Gender and Education

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Linda L. Clark

Gender, like social class, economic realities, religious background, and national origins, long affected Europeans' access to education and the content of instruction, formal and informal. Indeed, widely accepted notions about differences between men's and women's psychological and physical characteristics and about the relationship of gender differences to appropriate social roles, for which education prepared the young, predated the Renaissance and Reformation. As one English author observed in 1913, "our educational institutions and practices descend from Greece." Aristotle, like many later theorists, defined the family as the basic unit of society and assigned leadership of the family and civic society to men, grounding the separation of gender roles and women's formal exclusion from public life in notions about men's intellectual, moral, and physical superiority. Xenophon's pronouncements on women's household roles were also still disseminated by some late nineteenth-century educators. Judeo-Christian biblical texts likewise provided rationales for female subordination to men, dating from Eve's punishment for leading Adam to sin. Although Christianity offered messages about the spiritual equality of the sexes, as well as of the rich and poor, the apostle Paul enjoined women to remain silent in the public space of the church. Biblical and Aristotelian gender polarities, combined in Thomas Aquinas's Summa theologica (1266), continued to figure in the pedagogical recommendations of Renaissance humanists in Italy and northern Europe.


The best-known Renaissance writings on the value of a classical education addressed male social and political elites, and typically treated female education as a secondary concern. Nonetheless, Plato's call for educating both men and women of the elite "guardian" class, the imagined leaders of his ideal Republic, supplied one precedent for advice dispensed by Baldassare Castiglione and Thomas More, among others. Already in 1405 Christine de Pisan, daughter of an Italian doctor employed by the French court, had regretted women's inferior education in her Book of the City of Ladies. Perhaps the first woman in European history to earn a living solely from her pen, she turned to writing once widowed with three children, and she recognized literacy's potential value for women in similar financial straits. Castiglione's Book of the Courtier (1528), a widely translated guide to comportment in a court, recommended that women receive much of the same instruction in letters and arts as men but also assumed different uses for this learning, men's knowledge serving to impress princely employers while women's learning enhanced the ability to orchestrate social gatherings. A badge of social distinction, instruction in Latin and Greek long remained central to the education of upper-class European men and, eventually, of the middle classes, who aspired to emulate aristocrats' tastes and later to supplant their political dominance. Long before nineteenth- and twentieth-century debates about whether a classical education was suitable preparation for men's careers in commerce and industry, secular and religious spokesmen questioned whether such learning was necessary or even morally appropriate for women.

Furthermore, well into the twentieth century many Europeans assumed that a rigorous academic education did not suit children of the lower or popular classes, either because it lacked practical value for their work lives (which often began as early as age seven or eight) or because it could expose them to ideas possibly threatening to the established social order. The intertwined variables of class and gender, as well as political, religious, economic, and demographic realities, thus influenced both elite and popular education from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries. For both sexes, access to education was determined by the goals of religious institutions and governments, as well as by the growth of commercial and industrial economies wherein literacy in the vernacular proved more useful than it was in traditional agrarian societies. Not surprisingly, both men and women in urban areas often attained much higher literacy rates than their rural counterparts, long before most European states made primary education compulsory during the later nineteenth century, Prussia having led the way a century earlier.

Although families' demand for schooling often preceded laws mandating it, some states approached mass or universal literacy sooner than others. Protestant emphasis on Bible reading to deepen piety also furthered literacy for both sexes, and Counter-Reformation competition between Catholics and Protestants spurred popular literacy in some French regions. The Catholic schools of Christian doctrine in sixteenth-century Italian cities likewise taught reading and writing as an aid to learning the fundamentals of faith: boys and girls were instructed in separate churches on Sundays by lay and religious men and women. However, in other areas where religious rivalry was lacking, as in Spain, Counter-Reformation bans of the 1550s on printing, selling, or owning vernacular editions of the Bible reinforced negative attitudes toward reading printed matter, and religious culture remained oral, visual, and social. Moralists long worried that literacy would expose the "weaker sex" to ideas encouraging immoral acts, such as writing love letters.

The dovetailing of political and religious goals could produce the most dramatic literacy statistics for both women and men. Against a backdrop of Protestant Pietism, the Prussian king Frederick William I made primary education compulsory in 1717, as did Frederick the Great, whose 1763 decree envisioned eliminating school fees for the poor. Despite uneven compliance, especially in rural areas, by 1800 perhaps three-fourths of Prussian men and half the women were literate, as compared to 68 percent of men and 43 percent of women in Protestant England. In France on the eve of the Revolution of 1789, women were also noticeably less literate than men (27 percent, as compared to 47 percent), and revolutionary leaders soon announced the goal of universal primary education for both sexes, considering that it would prepare men to exercise their new rights as citizens and enable women to transmit the values of the new political culture to their children. During the Revolution, however, other concerns took priority, and the educational goal was not attained.

