Education in the 18th Century – Girls

Last month I wrote about education for boys. Girls, however, had a very different experience in this matter.

In 1693 John Locke in his Some Thoughts on Education stated that he believed educating girls in the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic was a sensible thing to do, not least because such an educated woman would be able better to manage household accounts, converse with her husband’s associates and, as she had primary care of the children, she could help them in the early stages of their own educations. 

In short, the primary, if not the sole aim of education for females was to ensure they obtained the best possible husband in the future, because marriage and children was really the only future available. Spinsters were regarded as inferiors, and would more often than not end up as unpaid servants, relying on the charity of male relatives. It was rare for a woman to be independent and have a business of her own, although it did happen occasionally. Many widows continued their husband’s businesses after they’d died, or worked closely with them in life. But these were not the norm.

Portrait of John Locke, later in life.

Of course poor girls had less opportunity to receive an education even than their brothers. Many parents worried that giving a girl an education would be useless for the life of housekeeping, motherhood and manual labour she was likely to lead. It could perhaps tempt her into sin (as females were considered less able to resist temptation than males), or make her ambitious and questioning of the narrow choices women generally had in life. There were not as many educational establishments for poor girls as for boys, and those there were would focus more on the girls learning useful skills such as needlework and laundering, rather than Latin and Greek.

Cross stitch sampler by Elizabeth Laidman, 1760.

Of course middle and upper class girls were much more likely to have an academic education, but although there were some boarding schools available, there was nowhere near the number available as for boys, and in this century, as female educational establishments expanded, there was much debate about the suitability of them and the potential for inadequately supervised daughters to become wayward. Because of this, parents who did wish their daughters to attend boarding school put a great deal of time and effort into choosing the right one.

Most girls, however, were taught either in a schoolroom at home, at day schools, or later in the century by governesses. The focus was far more on accomplishments than on academic learning, with dancing, music and needlework of prime importance, as these were skills which would allow them to decorate their husband’s home in the future.

Painting of Governess Rebecca Solomon

A daughter’s education was likely to be more holistic than her brothers, and she would likely spend time with relatives in London, where there was better access to dancing masters, etc. She would, of course, learn to read, write and do arithmetic, read and cast accounts, and learn a language, usually French, as well as a little geography and history. Deportment and etiquette were also essential skills.

There were of course exceptions, and some girls were educated the same subjects as their brothers, usually at home by tutors. When in the marriage market though, a lot of them were encouraged to hide their academic intelligence, for fear it would repel possible suitors.

In the eighteenth century women did not go to university. Instead they would receive their final training for society, polishing their dancing skills, expertise in playing the harpsichord or other musical instruments, complex needlework as well as behaving immaculately at all times when in company, whether at the theatre, at balls, or other entertainments. Mothers would generally instruct their daughters in how to manage servants, supervise operations in the dairy, etc, and in how to prepare and execute lavish entertainments that would be a great success, whilst appearing beautiful, cool and unflustered throughout.

Illustration of an 18th century ball.

Whilst a Grand Tour of Europe was often considered a fitting ending to an aristocratic gentleman’s education, any foreign travel a woman undertook would be with other adult family members, or with her husband, either as a holiday or accompanying him on foreign diplomatic or military duties. Certainly it was not considered appropriate for girls to travel abroad either alone or with friends.

If a girl’s education was more circumscribed than a boys, it was no less exhausting. In a time when play was not considered as important as it is now, children were expected to spend an enormous amount of time studying, either in schools or with tutors at home. And while males in general certainly had more choices in life as adults, not least because they controlled the finances, and had more power legally, they also were generally expected to follow their parents’ wishes as to their future careers, rather than their own inclinations. 

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  1. I have a question about how girls/women such as the character Sarah Browne learn to read later in life? Her brother started teaching her to read, and when Beth asked her if Caroline had read the letter to her, she replied she had learned to read, so had read it herself. Were there people or places where the lower classes of society could go to learn to read or write? Also, if unable to read, how would someone trust what a contract stated? Were there many honest solicitors like Edwin?

    1. Hello,
      Interesting questions! There were places where poorer girls could learn to read, but not as many as for boys, and any education would be focussed more on teaching them useful skills for their perceived futures as wives and mothers. Some churches ran schools too, at which you would learn to read with a view to reading the Bible and other holy texts. But there was no organised education system as we take for granted now. Once you have a basic knowledge, with intelligence and dedication you can improve yourself – so Sarah could, with some difficulty, have built on the basics her brother gave her. Also, as she has an independent income, she would be able to pay someone to teach her – not necessarily a tutor, but a poor clerk etc, who looked to earn a little extra.
      As for honest solicitors, I think then as now, there have always been honest and dishonest solicitors! But yes, there were solicitors, doctors etc, who were horrified by the dreadful conditions the poor endured, especially in the cities, and who gave some of their time to advise or treat people who could not pay, out of the goodness of their hearts.
      Some of them did great things, such as Thomas Coram, about who I keep meaning to write a blog…perhaps that can be this months!