her,
without education, without economic independence, with the law against
her, with the Church urging her to submission, steeped as she was in
traditions of obedience and humility, to throw aside the shackles, to defy
authority, and to respond to the creed of Individual Rights.
The real struggle began in the seventeenth century; by
the eighteenth century great progress had been made. The inarticulate
longing for knowledge became a ripple, then a great wave, something
overwhelming, something that could not be stemmed or dammed back. Woman,
by the middle of the century, grasped what man had long since
understood—the right of the human being to expand—and with expansion came
the need to express feminine aspirations. Woman’s conception of human
values—of reason and of mind— broadened and changed; a new faith was born
within her, a new belief in her own capabilities. She was learning, as the
century advanced, to look upon man as friend and comrade, not as master.
The old life of bondage had become distasteful to her. Even were her not a
happy one, even were her father or her husband kind and good, nevertheless
her individuality had been sacrificed, she had been under subjection. At
first she acquiesced dumbly, then resentfully, and later, when knowledge
came, she learnt to express her revulsion against the gratuitous
assumption of superiority which the one sex had assumed over the other.
She realized that, were she educated, she would be able
to take her rightful place in the world. She was justified in this belief;
and through her rebellion against ignorance she won knowledge, and with
knowledge came power and freedom of spirit. The genius of the individual
rose triumphant; aspirations long dormant sprang into being through the
diffusion and acquisition of learning.
She was fighting against the unreasonable restrictions
that hemmed her in; slowly but steadily she was groping towards the dawn;
she had seen a vision—a haven ahead—and towards that haven she steered.
Centuries of repression were overthrown in the new liberation that was
born in the eighteenth century. In her re-birth lay the energy and
vitality of youth. New goals lay ahead, new inspirations filled her mind;
if she grasped them at first slowly and with hesitation, if her grasp was
light, yet it was sure. She never turned back; she never wavered; each new
dominion she conquered created in her the desire for fresh fields in which
to conquer. Obstacles did not impede her: she found in them merely
something to overcome.
In the eighteenth century, woman found a new outlook in
life, a new vista of hope and promise stretched before her, enticing her
onwards. She was a pioneer, one who had the courage to step aside from the
beaten track, to face ridicule and scorn, because she realized that in
ignorance lay subjection and degradation.
Judging these women from our level of advancement, they
may seem narrow, ridiculous and bound by convention, but it was not so;
they heard the inner voice whispering freedom, and they responded to it.
We may smile as we read the old pamphlets and papers; we may even mock at
the modest humble souls who feared to displease men by even whispering
their discontent, but we must render homage to them, for they overcame
their fear and formulated their demands in no uncertain voice. They sowed,
and the nineteenth and twentieth century women reaped the benefit. The
twentieth century women have gathered the harvest, but it was the timid,
down-trodden eighteenth century women who ploughed and sowed the field.
They attacked the barriers that held them in check, they knocked aside
artificial restrictions, until one by one these fell away; they climbed
the hill slowly but surely, winning fresh victories at each forward step.
In their hearts glowed the hope of achievement, and we
must remember that whatever measure of freedom is woman’s to-day is a gift
handed to her from these pioneers. It was through their efforts that men
came at last to see not only that it was inevitable, but that it was
desirable, to share with woman the training of mind and body so long
jealously safe-guarded as their sole prerogative.
It was knowledge and education that had made men fit to
rule; if women were to be their equals it was necessary for them also to
Education seemed a vain dream to the woman of the
eighteenth century—she who was handicapped by lack of learning and
training, she who was equipped with little more than a few superficial
trappings to fit her for life.
Custom had decreed that she was to marry young; why,
therefore, waste money in educating her, especially as husbands preferred
their wives to be docile, humble creatures, looking up to them—not
intelligent companions, ready to share the good and ill of life together.
If a woman could hold her own in conversation, flirt, play a few notes on
the harpsichord, sing a ballad with feeling, had she not all the education
a reasonable girl could need?
If some women sought education, many were indifferent
and some actually hostile to the idea. Many arguments were brought forward
by both men and women to demonstrate that education for women would he an
irreparable disaster. With education they would lose the feminine charms
of docility, modesty and delicacy. They were tender plants, not fitted for
education, political eminence or literary refinement. "The softness of
their nature, the delicacy of their frame, the timidity of their
disposition, and the modesty of their sex, absolutely disqualified them
for such exertions," said a Scottish writer. Men believed these things;
women said them, so afraid were they that if they possessed a
well-developed brain they would be doomed to remain old maids.