Before the nineteenth-century expansion of public primary schooling, privileged girls and young women often received instruction from private tutors and governesses, while boys and young men of comparable background increasingly progressed from private lessons to schools. On the Continent, Jesuit schools for boys were the most numerous category of advanced primary and secondary schools in many Catholic countries, and they specialized in training future social and political elites. Less privileged girls learned much of a practical nature from their mothers or other female relatives, and some briefly attended day schools. Parisian records for elementary schools (petites écoles ) in the 1620s indicate the existence of at least 42 teachers, 20 of them priests and 20 women (5 of them married). In Catholic lands, nuns from orders like the Ursulines and Sisters of Charity also ran boarding or day schools for girls. Although these schools served a range of social groups, individual institutions often appealed to a particular class or segregated pupils according to social origins. Separation of the sexes was the norm in elite education and in many larger or city schools for the humbler classes, but by 1632 the Czech exile Jan Amos Comenius had provided a rationale for coeducation.

Apart from national and regional studies, historians have examined particular schools, such as Saint-Cyr, opened in 1686 and inspired by François de Fénelon's and Mme de Maintenon's interest in not only preparing French upper-class girls to manage complex households but also diverting them from the worldly salon society of Louis XIV's reign. Maintenon thus wanted to exclude history and geography from the Saint-Cyr curriculum, which became the model for Russia's Smolny Institute for Noble Girls, founded in St. Petersburg in 1764, three decades after the launching of a school to prepare young noblemen to become army officers. Instruction in religion, good manners and morals, foreign languages, music, and dancing marked the Smolny curriculum, which was soon copied in a parallel school for nonnoble girls, who would not, however, study architecture and genealogy. After an inspection in 1783 reported that most Smolny teaching was in French, Russian received greater emphasis, and lessons on child rearing were prescribed. Austria created a school for army officers' daughters in 1775 and another for civil servants' daughters in 1786, both institutions preparing their charges to become governesses if they should need to work.

A more varied clientele benefited from girls' schooling in late eighteenth-century Paris. There were places for about one out of every five Parisian girls in schools mostly subsidized by the Catholic Church, and nearly 90 percent of seats in day schools were occupied by daughters of artisans and merchants, noble girls being somewhat more likely to attend boarding schools. Empress Catherine the Great's 1786 education statute furthered her emphasis on westernization of Russia's elites, envisioning an urban network of secondary and coeducational primary schools that would be free and open to all the nonserf classes but not addressing rural education. In 1800 Russian boys in school outnumbered girls by a ratio of ten to one, and, as in other countries where public schooling was free before it was compulsory, aristocratic and middle-class youngsters often benefited more than poorer groups. At the same time, nobles reluctant to have their children mix with other social classes in public schools also resorted to private boarding schools.

The first French public postprimary schools for girls were the Legion of Honor institutions founded in 1807 by Napoleon and intended largely for the daughters of army officers. Initially headed by Mme Jeanne Campan (formerly in the employ of the deposed Bourbon dynasty), Legion of Honor schooling was the task of three institutions, stratified along lines of social class. The curriculum did not match the academic rigor of the lycées, the elite public secondary schools for males also created by Napoleon, and so it did not prepare girls for study in universities or the newer grandes écoles for training engineers and scholars. Nonetheless, many Legion of Honor girls needed to work and often became teachers, thus countering Napoleon's much quoted assumptions about women's domestic destiny and intellectual inferiority.

Such assumptions had also been central to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's famed pedagogical treatise Emile (1762), which enjoined mothers to provide children with emotional nurturing and to breast-feed infants instead of hiring wet nurses. Interpreted today as indicating the development during the Enlightenment of a new and more positive phase in the history of childhood, Emile was also a critique of aristocratic and bourgeois women's participation in eighteenth-century salons. Many women readers thought that Rousseau's emphasis on the contribution of mothering to children's development enhanced appreciation of feminine roles, but Catherine the Great preferred Fénelon's educational treatise. Certainly Catherine's public role was not one that most French revolutionary leaders found suitable for women, for they denounced the meddling in Old Regime affairs by Queen Marie-Antoinette and aristocratic women and in 1793 formally closed women revolutionaries' political clubs.


