Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Higher Education of Women in the Victorian Era

by Lynne Wilson

University education for women up until the Victorian era in Britain had been barely possible, however this was a topic of great discussion at the time, with divided opinion on the subject. It was from the mid-late nineteenth century that real progress began to be made, as a range of women’s issues were at the forefront at this time. However, there were still few who saw education as a way of changing women’s lives and giving them opportunities, with many supporters at the time believing a higher education was necessary simply to make women more effective wives, mothers and teachers.

An article in the Glasgow Herald newspaper highlights the problem: ‘The Higher Education of Women’ – ‘It may be questioned if the present age is destined to make its mark in history by anything more deeply than its earnest effort to raise the ideas of the sphere and duties of woman, and to elevate the character of her education in accordance with those new ideas…..Every day brings fresh evidence of the genuineness and growth of this demand for a higher culture than can be met by the traditional and conventional arrangements for female education’.

Sophia Jex-Blake c1860

As University education for British women had been fairly unheard of in this era,
the application of a prospective female medical student, Sophia Jex-Blake, in
1869 to attend lectures at the Edinburgh medical school, caused quite a storm of
controversy. The subject was greatly debated and encouragingly it seemed that there was a reasonable amount of support for this amongst the academic community of Edinburgh.

A report in the Edinburgh Evening Courant newspaper showed an example of some of that support: ‘Lady Doctors’ – ‘On Saturday night, Mr J A Bevan delivered a lecture at the Hanover Square Rooms on “Women Doctors.”…..Mr Bevan could not understand why women should not be allowed to practice as doctors. He pointed out which, in his mind, they were well fitted.’

The education of another budding female doctor, Elizabeth Garrett, was thrust into the spotlight at this time as an example of a success story resulting from female education. Elizabeth Garrett had tried some years prior to Sophia Jex-Blake to gain entry to the Edinburgh medical school, and had been refused. The Scotsman Newspaper reported on this story: ‘Miss Garrett, who seven years ago strenuously endeavoured to induce the Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh to admit her to study for a degree of Doctor of Medicine, but in vain – who subsequently passed the examinations, and became a licentiate of the Apothecaries’ Company of London – and who has now for several years been in successful practice of her profession in the Metropolis, has, we learn, just been admitted by the Faculty of Medicine of Paris to examination for a degree of M.D….It is curious to have to notice Miss Garrett’s continued success in other quarters at the very time at which we have also to record that another lady applicant is now knocking at the gates of our Scottish Colleges……It may well be that public opinion has now so far advanced in this matter that Miss Jex-Blake’s application to the Medical Faculty of the University will not be refused at all.’

Edinburgh University c1827

Subsequently, many persons in both in the Medical Faculty and Senatus voted that
Miss Jex-Blake should be admitted to the summer classes at least as a tentative
measure. Unfortunately however, this did not come to fruition, due to an outcry
against the impropriety of ‘mixed classes’. The idea of women learning about male and female Anatomy whilst in a classroom filled with men was just too much for prim Victorians to bear.

In the meantime however, several other women, on hearing about Sophia Jex-Blake’s fight and the discussions taking place in Edinburgh, came forward as prospective students and as a result, a second petition was presented to the Senatus Academics. Finally, there was light at the end of the tunnel, albeit, with some conditions, as this article in The Scotsman newspaper showed: ‘On the recommendation of both the Medical Faculty and Senatus, our University court has given its sanction to the matriculation of ladies as medical students on the understanding that they pass the usual examinations, and that separate classes are formed for their instruction.’

However, despite the efforts of Sophia Jex-Blake and other supporters for women’s education, women, although being allowed to begin medical study in this year, were not permitted to graduate from Edinburgh University at the end of their study. The protesters against female medical education gathered near Surgeons Hall in November 1870, where the women were due to take an examination in Anatomy and heckled and threw rubbish at them. The incident became known as the ‘Surgeons Hall Riot’. Then in 1873, the Court of Session ruled that the University had the right to refuse the women degrees. Sophia Jex-Blake moved back to London and established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, and later returned to Edinburgh in 1878, setting up practice at Manor Place in the New Town. She also opened a clinic for poor patients, which is now Bruntsfield Hospital. The other members of the ‘Edinburgh Seven’ who had attempted education at Edinburgh, gained their qualifications elsewhere, with the exception of Isabel Thorne, who gave up on her plan to practice as a doctor. Edinburgh University eventually admitted women as undergraduates in 1892, after an Act of Parliament had been passed.

By Lynne Wilson, author of the historical non fiction ebooks 'A Year in
Victorian Edinburgh' and 'Crime & Punishment in Victorian Edinburgh'; and the paperback, 'Murder & Crime in Stirling'.

Read more about Lynne Wilson HERE.

Lynne is also the creator and editor of Scotland's History Uncovered.


  1. Thank you for this interesting overview. Makes you really appreciate one's possibilities nowadays.

  2. This was really interesting. It's proof, really, that there were indeed very strong and well educated women. I find it quite irritating when people challenge strong heroines in Victorian literature, particularly modern Historical Fiction. Who do they think fought for the rights of women? The men? Tis funny, methinks. But a bit annoying too. Great article!

  3. Some really pertinent women's history! Thank you, Lynne.


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