Friday, December 4, 2015

Bluestockings: The Victorian Campaign for Female Education

by Carol Hedges

In 1971 I graduated from Westfield College, University of London with a BA (Hons) in English & Archaeology. I took it for granted that I had a right to go to university and that following my degree, I would enter the marketplace as a professional woman, equal to any man doing the same job of work.

When I started researching the roles and expectations of young Victorian women for my current wip Murder & Mayhem, which features 17 year old ‘Feminist’ Laetitia Simpkins, I discovered how lucky I was to have been born in the mid-20th century rather than the mid-19th.

For bright young Victorian women, the doors to further education closed at 16. Intellectual curiosity and thinking skills were considered a waste of time, given that the purpose of a woman’s life was to marry and be the mother of (many) children.

As one contemporary wrote: “Girls are to dwell in quiet homes, among a few friends; to exercise a noiseless influence, to be submissive and retiring.” (Sewell, Principles of Education).

Interestingly as far back as 1694, Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies suggested a type of university education. But of course, the very fact that the proposer was female meant that the idea was not taken up or considered seriously.

Women were just thought of as physically incapable of scholarship. For a start their brains were nearly 150 grammes lighter than men’s brains. So that must indicate that their intellect was weaker. And then there was the vexed question of menstruation, which sapped the body of lifeblood.

Put those two together, and it was quite apparent that women who used their brain too much ran the risk of becoming sterile, as their wombs atrophied, thus negating their purpose in life, or even worse, producing “ a puny, enfeebled and sickly race” of children.

You may laugh, or gasp in amazement, but this was a widely held medical opinion at the time. Girls were strongly advised to focus on making their homes a sphere of accomplishment, rather than striving for a higher education. And to wait patiently for some young man (who may well have had the benefit of a university education) to come calling.

That the ‘petticoat problem’ began to resolve itself was entirely due to the actions of a few determined young women who decided that rather than break down the doors, they’d pick the lock and fight for equal education for women.

In 1850 North London Collegiate School opened, and a few years later Cheltenham Ladies College. The key word is ‘college’ – these weren’t places to learn embroidery, a smattering of French, some maths and what to do in a thunderstorm. They were seats of learning, encouraging girls to see themselves as capable of entering university and from there, the workplace.

In 1879 London University became the first to admit women undergraduates on the same terms as men. One of the pioneering women who enabled this to happen was Constance Maynard, who in 1863 campaigned for girls to be allowed to sit the Cambridge Locals (the equivalent of GCSEs) and then the Higher Locals (A levels).

When I was at Westfield, originally founded as a women’s college, my hall of residence was called Maynard House, a fitting tribute to a Bluestocking pioneer. Without women like her, prepared to step out of the shadows and campaign for their beliefs, I would not have had the benefit of a university education, and the opportunity to have a productive and fulfilling career.


Carol Hedges is a British author of books for children, young adults and adults. Her novel Jigsaw, about a teenager's suicide, was shortlisted for the Angus Book Award and nominated for the Carnegie Medal in 2001.[1] Her most recent works are the Spy Girl series for teenagers published by Usborne, and the Victorian Detective series for adults, published by Crooked Cat and featuring detectives Leo Stride and Jack Cully.

She lives in Hertfordshire and is married with a grown-up daughter.

Amazon author page:


Twitter: @carolJhedges


  1. Not only is this post most interesting, but I would encourage anyone reading it to try Carol's Victorian detective series ~ I've adored every one :)

  2. Great post, Carol! The Victorian era has a reputation for being a stifling era for women, but there was so much happening beneath the surface. Ladies were really starting to come into their own. And of course education was a huge part of it.

  3. Thank you ladies...we always think the quest for Female equality was the perquisite of the Suffragettes....but is soo wasn't!

  4. So true, the pioneering women in education opened the door of equality just a tiny bit with their efforts.

    1. I was stunned to read about Bathua Makin...the campaign went so far back...

  5. Molly Hughes (also known as M.V. Hughes) is a great resource here; her "London" trilogy of books – A London Child of the 1870s, A London Girl of the 1880s, and A London Home of the 1890s – are filled with fascinating perspectives on precisely this issue.

    Molly was highly intelligent and got herself into North London Collegiate (rather against her family's wishes) before becoming a pioneer in teacher training, so she found herself at the heart of this debate. Moreover, her books are still really interesting, easy reading. An interesting sidelight: for all this, Molly herself bought pretty fully into the Victorian conception of women (or at least her mother's slightly eccentric take on it), willingly subordinating herself to her four brothers, and quitting her job as soon as she (belatedly) married.

    Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker, who developed something of an obsession with Molly, gives a good overview of her here:

    A second person well worth knowing about is Philippa Fawcett, the remarkable daughter of the suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett – who in 1890 became the first woman to come top in the maths tripos at the University of Cambridge, placing "above the Senior Wrangler".

    Since these exams were then regarded as the toughest intellectual challenge available to the brightest minds in the British empire, her achievement forced a reconsideration of many of the views that you set out here.

    Philippa's story is an inspiring and unusual one, which I wrote about in detail here:

    1. Thank you...will investigate. I have had such fun with ''The Regent Street Ladies' Literary Group' (my invention). Just astonished to read some of the negative contemporary comments (many from women) about women's educative rights!

  6. Your graduation date is about ten years before mine, and made me think about the huge advances in attitudes that have taken place even in my lifetime. Few women did "serious" jobs in the 60s, while today it's not that unusual for a woman to be a family's main breadwinner. I wonder how historians will view the generations born after WWII in, say, 2080?

  7. Nice article about the bluestockings of the Victorian era. These were early feminists of the suffragist movement.



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