During the nineteenth century primary schooling expanded considerably. There was demand from families alert to its possible economic value for both girls and boys, and governments wanted a training ground for an informed and law-abiding citizenry. At the same time, the Catholic Church, alarmed that anticlerical men increasingly avoided churchgoing in such countries as France and Italy, advocated religious schooling and the presence of religious orders in public as well as private school classrooms, hoping that nuns' education of girls would maintain the church's influence in family life. Jewish communities had traditionally attached more importance to men's than to women's education, but as legal restrictions on Jewish minorities were removed, rabbis worried about Judaism's survival in societies where assimilation was possible and so also emphasized women's role in preserving Jewish identity. Where political and religious considerations had limited impact on educational policy or parental choices and where economic development was slow, as in Spain, the push for primary education lagged behind other parts of Europe and was tied particularly to demand in growing urban areas. In 1860, 65 percent of Spanish men and 86 percent of women were illiterate, and in 1900 that was still true for 56 percent of men and nearly 72 percent of women.

England allowed local school districts to make primary education compulsory in 1870 but did not guarantee free schooling until 1891, whereas both free and compulsory schooling figured in the French primary education laws of 1881–1882, sponsored by the new, democratic Third Republic (1870–1940) and education minister Jules Ferry. By the time of the Ferry Laws, the great majority of French school-age children of both sexes already received some primary schooling, but the improved training of teachers and curricular reform enhanced the quality of much instruction. Before the political drive for universal education, 30 percent of English bridegrooms and 45 percent of brides in 1850 could not sign the marriage register, as was also true in 1854 for 31 percent of French grooms and 46 percent of brides. By 1900 only 5 to 6 percent of French spouses could not sign, and in England in 1913, that was true for only 1 percent of either sex. When German unification was completed in 1871, the kingdom of Prussia was close to achieving universal literacy (90 percent of men, 85 percent of women), although Catholics' illiteracy rates were twice as high as Protestants' rates. Italy lagged in comparison. Piedmont's Casati Law of 1859, extended to the rest of the newly unified Italy in 1861, formally organized public education and created normal schools for women, and the 1877 Coppino Law made three years of schooling compulsory for both sexes. Yet many communities did not adequately fund free schooling, and some families were resistant. In 1861, 78 percent of Italians were illiterate, and nearly half remained so in 1901, when regional rates varied from a low in Piedmont in the industrializing north—14 percent of males, 21 percent of females—to a high in remote Sicily, with 65 percent of males and 77 percent of females.

French and Italian educational reform also had a pronounced anticlerical dimension, partly linked to the governments' concern about the influence of Catholic education on women's beliefs and political leanings. In France anticlericalism reflected the continuing combat between republicans and Catholic monarchists. Accordingly, republicans secularized the public school curriculum and replaced religious teachers with lay men and women. The latter change had greater impact on girls' schools because lay male teachers had long been more numerous in boys' schools than teaching brothers, whereas the number of nuns teaching in public schools had risen under the terms of the Falloux Law of 1850. In the new Italian state, unified between 1860 and 1870, anticlerical education policies were a response to the antagonism of Pope Pius IX and his successors, who opposed the demise of the independent Papal States. Count Camillo di Cavour, prime minister of Piedmont and architect of Italian unification, had ended religious orders' role in public schools, and 1877 legislation removed religion lessons, not returned to the state curriculum until the Fascist era. In Spain, however, the brief moment of liberal distancing from the church, due to the Carlist rebellion against Queen Isabella II, was soon replaced by an accommodation epitomized by the 1857 Moyano Law, which mandated religious lessons in public schools, allowed clerical inspection, and was not altered until the Second Republic (1931–1939) imposed the secularizing policies that the Franco dictatorship subsequently discarded.

In imperial Russia, gender differences in schooling and literacy also long complemented rural/urban differences and were influenced by the Orthodox Church as well. In 1897, 64 percent of urban males and 70 percent of females aged nine and older were literate, as compared to 35 percent of males and only 13 percent of females in rural areas. Peasants themselves evidently initiated the first major push for expanding rural primary education, immediately after the 1861 emancipation of serfs. During the 1890s, when social turmoil accompanied protracted famine, local government councils and the Orthodox Church assumed more control over schools, as did the central government after the 1905 revolution. Although perhaps half of all school-age children received some education by 1914, gender and geographical differences persisted: 75 percent of urban boys and 59 percent of girls attended school, but the respective rural figures were 58 percent and 24 percent. These lags have been attributed not only to a large rural population's failure to see economic value in literacy, especially for girls, but also to Russian Orthodoxy's fear that knowledge of Western science and languages would divert people from religion.

