Cornhill Magazine,  10 (1864), 549–68.

Middle-Class Education in England. Girls  [2/2]

[Harriet Martineau]


Essay, Serial


Gender, Education, Medical Treatment, Surgery, Skill, Amateurism, Schools, Class, Mathematics, Physiology, Natural History, Natural Philosophy, Agriculture, Colleges, Domestic Economy, Institutions, Medical Practitioners

People mentioned:

Mary F G Somerville

    Comments that the women of the generation educated before the Napoleonic wars 'thought they could have been close to an eclipse by sailing in the clouds, and [...] supposed Euclid to be a Latin poet'. At the same time, however, the 'health and soundness of their neighbourhoods were sustained very much by the knowledge and skill of women who really understood the qualities and uses of vegetable medicines, and who could practise simple surgery', and these female practitioners were 'held in high respect' by the 'doctors of those days'. (550) Despite numerous changes to the educational opportunities available to middle-class girls since the beginning of the century, their education still remains far inferior to that of boys. At the '"genteel" schools', which provide inferior imitations of more exclusive girls' schools for the daughters of wealthy commoners, 'fathers who would grudge good teaching in Latin or geometry to their daughters [...] pay more than can be saved in such ways for the uniform and other fantastic devices of the school' (555). Similarly, girls' boarding schools are full of the 'almost universal crooked spines that Dr. Andrew Combe wrote of, in the warning book which first astonished parents into attending to the physical part of education. That book told of girls' boarding-schools, very large and of high reputation, where scarcely one, or not one, spine was entirely straight' (556). In some agricultural districts, skilled female teachers have founded village schools where the teaching of the girls was aimed at 'fitting them for the business of life as helpers of their parents—as writing a good hand, arithmetic, and book-keeping, and such study of Natural Philosophy and Natural History as will at once make them more sensible women generally, and operate favourably on their special objects, improving their dairy produce, and their poultry, and their honey', yet 'such a school as this goes a-begging' because the parents are unwilling to pay for their daughters' education (557–58). In North America, on the other hand, the Albany Female Academy, according to the account of George Combe in his Notes on the United States, offers subjects like 'Mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry and physiology [...] taught by professors', and the 'girl-students solve very advanced mathematical problems [and] have gone as deep as the popular science of their time in physiology' (562). The example of North America also shows that 'ladies who obtain their diploma as physicians, [...] and who thoroughly understand the Differential Calculus are as dextrous in making beds, and in turning out a good batch of bread and pies [...] as ever their grandmothers were' (564). Happily, in Britain too the 'resources for female education are extending' at the present time, and scientific subjects have begun to be taught to girls at the Scottish Institution in Edinburgh, and there is now 'an ascending scale of examinations' open to female students, 'till we arrive at that professional testing from which Miss Garrett has come out qualified and certified as a medical practitioner' (567).

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