Victorian Education Reform and the Roles Women Played in it
The Victorian Era brought many improvements in education. Even though schools have existed since the 6th century, not all children were offered an education until 1870 when the Forsters Education Act was passed. This act ensured that there would be schools available for all children. In 1880, a law was passed that made it mandatory for children ages 5-10 to attend school. However, it was not until 1891 that fees were abolished making education free for all children.
The Victorian School Day
A school day for a Victorian student began at 9am. The students would arrive at school and the teacher would take attendance. If a student arrived late or misbehaved, he or she would be smacked by the teacher with a ruler or cane. After taking attendance, the teacher would begin the lessons for the day. Some lessons that were taught include reciting poems, writing, arithmetic, technical drawing for the boys, and needlework for the girls. During prayer sessions, students who were non-Christians would be sent out while the Christian students would say their prayers. They would then have two hours to go home and have lunch. After this break they would return to school until 5pm to finish their lessons.
Boys vs Girls Education
During this time, boys and girls did not get equal educations and played very different roles as students. It was much more common for boys to attend public schools while girls would be tutored from home by a governess. These were only options for wealthy families. Many families could not afford for their children to go to school so the children would work to earn money instead. The boys and girls who did get an education would learn about different subjects and would be taught different skills. Girls were mainly taught household skills such as sewing and cooking. During the Victorian Era, females were expected to learn how to take care of a house and their future husbands. If girls were to get a real education, they would not be learning how to cook and clean for their husbands. In George Gissing's novel In the Year of Jubilee, he writes, "They're educated; oh yes, they're educated! What sort of wives do they make, with their education? What sort of mothers are they? Before long, there'll be no such thing as a home. They don't know what the word means. They'd like to live in hotels, and trollop about the streets day and night. There won't be any servants much longer; you're lucky if you find one of the old sort, who knows how to light a fire or wash a dish" (86-87).
There were a few different types of schools that existed during this time. There were public schools which were mainly for boys, board schools which were meant to help spread the availability of education, ragged schools which were schools without charging fees for the working children of poorer families, and dame schools which were run by women and were usually held in the home of the teacher. Victorian author Charles Dickens was inspired to write his novel A Christmas Carol after visiting the Field Lane Ragged School in 1843. He was shocked by the conditions of these types of schools and wanted to aware other of what was going on.
The Woman as a Teacher and Governess
The Victorian Era did bring about more opportunities for women. Schools and colleges for women were started and women were able to get educations so they could become teachers. However, their educations were not equal to mens' educations. Being a teacher or governess definitely did not appeal to all women, even though it was a step up from just being a wife. The famous Victorian author, Charlotte Brontë, worked as a teacher and a governess. She once stated, "women who take on the role of a live-in governess can never be happy" (Jane Eyre and the 19th-century woman). In her novel Jane Eyre, Brontë expresses her frustration with the gender inequalities and expectations of women in the Victorian society through the character Jane. In the novel Jane Eyre takes the job of a governess but does not believe that women should have to hide their talents and abilities or be limited to this one career. In the novel, Jane states, "Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags" (Ch. 12). This quote shows how frustrated some women were with having to follow these strict societal rules. By getting an equal and good education, they would have had much more power, however this is what frightened the men.
Victorian Colleges and Universities for Women
In the middle of the nineteenth century, two women's colleges, Queens College and Ladies College Bedford Square, opened. These schools allowed girls from age 12 and up. Queens College was an Anglican school run by men while Ladies College was started by women. The latter was for women who were considered "non-conformists" or "radical feminists" who weren't allowed in the Anglican college. The women who were students at these colleges played large roles in the education reform during this time. Two universities for women during this time were the University of London and Victoria University in Manchester. There were also universities that trained women who wanted to become teachers. By the later years in the 19th century, women were allowed to study medicine. However, they were still not thought of as people who had the ability to become professionals in these "masculine" subjects. It was believed that if a woman were to join a profession that was strictly for males, they would lessen the quality of this job.
"As it is, the universe to her is only a collection of rich bachelors in search of wives, and of odious rivals who are contending with her for one or more of these two wary prizes. She thinks of nothing except her private affairs. She is indifferent to politics, to literature - in a word, to anything that requires thought. She reads novels of a kind, because novels are all about Love, and love had once something to do with marriage, her own peculiar and absorbing business. Beyond this her mind does not stir" (The Sunday Review, 1867)This quote describes how many males, and some females, thought during the Victorian Era. They believed that if women were to receive educations, they would disrupt the whole social system. Men believed that an education would give women too much power that they didn't need.
From the beginning of the Victorian Era until the end, girls and women made many improvements to the education system. The roles of females as young students, governesses, and teachers all played huge parts in the reformation of education. Although education was not equal for girls and boys, women still used it to gain power in society and make more opportunities for themselves. By the end of the Victorian Era, laws had been passed that required all children to attend school, made schooling free, and gave women more opportunities to get educated.
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Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. London: Puffin, 1994. Print.
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Image 1: Oil Painting of a Dame School: http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/primaryhistory/victorian_britain/children_at_school/
Image 2: Painting of a Ragged School: http://www.victorianschool.co.uk/images/vintage/ragged%20school%20painting1%20[300x300].jpg
Image 3: "The Governess" By Richard Redgrave