The expansion of schooling, public and private, enlarged the market for textbooks and other curricular materials, and much school literature contained messages that reinforced both social class distinctions and gender norms. In the wake of the French Revolution, anxious European elites had expressed new interest in the need to educate mothers, the first educators of young children and thus the first purveyors of social values. Like conservative elites, liberals and progressives endorsed tailoring educational content to gender, for women were formally excluded from the political rights for male citizens introduced by the Revolution of 1789 and later nineteenth-century European revolutions or voting reforms.

French primary school textbooks for both sexes emphasized the virtues of hard work and respect for authority and also discouraged expectations of upward social mobility. Third Republic textbooks for girls' schools maintained the emphasis on women's domestic and maternal roles familiar in the texts of the July Monarchy (1830–1848) and Second Empire (1852–1870). Typical female role models were nurturing and gentle but also watchful of the behavior of their children and husbands. Good housekeeping was presented as a way to divert men from cafés and cabarets, and some textbooks presumed that a loving and dutiful wife could dissuade a working-class husband from participating in disruptive strikes. One 1892 textbook was relatively unusual because its central woman character not only survived but also prospered in the world of work, rising from humble seamstress to successful proprietor of a Paris dressmaking establishment. Lest that example inspire unrealistic ambitions, a preface by a former education minister cautioned readers that the odds were a hundred to one that they would remain workers.

An 1878 Spanish textbook authored by an archbishop's sister depicted Queen Isabella I as not only pious and intelligent but also dedicated to sewing shirts for her husband, King Ferdinand. Comparable differences in gender attributes and roles appeared in pedagogical materials used by the states in imperial Germany, although there the greater prevalence of coeducation also minimized the insertion of specifically feminine images. Nonetheless, the curriculum in the last two grades of Berlin's elementary schools for girls devoted four hours less per week to math and science than did the boys' curriculum, so that girls could devote four hours to sewing and needlework.

Unlike the United States, where coeducation in schools largely taught by women was the prevailing model by the mid-nineteenth century, many European countries still favored separate boys' and girls' schools, provided that economic resources were available. If public finances were limited, as in many rural areas, the maintenance of boys' schools or small one-room coeducational schools took priority. The anticlerical Third Republic followed Catholic tradition by mandating separate primary schools for boys and girls in communes with a population of at least five hundred, but in Protestant Prussia, imperial Germany's largest state, two-thirds of all elementary school classes—particularly in rural areas—were mixed in 1906. Coeducation was also typical in another schooling option that emerged during the first half of the century: the infant or nursery school, first created in cities and towns where many mothers worked outside the home. While boys' schools had male teachers, women teachers were usually, but not necessarily, preferred for girls' schools and nursery schools, and their growing numbers reflected expanded opportunities for attending secondary schools or normal schools.

In contrast to the United States, in many European countries young men's and women's path to the normal schools that trained primary teachers took them first from a primary school to a higher primary school, rather than to an academic secondary school, which catered to a more socially elite clientele and was, in many instances, long a masculine preserve. Indeed, well into the twentieth century, the divide between primary and secondary schooling in Europe was often not only one of age brackets but also of social class, and the attachment of fee-paying elementary classes to some public secondary schools enabled pupils to avoid mingling with children of the popular classes.


Secondary schools were not only more elite but also more often single-sex than were primary schools, in both Catholic and Protestant countries, and girls' access to secondary schooling lagged because of belief that their domestic destiny did not require extensive academic training. What the English termed an "accomplishments" curriculum (literature, foreign languages, the arts, and needlework) prevailed in many countries' private and boarding schools for teenage girls until parental demand and public policy effected a change. Indeed, the English government's delayed response to such demand, orchestrated by the National Union for Improving the Education of Women, prompted the foundation in 1872 of the Girls' Public Day School Company, whose shareholders supported the mission of forming "character by moral and religious training" and "fitting girls for the practical business and duties of life." Even after England's Education Act of 1902 promoted publicly funded secondary schools, girls' schools could, for pupils over fifteen years of age, substitute a combination of domestic subjects for part or all of the curriculum in science and mathematics. For boys, secondary schooling, particularly in England's elite private "public" schools like Eton and Harrow, remained a mark of social distinction even when they did not continue studies at a university. In 1891, only 2.7 percent of German boys aged ten to fourteen were enrolled in secondary schools, and the comparable figures for France, Spain, and Italy were, respectively, 2.56 percent, 2 percent, and 1 percent.

