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Books were just a boy thing;Millennium Edition

Until the end of the 18th century, women were often considered to be intellectually inferior, even to the point of imbecility. It was only as the century drew to a close that both the conservative Hannah More and the radical Mary Wollstonecraft began to argue that good mothers could and should be well-educated.

The twin goals of marriage and running a home had debarred girls from much formal education. Intellectual education of any depth was widely perceived as unnecessary, if not absolutely disadvantageous, for such pursuits. What formal education a girl did receive differed according to her rank in society, although domestic responsibilities shaped all their lives.

In the 16th century there were some highly educated, aristocratic women of renown, such as Queen Elizabeth Iand Margaret Roper, the daughter of Sir Thomas More. But even these women did not have the sameeducational opportunities as menand boys.

Sir Philip Sidney's sister Mary, for example, was educated at home and at court, but no university or grand tour followed. Married at 16, she never lay claim to producing any original literature. Yet she was responsible for the publishing and finishing of Sidney's works, and the translation and extensive revision of the texts of other hands.

Learned ladies, however, were not the norm. Even when they managed to obtain any deep education at home, they might be distrusted for their precocity.

Generally, though kept from the "unchaste" classics, girls of gentle birth might learn English, French and master accomplishments such as music, singing, dancing and various kinds of needlework. They were most likely to be taught these privately in their own or another's house.

From the late 17th century, some girls' schools were established, although on a somewhat precarious basis. Later, a minority of girls attended boarding schools. These, however, were criticised by some for their frivolous education and by others for their immodesty and, worse, their allowance of social mixing.

Such mixing would not include the poor, for whose girls there was even less chance of schooling than for boys. When elementary schooling was available, girls received a gendered curriculum with less intellectual content or skilled training than boys.

Changes in attitudes were developing, however, albeit among a minority of liberal rationalists and educationists. Unitarians, in particular, promoted a fuller and deeper education for girls, but the effects of their enlightened educational philosophy were not to be felt until the 19th century.

Dr Ruth Watts is a senior lecturer in education (history) at the University of Birmingham. Her book, "Gender, Power and the Unitarians in England 1760-1860" was published in 1998 by Longman.

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