Women and Higher Education: Two Ideas of Equality in Nineteenth Century Britain

Eric Lybeck, University of Manchester
Eleanor Lybeck, University of Oxford

In nineteenth century Britain, the liberal ideal of obtaining full citizenship and personhood through voting and education contributed to an interest in accessing the ballot and universities from half of the population excluded from such personhood: women. This paper explores the history of women’s education in the UK, which was concurrent with the initial expansion of mass and higher education, generally. However, evident in the foundation of the first women’s colleges at Cambridge, Oxford and elsewhere we find two ideas of equality advanced. The first, we call the ‘Newnham’ ideal articulated by utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick at Newnham College, Cambridge argued that examinations should be handicapped and adapted to women’s interests in order to maximise participation in university education. The second ideal, however, articulated by Emily Davies at Girton College, Cambridge argued that anything less than participation in the same examinations amounted to an acknowledgement of women’s inferiority – in other words, an affirmation of inequality. After establishing this distinction, we trace the legacy of each ideal across the following century as women’s access to education developed up to and including the move towards co-education at Oxford in the 1970s.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 151. Knowledge, Modernity and the Good Life