France launched public secondary schools for girls in 1880, anticlerical republicans presenting their purpose not as professional preparation but rather as additional education for middle-class daughters, who would become republican wives and mothers. Accordingly, the curriculum of the new girls' lycées and collèges was two years shorter than that for boys' schools, and until the 1920s it did not include Latin and Greek or advanced courses in mathematics, sciences, and philosophy, all necessary to pass the examination for the secondary degree (baccalauréat)required for formal admission to universities. Young women thus needed private tutoring to prepare for that degree hurdle, first negotiated by a woman in 1861, and eventually some Catholic girls' schools tried to compete with public schools by offering baccalaureate subjects. The Italian government, however, began allowing girls to attend boys' secondary schools during the 1870s, for the priority in public funding was remedying deficiencies in primary education. Nonetheless, Italian upper-class families continued to send daughters to Catholic boarding schools or convent-like secular boarding schools, which were typically finishing schools not emphasizing preparation for work. Spain's official enrollment of female secondary school students occurred after 1900, and in 1923 they were still only 12 percent of secondary students.

In the Austrian half of Austria-Hungary, the first school preparing young women for university admission was one opened in Prague for Czech speakers by a women's organization. Like France, Austria did not have girls' public secondary schools with a classical curriculum leading to the diploma (Matura) required for university entry, but after Prussia introduced official regulations for higher girls' schools in 1894, Austria followed in 1900 with a six-year program, two years shorter than that for males. Prussia's important curricular revisions of 1908 still differentiated between girls' and boys' secondary schooling but also enabled some girls' public schools to prepare pupils for the degree (Abitur) needed for university admission. No state-run school in pre-1914 Austria did the same, and in 1910 the government actually halted some provincial towns' practice of admitting girls to boys' secondary schools for such preparation. Belgium similarly excluded ambitious young women from male secondary schools until the 1920s and had only one publicly funded course (created in 1907) to prepare them for universities. Most Russian girls' secondary schools also lacked a curriculum equivalent to that for boys until one was mandated in 1916.

Coeducation in secondary schools was most common in Scandinavian countries but did not affect the Swedish state grammar schools. It also became somewhat more prevalent in England after the 1902 Education Act enabled local education authorities to open a number of new secondary schools and upgrade others, some becoming coeducational in the process. The English Headmistresses' Association was not enthusiastic about coeducation, however, and neither were German women teachers, who had a vested professional interest in opposing it because teaching jobs for women were not plentiful in Germany.


National variations in women's place in teaching corps during the later nineteenth century were noteworthy. Under the French Second Empire, nuns outnumbered lay women as teachers in girls' schools and nursery schools, and the anticlerical Third Republic retained the Catholic penchant for sex-segregated schools. Lay women, however, became the favored teachers for the Republic's girls' schools, and for the first time the national government and departmental administrations provided adequate funding to open new normal schools to train lay women teachers; the state also assumed responsibility for paying teachers' base salary in 1889. Against the backdrop of extended conflict between state and church, the Republic emphasized the maternal nature of lay women teachers, as compared to nuns, and unlike most other nations, did not expect women to leave teaching if they married or became mothers. Although French women teachers, like most of their counterparts elsewhere, received less pay than men at some levels of the official scale before World War I, the number of women applicants exceeded the availability of posts in most locales by 1900, and many women secondary school graduates also obtained primary teaching credentials to secure employment.

Whereas women were half of France's lay primary teachers by 1906 and more than 60 percent of Italian primary teachers, the same was not the case in imperial Germany (1871–1918), where educational policy remained the preserve of its individual states, independent before national unification. Women were still only 18 percent of German elementary teachers in 1906 because opportunities for women were retarded by older educational traditions, notably Protestant pastors' role and state bureaucracies' long experience with certifying male teachers and school inspectors. Authorities thus preferred hiring men, particularly for the many rural coeducational primary schools, and women more typically taught in sex-segregated schools in cities. In Russia, Orthodox priests and seminarians had long dominated primary teaching, but in 1871 a shortage of male applicants for teacher-training institutes led the government to admit women. By 1911 most primary teachers in Russian cities were women and, despite prolonged rural resistance, they were also a majority in the countryside. Both Germany and Austria lagged in training and allowing women to teach math, sciences, and classical languages at the secondary level. Austrian women could not teach academic subjects in middle and upper grades of girls' secondary schools until after 1900, a possibility acquired by Russian women in 1903.

In England, as in the United States, the teaching force was overwhelmingly feminized by 1900, for reasons more economic and cultural than political or religious. Women teachers would accept lower pay than men, for whom better-paid employment was more plentiful, and teaching, particularly in primary schools, had become stereotyped as a "woman's profession." In 1900, nearly 75 percent of American, 73 percent of British, 66 percent of Swedish, and 68 percent of Italian teachers were women, many of them single.


