Making a mark in a man’s world

Practical Visionaries
December 8, 2000

The history of education in Britain has a dominant narrative that positions men centre-stage in policy-making, institutional leadership, theoretical ideas, and innovations in teaching methods. Since educational history has focused on parliamentary politics, this is hardly surprising; after all, women were not allowed to vote in parliamentary elections or stand for election as parliamentary candidates until 1918. But if we shift the lens away from parliament and take a broader view, we find a number of influential women who made their mark in education. This book offers accounts of these contributions, considered "progressive" in their time.

The bulk of the 13 chapters focus on the 19th century when a state system of elementary schooling for working-class children was made possible after 1870. Before that date, middle-class women, such as Mary Carpenter, might work among the poorest waifs with a compassionate zeal that was, nevertheless, paternalistic. As Ruth Watts points out, Carpenter’s belief that deprived children became criminals because they were neglected by society did not prevent her from arguing that she knew what was best for destitute children, including removing them from their families to be "reformed". Such ideas ran against the grain of those later women teachers adopting Froebelian and Montessorian methods, pioneered in infant schools in the early 20th century, where the emphasis was on play, discovery and creativity - themes explored in chapters by Kevin Brehony, Peter Cunningham and Mary Jane Drummond.

Many women in 19th-century Britain campaigned against the educational disadvantages experienced by their sex, including the middle-class Anne Jemima Clough, the first principal of Newnham College for women, established in Cambridge in 1875, and the subject of Gillian Sutherland’s essay. What life could be like for woman academic staff in such marginal institutions is vividly illustrated in the gem in this collection, Elizabeth Edwards’s essay on Mary Miller Allan, the first woman principal of Homerton, a teacher training college founded in the last decade of the 19th century, also in Cambridge. Edwards reveals how Allan’s search for an appropriate style of leadership remained problematic as she gave a particular spin to the masculine discourse she used in her professional role. "Miss Allan gave us a lovely little lecture about the 5,000 youths who are coming up in three weeks’ time. She says she’s proud that Homerton girls have never behaved badly."

Although the individual essays in this book do not always cohere well together as a collection, each makes an interesting contribution on its own. Overall, this readable book helps us to rescue these women from obscurity.

June Purvis is professor of women’s and gender history, University of Portsmouth. 


Practical Visionaries: Women, Education and Social Progress 1790-1930

Editor - Mary Hilton and Pam Hirsch
ISBN - 0 582 40431 2
Publisher - Longman
Price - £15.99
Pages - 252

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