Mrs. Sandford, writing in
Wornan in her Social and Dornestic
Charter, says "female assertions should always be strictly
subordinate." She adds: "Nothing is so likely to conciliate the affection
of the other sex as a feeling that women look up to them for guidance and
support." To be clinging and foolish was apparently more attractive to the
prospective husband than to be wise and strong-minded.
Women were early taught that their end was matrimony,
and they were taught that learning would interfere with this end. Had a
girl learning she was to hide her talents.
"It is the privilege of a married woman," writes Mrs.
Ellis, "to be able to show, by the most delicate attentions, how much she
feels her husband’s superiority to herself, not by mere personal services
. . . . but by a respectful deference
to his opinions, a willingly imposed silence when he speaks." Even "a
highly gifted woman" must not "exhibit the least disposition to presume
upon such gifts ;" for fear of raising
her husband’s jealousy of her importance! She will gain his confidence by
"a respectful deportment, and a complying disposition." It is not perhaps
surprising after this to learn that "All women
. . . . should be prepared for discovering faults in men, as they
are for beholding spots in the sun, or clouds in the
The wonder is not that women were slow to demand rights, but that they
had the courage to do so at all.
As late as the nineteenth century, the idea of women
studying seriously was deemed absurd. When Sophia Jex Blake in 1869 asked
to be allowed to study medicine, she was informed that to study anatomy
was impossible for a woman; even to discuss the matter was indelicate.
Vulgar-minded people declared that her wish to enter the University was
only a cloak to allow her to carry on intrigues and flirtations with the
students, and ultimately enable her to get a husband.
Miss Jex Blake stood her ground unflinchingly and fought her battle,
and won the victory for her sex and profession practically alone. A tablet
in St. Giles’s, Edinburgh, now commemorates her achievement.
The British Association for 1927 was notable for the
number of women who read papers, but when the Association was founded in
1831, and for some years afterwards, no woman was allowed to take part in
the discussions. In 1832 Canon William Buckland, the second President,
wrote upon the subject of women being allowed to join in the discussions.
"Everybody whom I spoke to on the subject agreed that if the meeting is to
be of scientific utility, ladies ought not to attend the reading of
papers—especially in a place like Oxford—as it would at once turn the
thing into a sort of Albemarle dilettante movement."
The admission of women to scientific meetings was
frowned upon generally by early supporters of the Association. The women
were, however, determined to be admitted, and by 1843 they were admitted
by a special ladies’ ticket. This they did not approve of, and in 1869
some of the women presented a memorial to the Council asking that their
tickets should be similar to those issued to other members. They also
demanded an answer to the question whether women were eligible for
election to the Sectional Committees, the General Committee, and other
offices. In 1876 the Council adopted a report of a Committee which stated
that "it does not appear to have been the practice of the Association to
admit ladies to election as officers or upon Cornmittees, and it does not
appear that any case has been made out for altering the practice." The
Council’s objection finally disappeared by default.
There is now no sex bar, and women not only take part
in the discussions, but are also eligible for office.
In 1913, Miss Ethel Sargant sat as first Sectional
President of her sex, and in the following year the Council welcomed Miss
B. R. Saunders, of Newnham College, as one of its members. In 1927, the
Duchess of Atholl was President of the Education Section, and women read
papers on a variety of subjects, such as psychology, education, botany,
zoology, agriculture, anthropology, economics, physiology and geography.
A fair education with the chance of an early marriage
was the ideal of the average girl in the eighteenth century, and certainly
all for which she could hope. Maria Edgeworth was interested in founding a
girls’ school on better lines than the average one then in fashion, and
she wrote to her friend, Sir Walter Scott, to enlist his sympathy. In
reply he says he cannot give her much hope for success.