Academic secondary schools gave access to European universities, the training ground since the Middle Ages for prestigious professions and long closed to women. The history of women's presence in universities often displays a lag between their informal and formal admission and also between their formal enrollment and the possibility of utilizing a degree to enter a profession. Whereas special colleges for women were attached to some English universities, continental countries—with the exception of Russia—typically rejected separate women's institutions at this level and did not open existing universities to women until dates much later than the founding of the first English and American women's colleges. At first, some of the latter were, in fact, more like high schools than real universities. Queen's College and Bedford College in London, established in 1848 and 1849, admitted younger teenagers, and only in 1878 did the University of London open its degrees to women. A half century elapsed between the founding of Girton College for women in 1869 and Cambridge's awarding of degrees to women, although in the interim women were admitted to the examinations of both Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Swiss universities were in the vanguard of continental institutions offering admission and degrees to foreign women from countries where universities excluded them, such as Russia, Austria, and Germany. The University of Zurich admitted women as degree candidates in 1867, and a Russian woman was the first degree recipient. Subsequently the tsarist regime concluded that political radicalism was fueled by exposure to freer circulation of ideas in other countries and in 1873 ordered Russian women studying in Switzerland to return home. At the same time, however, Russia opened special higher courses and advanced medical training for women. Thereby Russian women had more access to advanced education than other European counterparts of the 1870s, but a backlash occurred during the reign of Tsar Alexander III, who attributed his father's assassination in 1881 to liberal policies. By 1886 all women's higher courses except those in St. Petersburg were closed, not to be reopened or newly launched until the reign of Nicholas II (1894–1917), who endorsed the St. Petersburg Medical Institute for Women in 1895 and allowed new courses in the capital and Moscow in 1900 and in nine other towns after the 1905 revolution. Although Russian women were allowed to audit courses at the regular universities for several years after the 1905 revolution (until 1908), they could not matriculate at these before 1914.

Social custom and administrative rulings delayed the enrollment of women students in France and Italy. The first French university degree awarded to a woman was conferred in 1868, but until 1913 more foreign than French women were enrolled in France's universities. Italian women began to receive advanced degrees after universities were opened to them in 1876, and in Denmark the first women obtained degrees during the 1880s. After a woman received a medical degree from a Spanish university in 1881, an 1882 decree barred women's access, and subsequent decrees limited their status to auditors until full official access was granted in 1910. In England, Scotland, and Wales the timetable for awarding degrees to women varied by university, with the newer public or "red brick" universities acting well before Oxford and Cambridge, which did not grant women degrees until 1920 and 1921. Indeed, Cambridge delayed women's voting membership in the university until 1948.

The first Austrian women university graduates were also schooled in Switzerland, and, as in Russia, the desire of some women to utilize Swiss diplomas in their native country created pressure for opening universities to women. In 1890 Emperor Francis Joseph allowed a Swiss-educated ophthalmologist to open a clinic with her husband, and in 1896 Austrian-born women with foreign medical degrees were allowed to practice in the empire if they first passed the requisite Austrian university examinations. By 1897 a campaign launched by Czech feminists to open Austrian universities to women had resulted in access to faculties of philosophy, and although medicine also opened in 1900, law faculties remained inaccessible until 1918. Germany lagged behind Austria in letting women matriculate in universities, but in 1900 Baden became the first German state to admit women, and in 1908 the doors of the University of Berlin fully opened, with all German universities accessible by 1909. In sum, on the eve of World War I, women were 6 percent of university students in Germany and Italy, 3 percent in Belgium, 10 percent in France, and over 16 percent in England. The comparable Russian figure is 27 percent, but women were restricted to special higher courses.

Once graduated from universities, women faced both formal and attitudinal obstacles to entering the more prestigious professions. Access to medical practice preceded access to legal practice, partly because of some countries' receptivity to the argument that women were the appropriate doctors for women patients and infants. Nonetheless, women medical school graduates often encountered problems with securing hospital internships, and many accepted posts on state payrolls because establishing successful private practices was difficult. Russia's special medical training for women resulted in more registered women doctors than in more politically and socially progressive countries: 698 in Russia by 1888, as compared to 258 in England by 1900, 107 in Germany by 1907, and 95 in France by 1913. A 1900 law made France the first major European country to admit women with law degrees to the bar, a right already accorded in Sweden in 1897 and approved in Norway and Geneva, Switzerland, in 1904 but not provided in Germany, England, Austria, Italy, Belgium, Portugal, and Romania until after World War I. Yet as of 1914, only eleven French women had been admitted to the bar, and another nineteen held probationary status. Russia's first women law graduates could not practice until after the 1917 revolution. There would be similar lags in women's admission to the most prestigious civil service ranks or university professoriates. Russian-born Sofia Kovalevskaia obtained a chair in mathematics in Stockholm in 1883, and Polish-born Marie Curie was the first woman to do so in France (largely because of prior collaboration with her husband Pierre, with whom she won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903).


