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.
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.
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.
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.
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.