We are a poor people, and our estates are almost
uniformly strictly entailed on heirs male; therefore the mother has to
keep the female children under her own wing. Our eldest sons get our
estates; our younger girls live at home while Mamma can keep house on her
jointure, get husbands if they can, and if not, do as they can on the
interest of £1,500, or £2,000. The elder brother is in general an honest
fellow, but embarrassed with debts; he keeps his sisters in his house if
his wife is not cross; and a sort of half family pride, half family
affection, carries the thing through." Perhaps it did, and perhaps it did
not; no one would care much how the uneducated, impecunious girl adapted
herself in such a household. No girl could have had much self-respect who
was forced to submit to this state of affairs. The only hope for such a
girl was to attract some man, to secure his approbation, and so escape the
disgrace of being left an old maid—word of horror! Had not a famous writer
assigned the duty of "leading apes to hell" as the work suited to old
maids? Unless the girl was fortunate enough to marry, she had no
alternative but to form a hanger-on in her brother’s household, unless his
wife were too cross for such an arrangement to be workable, in which case
the fate of the poor girl was a melancholy one.
It was to be hoped that a girl such as Sir Walter Scott
describes was familiar with Miss Young’s letter of advice to "Young
Females." In this letter the author begs young girls to remember that no
man, however kind and good he is, cares to hear a young female express her
views; to do so "is as unpleasing to him as it is unwise." "If a young
lady," she continues, "hopes to attract favourable attention and to be
sought as some good man’s wife, she must listen patiently to all he says,
even though it be dull and tedious, and never must she contradict him,
however mistaken he may be, for that is something a man never forgives."
If a girl had carefully studied Miss Young’s advice and made herself into
a quiet colourless creature, devoid of ideas or willpower, possibly she
might fit in to her brother’s household.
Scottish girls were very indifferently educated. Miss
Mure has given us some particulars of the kind of education formerly
given. Women, she says, read little but books of devotion and romances.
The mother of the family could devote but little attention to her
daughter, as "domestick affairs and amusing her husband was the business
of a good wife," so keeping her husband in a good humour occupied the
wife’s attention to the exclusion of most other things.
She goes on - "Those that could afford governesses for
their children had them; but all they could learn them was to read English
ill, and plain work. The chief thing required was to hear them repeat
Psalms and long catechisms, in which they were employed an hour or
more every day, and almost
the whole day on Sunday. No attention was given to what we call
accomplishments. Reading and writing well, or even spelling, were never
thought of." Spelling was not an art supposed to be necessary for the
female sex. Readers of "Vanity Fair" will recall that Becky Sharp was the
only lady in that novel whose spelling could be relied upon in an
emergency; the astute Becky was proficient in most things, even
Dunbar, in his Social Life in Former Days,
criticizes both the writing and spelling of women. He notes that "the
writing of the Countess (of Seaforth) is large and well-formed," and "that
of Lady Duffus is very inferior."
Thackeray depicts, in Amelia Sedley, the type of young
lady taught some accomplishments but no culture. After six years spent at
a fashionable school known as The Mall, we read that Miss Amelia Sedley
was returned to her parents proficient in music, in dancing, in
orthography; "in every variety of embroidery and needle-work, she will be
found to have realised her friend’s fondest wishes
. . . . a careful and undeviating use of the
backboard for four hours daily during the next few years, is recommended
as necessary to the acquirement of that dignified deportment and
carriage, so requisite for every lady of fashion."
A dignified deportment and carriage were more likely to
commend Amelia to her suitors than a little solid learning.
Miss Mure tells us that "every master was revered by
his family, honoured by his tenants, and awful to his domestics." She
remarks upon the poverty of Scotland, and how families of note could not
afford to move about. The choice of companions was limited, and, owing to
their having little intercourse with strangers, she says, "they were
allowed to run about and amuse themselves in the way they choiced even to
the age of women, at which time they were generally sent to Edinburgh for
a winter or two, to learn how to dress themselves and to dance, and to see
a little of the world.
"The world was only to be seen at church, at marriages,
burials and baptisms. These were the only public places where the ladies
went in full dress, and as they walked the street they were seen by
everybody; but it was the fashion when in undress always to be masked.
When in the country their employment was in coloured work, beds, tapestry,
and other pieces of furniture; imitations of fruit and flowers, with very
Bead-making and tasteless flowers formed a large part
of a girl’s education. Advertisements from the daily or weekly papers give
a good idea of how a girl was educated in the middle of the eighteenth
century. In Edinburgh Miss Gardiner "offers to teach young ladies the
following branches of fashionable accomplishments: To make gum flowers,
shell work, glass jars (in imitation of china), Dresden fabrics, to work
watch chains and string and net purses, etc., etc."
