In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women's Education

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews of Women’s Education in the Nineteenth Century
  • Bibliographies and Reference Works for Women’s Education in the Nineteenth Century
  • Archives of Women’s Education in the Nineteenth Century
  • Nineteenth-Century Ideas and Theories Related to Women’s Education
  • Education of Working-Class Women in the Nineteenth Century
  • Women’s Education and Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century

Victorian Literature Women's Education
Sheila Cordner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0200


Against the backdrop of momentous education reform in 19th-century Britain, women made important inroads to institutional learning. They gained access to elementary and secondary schools as well as the first women’s colleges. Even by the end of the century, however, women often still felt excluded from elite higher education. Like the socially stratified learning models for male students, women’s education was commonly dictated by class. As a result, many scholars have approached the subject of Victorian women’s education through this lens, and many of the sources here are categorized by social class as well as by level of schooling. Education reform sought to provide broader opportunities for children of the lower classes to attend schools, with the Education Act of 1870 making elementary education compulsory. More secondary schools opened for middle-class girls, as reported by the 1868 Schools Inquiry Commission, but they were criticized for being unsystematic and barely more rigorous than the tutored education of accomplishments many bourgeois girls received at home. Some middle-class and upper-middle-class women pursued professional paths as educators, becoming governesses or teachers at the newly proliferated schools. In the second half of the century, as a debate flared regarding women’s physical and intellectual capabilities for higher learning, a small group of women attended universities for the first time. Opponents of the women’s higher education movement highlighted the tensions between women’s rigorous study and their responsibilities as wives and mothers. Despite gaining more access, women were not granted degrees at the two most prestigious universities in England until the twentieth century (1920 at Oxford and 1948 at Cambridge), although Scottish universities allowed women graduates in the late nineteenth century, such as the University of Edinburgh (1893) and the University of Glasgow (1894). Ultimately much direct insight into the education women obtained at home, in schools, and at universities comes from novels, poetry, memoirs, essays, and letters, along with historical studies and scholarship on literature and education.

General Overviews of Women’s Education in the Nineteenth Century

Several studies cover 19th-century women’s education generally, such as Martin and Goodman 2004, Burstyn 1980, and Bryant 1979. David 1987 and Hilton and Hirsch 2000 are useful places to start for case studies of influential women involved in debates about higher education. For an overview of elementary and secondary education reform even more generally, start with Birch 2008. For additional sources not relating to women specifically, see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Education.”

  • Birch, Dinah. Our Victorian Education. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.

    Birch examines larger debates about Victorian education through the lens of literary writers such as Charles Dickens and John Ruskin, and offers insight into contemporary education in Britain. Chapter 3 explores the tension Victorian women felt in trying to maintain their individuality when faced with institutional pedagogies.

  • Bryant, Margaret E. The Unexpected Revolution: A Study in the History of the Education of Women and Girls in the Nineteenth Century. London: University of London, Institute of Education, 1979.

    A short introductory volume with some examples drawn from literature, periodicals, and leaders of the women’s education movement. Although much of the material is studied in more depth elsewhere, this could be worth consulting to find potential further specific areas of study.

  • Burstyn, Joan N. Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1980.

    Extensive discussion of the opposing arguments to giving women access to higher education. Helpful summary in chapter 4 of the scientific studies meant to prove the intellectual disparities between men and women.

  • David, Deirdre. Intellectual Women and Victorian Patriarchy: Harriet Martineau, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-18792-8

    David examines how the bodies of work by political journalist Harriet Martineau, poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and novelist George Eliot resist the Victorian patriarchy as intellectuals and also work within it. The introduction discusses these authors’ educational ideas along with John Ruskin’s arguments for women’s education.

  • Hilton, Mary, and Pam Hirsch, eds. Practical Visionaries: Women, Education, and Social Progress, 1790–1930. Harlow, UK: Longman, 2000.

    Collection of essays, each highlighting key figures in the development of educational institutions. Broad range of examples includes elementary schools for the working classes, teacher training for the lower-middle classes, and new colleges for middle-class women. Particularly helpful chapters on Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon and the founding of Cambridge’s Girton College, as well as Anne Jemima Clough and Blanche Athena Clough’s influence on the formation of Cambridge’s Newnham College.

  • Martin, Jane, and Joyce Goodman. Women and Education: 1800–1980. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4039-4407-8

    Profiles individual women who made contributions to educational reform in England, such as Jane Chessar and the teacher training system and Sarah Austin, who lobbied for an expanded system of national education.

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