Girls' Schools

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Girls' Schools

Although girls' schools existed well before the early modern period, in Europe and North America their development and diversification date back to the late eighteenth century. This development was in large part inspired by Enlightenment debates about the importance of reason and education, which concerned both men and women. From the outset, girls' schools were almost always strictly divided along social linesa feature that continued well into the twentieth century; working-class and peasant girls attended primary schools, where they received lessons in the rudiments, while middle-class and aristocratic girls received what was considered secondary education in the company of their peers. In both sorts of schools, lessons tended to emphasize women's distinct role in society, thereby contributing to maintaining them in positions of inferiority.

The expansion of girls' schooling over the past two hundred years, however, has brought a number of changes: first, the growth of primary schools for girls stimulated female literacy and opened professional opportunities for women as teachers. Thus the feminization of teaching and the spread of girls' schools went hand in hand. Second, girls' secondary schools, often under the impetus of a feminist movement, gradually aligned themselves with male standards of excellence, preparing girls for the same exams and offering opportunities to pursue higher education. By the 1980s, the distinction between girls' and boys' schools had mostly disappeared, as coeducation had become the norm throughout the Western world. The virtual disappearance of girls' schools (except in the Catholic school system) has not eliminated the impact of gendered differences in education; instead these differences have become part of what is often referred to as a hidden curriculum, where teachers unconsciously encourage the gendered patterns of behavior and learning which were openly encouraged in the girls' schools of previous centuries.

The Spread of Girls' Schools (17501850)

A number of intellectuals strongly supported the expansion of girls' education in the late eighteenth century. In France, for example, the revolutionary philosopher the Marquis de Condorcet insisted in 1791 that "Instruction should be the same for women and men" while in Germany the philosopher Theodore von Hippel defended similar ideas. More commonly, the champions of girls' education in this period envisioned the development of separate girls' schools, and most writers focused on middle-class girls and women. In the United States, the republican essayist Judith Sargeant Murray and the physician and politician Benjamin Rush helped forge the concept of Republican Motherhood as they defended more rigorous education for women in order for them to assume their responsibilities in the new nation. In Europe figures such as Hannah More, the English pedagogue, heralded the emergence of a new domesticity within the middle classes, where women, as mothers and wives, were expected to rejuvenate private life but also to moralize public life through the lessons they provided their sons. A wide range of girls' boarding schools and academies emerged in the early nineteenth century in order to help women assume these tasks more effectively within the private sphere.

In Europe most middle-class institutions for girls were relatively small, privately run structures where, for a fee, girls were given lessons in a relatively wide range of subjects: literature, history, geography, some natural sciences, foreign languages (but generally not Latin and Greek), and religion, as well as the indispensable female accomplishments (sewing, embroidery, painting, music, etc.). Prior to state involvement, these institutions were run by individual proprietors; by religious orders, particularly in Catholic countries; by trustees; and even at times by parents (which was the case for the Dottreskolen academy for girls in Copenhagen). Their longevity depended a great deal on individual ingenuity and economic resources.

Scholars have long ignored these institutions, considering them evanescent features of the urban social fabric or mere finishing schools; recent historical research, however, emphasizes the diversity of these schools and the ways they contributed to building a network of girls' institutions. Indeed, a few institutions in both Europe and North America achieved long-lasting fame and recognition and served as models for other schools throughout the Western world. As early as 1686 Madame de Maintenon created a school for noble girls at Saint Cyr, France, while in Saint Petersburg, Russia, beginning in 1764, the Smolny Institute for Noble Girls offered an example of enlightened education for the elite. The Napoleonic creations, the Legion of Honor schools for the daughters of his military officers, were among the most renowned girls' schools in Europe, inspiring similar creations in Germany, Russia, and Italy. Placed under the headship of the well-known educator and pedagogue Jeanne Campan, the first institution at Ecouen introduced a rigorous curriculum for girls that went far beyond the modest academic ambitions of many private finishing schools of the period. In northern Europe influential women educators, such as the Dutch headmistress Anna Barbera Van Meerten-Schilperoort or the German Betty Gleim, opened schools and published books defending girls' education. In the United States, educators such as Emma Hart Willard and Catharine Beecher contributed significantly to improving the quality of girls' education thanks to the examples offered by their renowned institutions: Willard's Troy Female Seminary flourished between 1821 and 1872, while Beecher's Hartford Female Seminary acquired national fame thanks to her indefatigable energy in promoting women's role in teaching and education.