Miss Simpson’s Academy advertises in the Glasgow
Mercury, on May 4th, 1770. The advertisement runs:—"
At Mrs. Hunter’s, Douglas Land, Entry nr. St. Andrew’s Church, by
the Saltmarket. Music, French, writing and the finishing of the English
In 1771, Miss Macdonald and Miss Drummond advertised
that at their boarding-school in the Gallowgait, "young lathes are
instructed in the principles of the French and English languages, in
tambour, Dresden and all kinds of fashionable needlework, in the making of
their own millinery things, and in several instruments of music, viz., the
harpsichord, guitar, as likewise in singing."
One establishment offers to board young ladies, and
while doing so, giving lessons in beadwork, etc., the manners of the
pupils are to be improved and polished in conformity to those, no less, of
the most fashionable circles in London.
The description given by the fastidious Mr. Carlyle—
known to his contemporaries as "Jupiter Carlyle "—of the Society in which
he moved, when a student at Glasgow College !n 1743, is hardly flattering.
The way of living was, he tells us, "coarse and vulgar
;" and while it was usual for the sons of merchants to attend
college for one or two years, their daughters were without even the
accomplishments of French or music, and had nothing to commend them but
good looks and line clothes. Their manners he characterizes as "ungainly."
[Autobiography of the Rev. Dr. Alexander
An ancestor of Mr. Cunninghame Graham, writing about
the same period, expresses much the same view. "Nothing," he writes, "can
be juster than the observations you make relative to the education of
girls; madness and folly at present appear to have taken possession of the
female world, and no fortune is equal to the extravagance and dissipation
which prevail among what are called the women of fashion; the consequences
are manifest, for you can hardly find a man of sense and fortune who
wishes to form a connection with these high bred ladies. They are
generally allowed to rove about the public watering-places till they are
past their meridian, and then match themselves with some poor officer who
hopes for interest from Court friends, or snapped up by some hungry
Irishman who leaves them as soon as he can conveniently strip them of what
fortune they have." [Doughty Deeds. R.
B. Cunninghame Graham.]
Poor girls, what an indictment! It was not, however,
only Scottish girls who were uneducated, for Mr. Seaton, a Scotsman, to be
sure, and perhaps not unprejudiced, writing in the
Spectator in the eighteenth
century, speaking of Englishwomen, says: "Their chat is all on caps,
balls, cards, dresses, nonsense. . . - The women
of Scotland have twice their freedom, with all their virtue, and are very
conversable and agreeable; their educations are more finished."
Ladies were not expected to understand much in the way
of arithmetic and book-keeping; nevertheless a few must have been
interested in such matters, for James Morrison, Master of the Mercantile
Academy, Glasgow, published in the eighteenth century
The Young Ladies’ Guide to Practical
Arithmetic and Book-keeping. In it he says: "Figures and accounts as
well as writing are now considered an essential branch of Female
Education; and indeed must always be viewed in this light by every lady
who wishes to be at the head of her own domestic concerns; nor are these
branches less necessary to the wife or merchant, shop-keeper, or
tradesman, as her attention to her husband’s business may frequently be
necessary while he is absent, and still more should she be left a widow."
Mathematics was, of course, a subject considered well
beyond the capacity of women, nor was its usefulness deemed essential, but
a few women were interested in this subject. "The Ladies’ Diary
", a mathematical journal of repute,
flourished for many years, and men of note contributed to its columns.
Many women were aware of their limitations—limitations
not caused by lack of ability, but imposed upon them by want of training.
On October 16th, 1719, a little book made its
appearance in Edinburgh. It was called An Account of the Fair
Intellectual Club. This Club, with pretentious
constitution and rules, was a humble gathering of a few young ladies who
were conscious of their lack of know-ledge and total intellectual
disabilities. They determined, in their own words, to amend this. "We are
entering," their speaker explains, "into this Club as adventurous sailors
into a new discovered land." The speaker was right. Neither the invention
of printing nor the discovery of the New World opened up wider fields to
man than did the perception that ignorance was a severe handicap to women,
and the determination to overcome it.
The Fair Intellectuals soon note progress; the speaker
is able to say: When I consider the improvements all of you have made in
the English language, I can never cease to admire your judgment and
What a shame it is that ladies who value themselves of
wit and politeness, should be ignorant of their mother-tongue. How many
set up for wits, that cannot write you sense in proper language! And how
few can pronounce what they read, or deliver themselves with a
proper grace. Few, very few of the ladies I have had occasion to know
can so much as spell. Good God! What have they to boast of?"
