In which Miss Emma lectures on female education
I recall my undergraduate days in the manner I suspect most people do: fondly, with exasperation, and accompanied by many lingering questions. Will I ever voluntarily read anything by Dryden again? What was I thinking when I specialized in the Romantic poets? And what was in that orange stuff they served in the cafeteria? Did it emerge from the applied sciences or fine arts department to quiver upon our plates?
However, at least I—though a lowly female—got to go to university and get a bachelor’s degree of my choice. I was able to compete on equal terms for whatever fame and fortune accrue to undergrad English lit students (ha!). In other words, when it comes to education, women are very lucky to live here and now.
In researching A Study in Ashes, I had a look at the world of co-education in the Victorian era, both in the US and UK. Though my protagonist is in London, I set up my fictional collegiate university with features from several historical examples. Even though the school is only one setting in the book, it’s worth taking advantage of real life insanity.
Overall, the circumstances of women’s education were pretty much what one would expect: not every place offered the full meal deal to the girls. They got shorted on science and engineering and were offered floriculture and elocution instead. Academic terms were shorter, they couldn’t always access the same classes, and not every institution awarded them equivalent bachelor degrees. It goes on and on with the sort of hair-curling examples that make me realize just how far we’ve come in the last century and a half.
I would like to say that female education eventually came to be on equal footing with male schooling through the inexorable forces of social enlightenment. Um, well, I’m sure that had some effect but, as always, economic practicalities had a role to play as well. At first, many courses were segregated and professors had to teach the male students in one location and then trek out to another site to give their lecture (or a diluted version thereof) to the female class. Needless to say, efficiency won out and bit by bit the two groups became amalgamated. Another factor was, of course, the lure of commerce. Women were paying customers, and the revenue stream from their tuition was nothing to sneeze at, especially for the up-and-coming universities in America.
My source for much of this is University Coeducation in the Victorian Era by Christine D. Myers, which goes into detail about both the educational and social aspects of early co-education. It’s an academic study, but it’s good reading for anyone interested in the realities of the period.