While separation of the sexes almost universally characterized secondary schools, elementary education was often mixed, notably in Protestant countries. In Catholic countries, however, efforts were made to separate the sexes, which often meant that girls' schools simply did not exist. This was not the case in Catholic Belgium or France, however, where separate elementary girls' schools grew apace over the course of the century, less as a result of state involvement than of religious initiatives. The 1850 French Falloux Law required communes with a population of 800 to open a separate school for girls, but even in the public sector religious teachers far outnumbered lay ones: in 1863, 70 percent of the teachers in public elementary schools were nuns. In England, the voluntary system of education led to the emergence of a variety of institutions attended by working-class girls: dame schools, Sunday schools, Church of England National Schools, and schools founded by Unitarians. While these institutions were not systematically separated by sex, they certainly reinforced gender differences through their focus on religion and sewing for girls. Similarly, in North America the development of an urban school system generally integrated girls and boys in the same schools except in private schools that were oriented to the elite.

Catholic teaching orders and Catholic churches provided an important impetus for the spread of girls' primary schools throughout the Western world. This began as early as the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the seventeenth century, when the Ursulines in particular devoted themselves to the education of girls. In Canada in the 1660s, Mère de l'Incarnation ran a boarding school for both French and "savage" girls. Often combining both teaching and nursing services, congregations such as the Daughters of Charity opened schools throughout cities and in rural areas, offering poor girls an education in the basicsreading, writing and arithmeticin addition to religion. The spread of schools for lower-class girls was not motivated by any concern for promoting greater equality between the sexes. Instead, Sunday schools, day schools, and charity schools were all concerned with offering girls the lessons that would best suit them for their future responsibilities. Thus, the schools promoted minimal literacy while emphasizing religious lessons, since mothers were expected to transmit the first elements of religious faith to their infant children.

Diversification and Professionalization (18501900)

By the second half of the nineteenth century the numbers of girls' schools in Europe and North America had considerably expanded. More significantly, however, the rise of a self-consciously feminist women's movement placed girls' education at the forefront of its demands for change. These demands included better teacher training and more rigorous exams for girls and women as part of a concern with improving the professional character of girls' education as well as expanding the range of career opportunities such an education would offer. By the mid-nineteenth century, girls' schools no longer focused so exclusively on forming girls into good wives and mothers. They also envisioned more directly women's participation in the public sphere as workers and "lady" professionals.

A number of remarkable women around mid-century contributed not only to improving private schools for girls but also to the emergence of higher, or secondary, girls' schools. In Great Britain women such as Frances Buss, Dorothea Beale, and Emily Davies, and the Irishwoman Isabelle Tod all campaigned to improve the quality of girls' secondary education, and a number of reformed girls' institutions appeared to answer a broader social demand for a more rigorous education for girls: North London Collegiate School, Cheltenham Ladies' College, and the Ladies Institute of Belfast, as well as a number of "public" schools for girls (Roedean, St Leonards, etc.) modeled on the lines of male public schools, which were, in fact, private schools. Davies in particular fought to have women gain access to the Cambridge Local Examination on the same basis as boys; these prestigious exams testified to the quality of a pupil's secondary examination and opened doors for a professional future. In 1866, the Frenchwoman Julie-Victoire Daubié published an analysis, which was widely commented upon, La Femme Pauvre, emphasizing the need to improve girls' education at all levels. In Germany in 1890, the moderate feminist Helene Lange founded a Women's Teachers' Association and helped establish a Realkurse for women. This was a two-year program in mathematics, science, economics, history, modern languages, and Latin. The concern here was to give girls the knowledge necessary for further studies. All these endeavors were largely for upper and middle-class girls.