Every subject was open to debate with the exception of
politics and religion.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries politics
were deemed without the sphere of women. They were thought to be incapable
of grasping the intricacies of political situations; politics were matters
which only the male mind could grapple with.
Mr. Bennet, in his Strictures on Female Education,
had but a poor opinion of woman’s capacity; according to him, woman is
a delicate flower; she must not enter upon studies which require intense
application. He describes her as having "the delicacy of the everlasting
pea, which unites elegance with sweetness, and is easily oppressed." "The
tender plant," he says, "which is refreshed with gentle gales, would be
entirely overwhelmed by a whirlwind."
Women themselves believed that to understand a
political situation was a masculine prerogative. Scottish women novelists
and poetesses assured their readers that they would not venture to discuss
politics, because true woman recognizes her limitations.
All the education that was given to women was of the
kind to train them to be meek and submissive, for "it is by pleasing men
only, they they can hope to become objects of love and affection."
"To secure a husband is the natural aim of every young
woman; to secure him, keep yourself in the background, and carefully hide
any knowledge you may possess," says a maiden lady in Scotland, writing to
a young friend in the year 1760. Presumably, not having secured a husband
herself, she had not practised what she preached.
Women were not particular as to what kind of a husband
they secured, as long as they escaped spinsterhood. In the Adventurer,
Saturday, February 17th, 1753, the writer lays down that: "With the
ladies it is a kind of general maxim that ‘the best husband is a reformed
rake;’ a maxim," he goes on to say, "which they have derived from comedies
and novels, in which such a husband is commonly the reward of female
merit." A woman was a success if she got a husband, reformed or otherwise;
she was a failure if she was unable "by modesty and humility to please
some good man sufficiently well to make him wish to bestow his hand upon
John Millar, Professor of Law in the University of Glasgow, published a
book in 1771 in which he gives his views on women’s education. He says:
"They learn to suit their behaviour to the circum-
stances in which they are placed, and to that particular standard of
propriety and excellence which is set before them. Being respected upon
account of their diligence and proficiency in the various branches of
domestic economy, they naturally endeavour to improve and extend those
valuable qualifications. They are taught to apply with assiduity to those
occupations which fall under their province, and to look upon idleness as
the greatest blemish in the female character. They are instructed betimes
in whatever will qualify them for the duties of their station, and is
thought conducive to the ornament of private life. Engaged in these solid
pursuits, they are less apt to be distinguished by those brilliant
accomplishments which make a figure in the circle of gaiety and amusement.
Accustomed to live in retirement, and to keep company with their nearest
relations and friends, they are inspired with all that modesty and
diffidence which is natural to persons unacquainted with promiscuous
conversation; and their affections are neither dissipated by pleasure, nor
corrupted by the vicious customs of the world."
Poor woman, her education was to be directed towards
attracting the other sex. In the home, in the narrowest sense, she was to
remain from infancy to old age. Only such qualities were to be cultivated
as would attract a man, and once she had won his hand her only remaining
functions were to make him comfortable, and, as a potential mother,
preferably of male children, to fit herself for motherhood.
Fenelon in France had written his views upon women’s
education, "which he deemed more important than that of men, since the
latter is always their work." That is the substance of his book.
His book, De l’Education des Filles, is a wonderful
book, in which he recommends many studies unusual for girls, such as Greek
and Roman history, added to their own French history. Also he advocates
the study of poetry and literature. Yet even Fénelon, so far ahead of his
time, says :—" We must be apprehensive of
engaging women in studies in which they might become opinionated, for they
are neither to govern the State nor to make war."
Yet Fénelon urges strenuously their right to education.
"These women," he says, "whom you forget, constitute one-half of
the human race. Do you wish for magistrates, warriors, citizens? Are you
desirous of the prosperity of a kingdom—of a republic? Address yourselves
to the women ; for unless they attach our souls to your institutions, the
works of your genius will remain useless among nations. In dictating your
laws, in drawing up your codes, have you condescended to remember that
women exist? Do you know what is a mother’s love? do you remember that her
voice is the first sound that strikes our ears? her look the first light
which rejoices our eyes? her songs our first concerts? . . . They educate
us as children; they inspire us as men. . . .
