Arguments against reform
- Learned women were not truly women, declared the opponents of educational reform for girls. Such 'mannish' women would be against marriage and the result would be a decline in the birthrate, the breakdown of relationships between the sexes and the weakening of family life.
'A learned girl is one of the most intolerable monsters of creation'.
Saturday Review, 1869.
- Danger of overwork and strain on girls. Medical experts at the time claimed that study could unsex a girl, that females were not biologically suited to the stresses and strains of examinations and the competitive spirit, and that excessive stimulation of the brain could lead to 'nervous hysteria' a female illness of the nineteenth century.
- Women would compete with middle-class men for professional jobs and thus upset the social order.
- Women were inferior to men. Sarah Stickney Ellis, who wrote several very popular conduct books (behaviour books) for girls called The Women of England (1838),The Daughters of England (1842) and The Wives of England (1843), was against too much education for women on the grounds that women were inferior to men. She believed that a woman did not have an independent existence but rather that her life was relative to men and that she was nothing of herself.
|As to women, then the first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men ...Your highest duty is so often to suffer and be still ...Your deepest enjoyments are all relative.
Quoted in Deirdre Raftery, Women and Learning in English writing 1600-1900, Dublin, 1997, p. 134.
- Educated women rarely make good wives and mothers. Sarah Sewell, 1868, who was anti-feminist, also strongly opposed women's higher education on the grounds that well educated women rarely made good wives and mothers.
|Women who have stored their minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of pies and puddings, nor do they enjoy the hard and uninteresting work of attending to the wants of little children.
Quoted in June Purvis, A history of women's education in England, London, 1991, p.112.
- Education might make girls 'strongminded'. What this argument really meant was that girls might think for themselves and so ruin their chances of gaining a husband. As the Saturday Review put it in 1870, 'Is there a plague in Egypt worse than a strong-minded woman?'
- Identify three attitudes revealed in the arguments against women's education. Briefly suggest one reason for each attitude.
- Compose an article that Sarah Sewell might write for a women's magazine on the education of girls today.
- Compose an 1840s 'problem page' with letters and replies on the topic of women's education.
- Role play a mothers' meeting in 1840 where Sarah Stickney Ellis delivers a brief lecture called 'On the education of girls'. The class role play the meeting where mothers introduce the speaker, ask questions, propose a vote of thanks and engage in discussion after the lecture.