World War I proved to be a watershed in women's rights and education in more than one respect. Women's new professional opportunities in law and the civil service paralleled the postwar granting of suffrage in England, Germany's Weimar Republic (1919–1933), and Czechoslovakia, among other countries, but a gap remained between educational opportunity and political rights for French and Italian women, not enfranchised until after World War II.

The Bolshevik (Communist) takeover of the 1917 Russian Revolution ushered in new promises of both class and gender equality, as the prewar socialist Second International had demanded. The first Soviet census in 1920 rated 44 percent of the population as literate (58 percent of men, 32 percent of women), and twenty years later Stalin's regime could boast of an 87 percent rate (94 percent of men, 82 percent of women). Communists ordered the merger of women's higher courses with local universities in 1919, but politicization for a time reduced women's representation among students. Women were 38 percent of university students in 1923–1924 but 28 percent by 1928, for many students of bourgeois origins were removed and only 15 percent of students enrolled in Communist groups were women.

After World War I, other more economically backward areas of eastern and southern Europe also began filling gaps in primary education. Poland, independent for the first time since 1795, made schooling compulsory in 1919, but nearly a quarter of the population remained illiterate in 1931. Whereas the more industrialized Czech state already boasted of nearly universal literacy in 1921, Hungary lagged behind western Europe until the 1930s, and more than half of all girls and women were illiterate in Romania and Yugoslavia in 1931 and 43 percent in Bulgaria in 1934. Thus much of eastern Europe did not achieve either universal literacy or the closing of the gender gap in literacy until after World War II, under newly implanted Communist regimes. Spain also lagged, even though increased public funding, coupled with greater demand for schooling, reduced illiteracy between 1920 and 1940 from 35 to 17 percent for men and from 50 to 28 percent for women. The attempt to secularize Spanish public schools by the ill-fated Second Republic incurred the wrath of traditionalists, who launched the protracted Civil War (1936–1939) that toppled the Republic. Francisco Franco's authoritarian regime, in keeping with the 1929 papal condemnation of coeducation as harmful to Christian learning, then abolished coeducation, which had been favored by the Republic.

Access to secondary schooling that was the equivalent of the best schooling for young men of the middle and upper classes also remained an issue for advocates of equal opportunities for women and poorer children of both sexes. Czechoslovakia in 1922 promised young women equal access to secondary schools, and France in 1924 finally responded to longstanding demands by feminists and middle-class parents and allowed girls' secondary schools to offer the option of an academic curriculum matching that for boys. Subsequently, French public secondary schooling became free. Throughout the interwar period, French advocates of a single schooling system (école unique) for all children also tried, but with minimal success, to break down the structural obstacles facing bright children who wanted to advance from the primary to the secondary school system. Achievement of that goal would not occur until after World War II and, for most schoolchildren, not until the Fifth Republic (1958–).

The woman university student also became a more frequent sight after World War I than before, although professional advances remained limited. Women were a quarter of all university students in France, England, and Czechoslovakia by 1928, but only 5 percent in Spain. In medicine there were, by 1929, at least 2,231 women doctors in Germany, 860 in Poland, 519 in France, 450 in Yugoslavia, 411 in Austria, about 350 in Italy and the Netherlands, 256 in Latvia, 198 in Bulgaria, 109 in Norway, about 100 in Sweden, and 85 in Lithuania. France, which had pioneered in admitting women to legal practice, then had only 96 women lawyers, as compared to 15 practicing in Fascist Italy, 65 in the Netherlands, 180 in England, and 251 in late Weimar Germany. Many other women recipients of law degrees had opted for newly opened professional posts in the civil and social services. Farther east, Hungary and Bulgaria still denied women the right to practice law in 1930.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s the woman professional often encountered antagonism in more than one setting. Blamed in some democracies for taking jobs away from men, she also faced the hostile propaganda of Fascist regimes, which accused her of not fulfilling her maternal obligation to produce children who could serve their nation at home or at war. In 1928 Mussolini's Fascist state banned the future appointment of women as directors of middle schools, having already excluded them from new appointments to prestigious university and secondary posts. Nonetheless, women remained about 70 percent of all Italian teachers, and their place among secondary school students actually increased from 19 to 26 percent between 1927 and 1938 and among university students from 13 to 15 percent. Hitler's regime imposed a 10 percent quota on German women university students in 1933 and, in 1934, also required six months of obligatory labor service before university entrance. Although that quota was not always rigorously enforced, and numbers of male university students also dropped sharply because of new employment possibilities or other Nazi service obligations, women's place among students declined from 18.5 percent in 1932 to 14.2 in early 1939, their number falling from 18,813 to 6,342.