"To labour for their education is, then, to labour for
our own. By giving them elevated and noble thoughts we destroy at one blow
our petty passions and our petty ambitions. We shall be so much the more
worthy, in proportion as they become better; and they cannot render us
better without becoming happier."
In Scotland no Fenelon had arisen; the standard of
education remained low. Dunbar, in his Social Life, quotes a letter from a
young lady seeking the post of governess; from this letter we see what is
expected of a governess and what she in turn expects:
"To the much Honoured the Lady Thunderton,
Ranes, Huntly, Jan. 30th, 1710.
Robert Gordon has writ now twice to my Father as (by
your Ladyship’s desire as I suppose) concerning me, if I be willing and
fit for your service. In his last he desires I should write to your
Ladyship to shew that I can sew white and coloured seam; dress head suits,
play on the treble and gamba, viol, virginals and manichord, which I can
do, but on no other. He desires to let know what fee I would have, which
is [£30 Scots is £2 5s. sterling. £40 Scots is
£3 6s. 8d. sterling] thirty pound and gown and coat, or then forty
pounds and shoes and linens, which is for a year. If these terms please
your Ladyship I am content to serve for half a year conform, to try if I
please your Ladyship. I expect an answer with the first occasion, and I
Your most humble servant,
General knowledge was imparted through such books as
the Legacy for Young Ladies, and The Looking Glass for the Mind.
Towards the end of the century was introduced a popular method of
giving information to the pupil by means of question and answer.
Sir A. Geikie, in his Reminiscences, tells us
that when inspecting a class of infants, some of whom were only five years
old, the teacher startled him by beginning: "How long did Jeroboam reign
The method of imparting information was entirely
through means of these questions and answers. The information was varied,
as for example:
Ques.—Name the chief events of the second century.
Ans.—The Scots regained those territories wrested from them by the
Roman power, and the Romans under the conduct of Agricola built many
strong forts in Britain, subjugating that nation almost entirely.
Ques.—Name some of the events of the year 700
to the year 600 before Christ.
Messenian war commenced; the poet Tyrtaeus flourished; Byzantium was
founded by the inhabitants of Megara; Draco gave laws to Athens; Terpander,
of Lesbos, the musician and poet; Thales of Miletus, the philosopher;
Alcaeus and Sappho, the poets, flourished; Nebuchadnezzar, the King of
Baby-ion lived; and at the close of this century began the Jewish
Mangnall’s Questions was a standard text-book in
the early nineteenth century schools, and much used.
A humorous poem by George Dubourg entitled, "Wanted a
Governess," touches up the requirements of that unfortunate individual,
though it is to be doubted if any governess professed five languages or if
any pupil desired more than an imperfect knowledge
WANTED A GOVERNESS.
"Governess wanted well fitted to fill
The post of tuition with competent skill,
In a Gentleman’s family highly genteel.
* * *
The lady must teach all the several branches
Whereinto polite education now launches,
She’s expected to speak the French like a native
And be to her pupils of all its points dative;
Italian she must know (of course), nor needs banish
Whatever acquaintance she may have with Spanish,
Nor would there be harm in a little of German.
* * *
In drawing in pencil and chalks, and the tinting
That’s called oriental she must not be stinting.
She must paint upon Paper, or Sepia or Velvet,
And if she knows Wax-work she’ll not need to shelve it.
Dancing (of course), with the newest Gambades,
The Polish Mazurka, and best Gallopades;
Arithmetic, History joined with Chronology,
Heraldry, Botany, Writing, Conchology,
Grammar and satin-stitch-netting, Geography,
Astronomy, use of the Globes and Cosmography."
The only openings for girls were marriage or to become
Learning interfered with matrimony; therefore girls
were uneducated. Marriage was the natural provision for girls, yet parents
and public opinion had a prejudice against
mariages de convenance, so they neither saw to it that a marriage
was arranged, or a daughter endowed if she failed to
marry, nor did they even see that she was endowed with a suitable
education in case she was forced by economic circumstances, and her
failure to secure a husband, to offer her services as a governess in an
already overcrowded profession.
To become a governess was the obvious resource of all
well-born girls thrown upon the labour market, and the lot of the ordinary
governess was no happy one.