Trans-Atlantic and intercontinental European travel during this period encouraged the emergence of a common set of goals in the promotion of girls' education, even if the nature of the schools that developed took very different forms. The development of coeducational high schools in the United States as well as the early emergence of women's colleges (Vassar opened in 1865, Wellesley and Smith in 1875) attracted considerable attention among foreign pedagogues, even if neither model provoked many European imitations in the period prior to 1900; indeed, in Europe very few university-level female institutions ever developed. Instead the most remarkable changes involved the progressive development of secondary schools for girls, particularly within the public sector. In 1880, when the French state finally established public secondary education for girls in collèges and lycÉes, the promoter of the law, Camille Sée, could offer a panoramic sweep of the Western world, noting the presence of serious secondary schools for girls in Russia (the first girls' gymnasia appeared in 1858), in Belgium (Isabelle Gatti de Gamond founded a model secondary school in 1864), in Austria (Mädchenlyzeen were created after 1870); even in Greece a private institution known as the Arsakion offered secondary education as well as teacher training. James Albisetti has argued that the German model of secular secondary girls' schools, which were already widespread in the 1860s, provided the impetus for many of these national developments; immediately after the French law, Italian reformers introduced the first state-run istituti femminile. In the United States and Canada, higher girls' schools did not vanish with the spread of coeducation, as Catholic families continued to prefer the single-sex environment of female academies or seminaries, such as those run by the Ladies of the Sacred Heart or the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

The appearance of more academically ambitious institutions for girls also encouraged developments in teacher training and certification throughout Europe and North America, which contributed to the improvement of elementary education for girls. The creation of normal schools (teachers' colleges) for girls accelerated notably in the second half of the nineteenth century, often thanks to the dynamism of religious organizations: in England the first normal school for women was founded by the Anglican National Society in the early 1840s (Whitelands Training College); a Catholic teaching order founded the first French normal school in 1838. Increasingly, however, the state also intervened, providing teacher training for girls throughout Europe: in 1858 in Piedmont, in 1860 in Florence, in 1866 in Belgium and Portugal, in 1869 in the Austro-Hungarian empire, in 1879 in France. The growth in normal schools for women both encouraged and accompanied a tendency throughout the Western worldthe feminization of the elementary teaching profession. By 1851 in Quebec, 50 percent of government schoolteachers were women, and the proportion was higher in the United States. This tendency strongly accelerated in the twentieth century.

Transformations in the Twentieth Century

By the end of the nineteenth century, northern European women had largely overcome their educational disadvantage with respect to literacy. (In the United States, male and female literacy rates were nearly equal by 1850 among white men and women). This reflected the emergence of national systems of public education and an increasing recognition that girls as well as boys needed to be literate in an industrializing society. In Mediterranean countries, however, girls' schools were notably few and far between, contributing to high female illiteracy rates in Catholic Italy (54 percent of Italian women were illiterate in 1901); female illiteracy rates were also high in Ireland and Russia.

In 1900 social class continued to determine whether girls pursued only elementary schooling or went on to secondary education, but increasingly intermediate levels of education emerged, some of which catered to girls. In France, higher primary schools for girls multiplied, offering more vocationally oriented education. The emergence of scientific approaches to domestic economy or social work, which were seen as feminine subjects, spurred the creation of either special classes for girls or such institutions as the Dutch School for Social Work in Amsterdam in 1898 and Alice Salomon's German equivalent. Kindergarten teaching, in particular, generated the creation of vocational training institutions, generally influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Froebel. Nineteenth-century institutions such as the German, Hoschschule für das weibliche Geschlect or the French Ecole Pape Carpentier, spawned numerous imitations in the twentieth century. American workers' organizations also developed a range of innovative educational programs, such as the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, which was supported by trade unions and was aimed at providing working women with training in economics, labor history, and public speaking, along with classes on literature, art, music, and women's health issues.

While girls' schools initially developed to provide girls with the lessons they needed to fill their role as wives and mothers adequately, the impulse toward maintaining separate institutions began to fade as women's work opportunities expanded. The exception to this trend was where strong religious or moral considerations prevailed, most notably in Catholic countries: in Ireland in the early 1980s, over half of all secondary schools in the public and private sectors combined were single-sex. Indeed, by the 1980s in most Western countries girls not only attended schools at the same rate as boys, they often performed far better academically. Nonetheless, women's access to the same educational opportunities as available to men has not redressed persistent inequalities in the professions, stimulating in part the current debates in many countriesespecially in Germany, the United States, and Ireland, and Franceabout the need to return to single-sex schooling in order to give girls confidence in areas such as the sciences, where men continue to dominate.

See also: Coeducation and Same-Sex Schooling; Parochial Schools; Private and Independent Schools.


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Rebecca Rogers