Balance for Better: Women's Fight For Education

The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day focuses on doing as much as we can to build the foundations for a gender-balanced future world. So, on Friday 8th March, a day for celebrating the progress we’ve made towards gender equality and recognising how much further there still is to go, we wanted to look back on education in particular to explore women’s journey in their fight for the right to be educated.

Here at iSAMS we are hugely proud to be working with a number of schools and other educational bodies committed to furthering the schooling of women and girls both in the UK and around the world. One such organisation we’re delighted to support is the Girls’ School Association (GSA), many of the schools who are members of which were founded in the nineteenth century following an increased recognition of the need to improve the education of girls and women. Today, half of the Sunday Times top 10 independent schools are GSA schools.

However, women’s fight for education is far from over… In July last year, a report from the World Bank revealed that 132 million girls around the world between the ages of 6 and 17 are still not in school – a staggering figure that we need to work collectively to change.

But, before we explore how we can provide these 132 million girls with the access to education they so rightly deserve, let’s reflect on how we got here…

Image credit: Pham Trung Kien

7 Key Landmarks for Women in Education

We often like to think of history as progress: things moving steadily forwards over time. However, the sad fact remains that women’s fight for education has faced many obstacles over time, some of which have resulted in a ‘one step forwards two steps back’ experience.

Nevertheless, in an increasingly uncertain political and economic climate, it becomes even more important to recognise the victories, however small, when they come around.

So, let’s take a look at some of the most significant landmarks in the history of the education of women around the world…

1727 – The First Girls’ School Is Founded

The Ursuline Academy logo. Image credit: Ursuline Academy

It might surprise you to learn that the first recorded all-girls high school opened in the United States in 1727. Originally founded by the Sisters of the Order of Saint Ursula (or Ursuline Sisters), the Ursuline Academy of New Orleans is still in operation today as a private Catholic all-girls high school and elementary school.

Not only this, but the Academy’s rich history includes its establishment as the first convent, the first free school, the first retreat centre of ladies, and the first school to offer classes for female African-Americans.

1849 – The First College For Women Opens

Bedford College for Women, by Basil Champneys. Image credit: Victorian Web

In 1849, Elizabeth Jesser Reid, a renowned social reformer and activist, founded Bedford College as the first higher education college for women in the United Kingdom. What began as a leased house with three male trustees, a number of Reid’s friends serving on the management committees and a few more acting as teaching professors, expanded and developed until in 1900 it became a constituent of the University of London. However, it wasn’t until 1909 that it became formally recognised as Bedford College for Women.

Though their social standing was very much an ongoing battle, the 19th Century did see some positive progress for the education of women around the world. For example, 1849 also saw secondary school education becoming available for girls in India, through the foundation of the Bethune School. Despite this, there was still much ground to be made…

1869 – The Edinburgh Seven

Old College, University of Edinburgh. Image credit: LWYang/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In March 1869, Sophia Jex-Blake was outraged when she was rejected from the University of Edinburgh for no other reason than that she was a woman. Having already been refused admittance by a number of English medical schools, she was determined to do something about it.

With support from her friend, literary professor David Masson, she contacted a number of Scottish newspapers to implore more women to sign her petition. With Jex-Blake’s campaign gaining national attention and the university facing mounting pressure from notable supporters, this eventually led to five women sitting Edinburgh University’s entrance exam in 1869. All five of them passed with flying colours, the first members of the group who became known as the Edinburgh Seven.

These seven women faced numerous challenges throughout their time at University, including an unsuccessful struggle to graduate and qualify as doctors, but critically they paved the path for woman in higher education, firmly placing women’s rights to a University education on the national political agenda.

1880 – London University Awards the First Degrees to Women

Image credit: London School of Economics and Political Science

In 1878 the University of London was the first university in the UK to receive a supplemental charter, allowing it to award degrees to women. This was particularly advantageous to four women, who received official recognition for achieving Bachelor degrees from the University of London in 1880. However, it would be another 67 years (1947) before all universities across the UK allowed women to take full degrees.

1975 – The Introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act

In the hundred years since the first women obtained degrees from the University of London, the world was embroiled in two of the most devastating wars it’s seen to date, which had an unprecedented impact on economic, political, industrial and social change. In terms of what this meant for women, it saw them rising up to adopt the positions of male counterparts whilst they were fighting on the front-line – to such an extent that, at the conclusion of the Second World War, women weren’t too keen to give up their newfound empowerment.

In the years that followed pressure mounted from women and sympathetic men in the UK and European Community, until finally the Sex Discrimination Act came into force in 1975. This legislation banned discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status in the areas of employment, training, harassment, housing, the provision of goods and services, and, of course, education.

2012 – Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai, image credit: The Financial Times, 2019.

Malala Yousafzai was born in Mingora, Pakistan in 1997. When the Taliban took control of her village in 2008 they banned girls from attending school and enforced severe punishments for those who disobeyed their orders. Despite her young age, Malala showed tremendous courage in publicly speaking out against the ban and fighting for girls’ rights to receive an education.

In October 2012, Malala Yousafzai was on her way home from school when a masked gunman boarded her school bus and shot her in the left side of her head. She undertook lengthy treatment in England, where her family relocated, and once she had recovered she was determined to continue fighting for every girl’s right to go to school.

This lead to her establishment of the Malala Fund with her father in 2013, the work of which contributed to her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 2014, making her the youngest Nobel laureate in history.

2015 – Michelle Obama’s ‘Let Girls Learn’ Initiative

Image credit: The Whitehouse Archives

In 2015, during Barack Obama’s second term in office, Michelle Obama championed the launch of Let Girls Learn, a U.S. Government initiative aiming to increase the accessibility of education for adolescent girls and helping empower them to reach their full potential. The programme went on to receive over $5 million in private sector commitments in 2016, in efforts to demonstrate the strong support the initiative would receive beyond Obama’s presidency.

In 2017, despite reports that Trump’s administration was cutting the Let Girls Learn initiative, Michelle Obama made it clear that she’ll continue advocating for young women to go to school regardless of the programme’s future.

So, what’s next?

Despite how far women have come in sectors such as education, it’s worth remembering just how long it’s taken us to get to this point and how much further there still is to go before gender equality is achieved.

By raising greater awareness of what women are capable of, celebrating their achievements, and recognising their fundamental rights to attend school and higher education, we hope that together we can work towards achieving accessible education for every woman worldwide.