SINCE 1945

After World War II, the gender gap in literacy in the more economically backward parts of Europe was largely closed, and, as before the war, women in western and central Europe increasingly moved from the classroom to jobs in offices and services in the tertiary sector of the economy rather than the industrial sector. Under Franco's dictatorship (1939–1975), Spanish illiteracy rates fell from 17 percent for males in 1940 to 5 percent in 1970, and for females, from 28 percent to 12.5 percent, although the 9 percent female illiteracy recorded in the 1981 post-Franco census was still more than double that for men. In the Soviet Union, by comparison, the 23 percent rural female illiteracy rate of 1939 had been virtually eliminated by 1959, even though the dismantling of coeducation in favor of single-sex schools during World War II had delayed educational advances for some young women.

Another educational reform affecting boys and girls in many countries was the new emphasis on a common middle school experience, promoted by the French Fifth Republic during the 1960s and provided for in Italy by a 1962 measure. From middle schools larger numbers of young women and men advanced to secondary schools and universities. In Italy in 1961, 19 percent of all adolescents attended secondary schools, and by 1974, 35 percent. Young French women received half of all academic high school diplomas by the 1960s, and increasingly they attended coeducational rather than single-sex schools, which ceased to be the norm by the 1970s. In Spain, however, the secondary diploma (bachillerato) remained an elite, male degree until after 1960, for the Franco regime's new secondary schools for girls only partially met needs and required pupils to take courses in domestic arts. Spanish university regulations in effect until 1970 also continued gender distinctions: male students did mandatory military service, and women did a six-month social service program, consisting of lessons on political values and home economics and then work in an office, nursery, or shelter.

During the later 1960s women university students in France, Italy, and West Germany joined male students in various protests directed not only against inadequate educational facilities but also toward larger social issues, and, as in the United States, displays of male chauvinism by radical spokesmen helped spur a revival of feminism. New attention to the gender bias in educational institutions and curricular materials was prompted by the renewed feminist awareness of how assumptions about gender traits and roles limited opportunities for women in the workplace and other aspects of public life.

By the mid-1980s women were more than half of the students in Polish, Hungarian, Norwegian, Portuguese, and French universities, and more than 40 percent in most other countries. At both the secondary school and university levels, the latest gender gap was less often a matter of smaller enrollments and more often one measured by the differences between women's and men's choices for academic and professional specialization. In France and elsewhere, choices made at the secondary school level typically limited options for higher education. Thus in 1983 French women obtained four-fifths of all secondary school baccalaureates in the humanities but only one-third of those in the natural sciences and mathematics; in turn, women comprised only 10 percent of students at France's elite engineering school, theÉcole Polytechnique (finally opened to women in 1972), and only 15 percent at the prestigious National School of Administration. Similarly, at universities in Great Britain in 1988 women were 77 percent of education students and 71 percent of language and literature students but only 11 percent in engineering and 26 percent in the physical sciences. Women's underrepresentation in engineering and the sciences limited their access to many of the higher-paying jobs offered by those specializations.

Farther down the educational ladder, gender differences in options selected in technical high schools left many young women vulnerable to unemployment or underemployment. At the end of the 1980s many European professional women continued to work in education, where they numbered about two-thirds of those so employed, even as more opportunities gradually opened to them in other fields. Women were more likely to work and to have fewer children during the 1980s than during the 1950s but, as in the United States, they often earned less than men and were less likely to attain the highest posts.

Despite the dropping of most formal barriers to gender equality in the laws, education, and workplaces of the fifteen states of the European Union of the 1990s, there was thus still concern about cultural and societal factors retarding women's educational achievement in certain fields, just as attention was also focused on factors retarding educational progress by working-class children, more likely to be made to repeat grades than middle-class offspring. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his disciples made trenchant critiques of the role played by elite institutions in perpetuating male social and economic elites and their "cultural capital." Other commentators, however, doubt that schools in democratic capitalist societies function merely to perpetuate elites, suggesting that for girls and women, as for the sons of workers, education also remains a key to achieving both intellectual growth and the possibility of professional and social advancement.

See alsoGender Theory (volume 1);Students (volume 3);Child Rearing and Childhood; Youth and Adolescence (volume 4);Schools and Schooling; Higher Education (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


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