In Emma, Miss Austen says, to be a governess was
to "retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse,
equal society, peace and hope, to
penance and mortification for ever."
Middle-class women, if they were unprovided for by
their parents and if they failed to marry, had no recourse but to be
governesses, and, as Jane Austen says, when they became that, they were
supposed to say good-bye to all the pleasures of life.
In Middlemarch, at a considerably later period,
George Eliot describes a pleasant dinner-party at the Vincy’s house, in
which she says: "Everything looked blooming and joyous except Miss Morgan,
who was brown, dull and resigned, and altogether, as Mrs. Vincy often
said, just the sort of person for a governess."
As the eighteenth century closed and the nineteenth
century was ushered in, a growing number of writers deplored the scanty
education afforded to girls, and the more thoughtful and far-seeing
complained of the emptiness of the ordinary woman’s life. They had no
occupation—nothing to fill in the day, nothing to make life cheerful and
happy. One writer, Mrs. John Sandford, thought religion would fill a felt
want, and so in Woman in her Social and Domestic Character, she
says, woman must be religious, and that for her own happiness. "She
needs," she says, "solace and occupation, and religion affords her both."
Mrs. Sandford did not believe that the pleasures of married life would
last long, for she goes on—" When her nuptial wardrobe becomes obsolete,"
religion will "relieve the monotony of domestic life." Religion is,
according to Mrs. Sandford, that which will add charm to a woman, so let
them have it, as their part is to please. "It is the domesticating
tendency of religion that specially prepossesses men in its favour and
makes them, even if indifferent to it themselves, desire it at least in
their nearest female relatives."
Poor women! It is to be hoped they found solace in
religion, either to support them through the trials of matrimony or the
mortifications of spinsterhood, or the drudgery of work for which they
Little was expected of women, and probably they did not
expect too much from life. If they were genteel, that was a great thing.
No one wanted them to be learned.
"I will be bold to say," said
Mrs. Primrose, in the Vicar of
Wakefield, "my two girls have had a pretty good education, and
capacity, at least, the country can’t shew better. They can read, write
and cast accounts: they understand their needle, broadstitch, cross and
change, and all manner of plain work; they can pink, point and frill, and
know something of music; they can do up small clothes, work upon catgut;
my eldest can cut paper, and my youngest has a very pretty manner of
telling fortunes upon the cards."
Complacent Mrs. Primrose! Readers of that classic will
remember the trouble that befell the idle-minded young ladies.
Miss Mure, already quoted, says :—" The booksellers’
shops were not stuffed as they are now with novels and magazines. The
women’s knowledge was gained only by conversing with men, not by reading
themselves, as they had few books to read that they could understand.
Whoever had read Pope, Addison and Swift, with some ill-writ history, was
then thought a learned lady, which character was by no means agreeable.
The men thought justly on this point, that what knowledge the women had
out of their own sphere should be given by themselves, and not picked up
at their own hand in ill chosen books of amusement, though many of them,
not without a moral, yet more fitted to reclaim the desolate than to
improve a young untainted mind, that might have passed through life with
more happiness and purity than they could with the knowledge these books
She assigns a curious reason for the spread of
education amongst women. She declares that as the century advanced and the
dinner hour grew later, the drinking habits of the men increased so that
they were late in joining the ladies and often unfit to do so. "The
women," she says, while the men were drinking, "were all the evening by
themselves, which put a stop to that general intercourse so necessary for
the improvement of both sexes. This naturally makes a run on the public
places; as the women have little amusement at home. Cut off from the
company of the men, and (having) no family friends to occupy this void,
they must tire of their mothers and elderly society, and flee to the
public for relief. They find the men there, though late in the evening,
when they have left their bottle, and too often unfitted for everything
but their bed. In this kind of intercourse there is little chance for
forming attachments. The women see the men in the worst light, and what
impression they make on the men is forgot by them in the morning.
"These late dinners have entirely cut off the merry
suppers very much regretted by the women, while the men pass the nights in
the taverns in gaming or other amusements as their temper leads them."
Now comes the curious relation between cause and
effect. She says: "Cut off in a great measure from the society of the men,
it’s necessary the women should have some constant amusement; and as they
are likewise denied friendship with one another, the parent provides for
this void as much as possible in giving them complete education; and what
formerly begun at ten years of age, or often later, now begins at four or
"Reading, writing, music, drawing, French, Italian,
geography, history, with all kinds of needlework, are now carefully taught
the girls, that time may not lie heavy on their hand without proper
Poor girls and women, they had early to learn to kill
"Shops," says Miss Mure, were "loaded with novels and
books of amusement to kill the time."
They had no society, no one to teach them, no one to
flirt with, no one to converse with; time lay heavy on their hands, and in
self-defence they were taught to read, so that in books they could find
the companionship denied them by men who preferred the pleasures of the
table and the bottle to the society of the fair sex.
Sir Walter Besant, in describing the life of the woman
of the eighteenth century, corroborates this. He says— "Ladies, chiefly
without the company of gentlemen, played cards every evening. The lives of
ladies, indeed, were so monotonous and dull that the excitement of cards
became necessary for them. A great lady had none of her husband’s company
except perhaps at dinner: he had his own pursuits, his own friends, often
his mistresses as well; he was drunk most nights. The lady, for her part,
had no intellectual resources whatever:
she read no books; she knew nothing that went on, and
cared nothing; her maid dressed her; she had a carriage and four
horses—her running footmen before, her hanging footmen behind; she had her
town and country house; her nurse looked after the children; her life was
that portentously dull kind of life in which everything is provided and
there is nothing left to desire."
Besant describes the life of a great lady, but the life
of a lady of moderate means in Scotland would be, if not
worse, at least equally dull. Miss Mure and Besant agree in the ladies’
loneliness and in their lack of intellectual resources.
The Rev. Mr. Somerville
wrote his memoirs. [Life and Times, 1741—1814.—Rev. T. Somerville.] In
them he notes, as one of the greatest improvements in his lifetime, the
greater regard paid to girls’ education, and to their intellectual
development. He writes:
"(When I was young,)
sewing, embroidery, pastry and cookery were then considered the most
important branches of learning for a good housewife, and were taught at
all the female schools in Edinburgh, Instruction in music and drawing was
confined to young ladies of high rank. Within my remembrance, many even of
the latter were shamefully deficient in the elementary and now universal
accomplishments of writing and spelling."
Apparently many Jeremiahs
had cried aloud that knowledge would make a woman unwomanly and unpleasing
to her lord and master, and that if she could spell she would be unable to
dust, and if she could keep accounts she would grow indifferent to
economy; but Mr. Somerville did not share this view, for he declares that
with an increase of knowledge has come "an increase of those attractions
to the fair sex which sweeten domestic and social intercourse, and also
with the elevation of their own tastes and habits, an augmentation of
their influence in elevating the general tone of society."
Ideas were changing in all
countries; the conditions of women were changing too. Napoleon said one
day to Madame Campan—" The old systems of education seem to be worth
nothing. What is there wanting in order to train up young people properly
"Mothers!" replied Madame
This word struck the
Emperor. "Well," said he, "therein lies at once a complete system of
education. It must be your endeavour, Madame, to form mothers who will
know how to educate their children."
Opinions were changing; the
old order was passing away. Women were slowly but surely feeling their way
towards a wider life. In England the Blue Stockings, called after a club
of men and women who met to discuss literary affairs, had come into being.
One of the members, Mr. Benjamin Stillingfleet, who led the discussion,
always wore blue stockings. On one occasion he was absent and one of the
ladies said, "Where is Blue Stockings? We cannot go on without him!" So
the nickname stuck, and gradually any woman who had literary aspirations
was known as "a blue stocking," a name of doubtful compliment. To be
called "a blue stocking" was a term of abuse or raillery, though Sir
Walter Scott writes—" I like Lady M. particularly, but missed my facetious
and lively friend, Lady Anna Maria. It is the fashion of some silly women
and silly men to abuse her as a blue stocking. If to have good sense and
good humour, mixed with a strong power of observing, and an equally strong
one of expressing—if of this the result must be blue, she shall be as blue
as they will. Such cant is the refuge of fools who fear those who can turn
them into ridicule."
The blue stockings were the
forerunners of the women who
demanded the higher education. They won the first step in the forward
movement, and what they won their successors have guarded and cared for.
These have kept the light burning, and handed on the lighted torch. It has
been kept burning, and will be kept bright by the women of to-day who
march steadily forward, in willing response to the call of the morrow, who
feel joy in the opportunity of serving their generation by preparing for