Female education

Female education
Schoolgirls in Guinea

Female education is a catch-all term for a complex of issues and debates surrounding education (primary education, secondary education, tertiary education and health education in particular) for females. It includes areas of gender equality and access to education, and its connection to the alleviation of poverty. Also involved are the issues of single-sex education and religious education, in that the division of education along gender lines, and religious teachings on education, have been traditionally dominant, and are still highly relevant in contemporary discussion of female education as a global consideration.

While the feminist movement has certainly promoted the importance of the issues attached to female education, discussion is wide-ranging and by no means confined to narrow terms of reference: it includes for example AIDS.[1] Universal education, meaning state-provided primary and secondary education independent of gender, is not yet a global norm, even if it is assumed in most developed countries.


Current trends

A world map showing countries by gender education disparity, 2010.

In the developed world, women have surpassed men at many levels of education. For example, in the United States in 2005/2006, women earned 62% of Associate's degrees, 58% of Bachelor's degrees, 60% of Master's degrees, and 50% of Doctorates.[2]

Education for women with handicaps has also improved. In 2011, Giusi Spagnolo became the first woman with Down Syndrome to graduate college in Europe (she graduated from the University of Palermo in Italy.) [3] [4]

Improving girls' educational levels has been demonstrated to have clear impacts on the health and economic future of young women, which in turn improves the prospects of their entire community.[5]In the poorest countries of the world, 50% of girls do not attend secondary school. Yet, research shows that every extra year of school for girls increases their lifetime income by 15%. Improving female education, and thus women's earning potential, improves the standard of living for their own children, as women invest more of their income in their families than men do.[6]Yet, many barriers to education for girls remain. In some African countries, such as Burkina Faso, girls are unlikely to attend school for such basic reasons as a lack of private latrine facilities for girls.[7]

Higher rates of high school and university education among women, particularly in developing countries, have helped them make inroads to professional careers and better-paying salaries and wages. Education increases a woman's (and her partner and the family's) level of health and health awareness. Furthering women's levels of education and advanced training also tends to lead to later ages of initiation of sexual activity and first intercourse, later age at first marriage, and later age at first childbirth, as well as an increased likelihood to remain single, have no children, or have no formal marriage and alternatively, have increasing levels of long-term partnerships. It can lead to higher rates of barrier and chemical contraceptive use (and a lower level of sexually transmitted infections among women and their partners and children), and can increase the level of resources available to women who divorce or are in a situation of domestic violence. It has been shown, in addition, to increase women's communication with their partners and their employers, and to improve rates of civic participation such as voting or the holding of office.[8][9]

Islamic history

Girls' class in Afghanistan, 2002

Women in Islam played an important role in the foundations of many Islamic educational institutions, such as Fatima al-Fihri's founding of the University of Al Karaouine in 859. This continued through to the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th and 13th centuries, when 160 mosques and madrasahs were established in Damascus, 26 of which were funded by women through the Waqf (charitable trust or trust law) system. Half of all the royal patrons for these institutions were also women.[10]

According to the Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir in the 12th century, there were opportunities for female education in the medieval Islamic world, writing that women should study, earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars and teachers. This was especially the case for learned and scholarly families, who wanted to ensure the highest possible education for both their sons and daughters.[11] Ibn Asakir had himself studied under 80 different female teachers in his time. Female education in the Islamic world was inspired by Muhammad's wives: Khadijah, a successful businesswoman, and Aisha, a renowned hadith scholar and military leader. According to a hadith attributed to Muhammad, he praised the women of Medina because of their desire for religious knowledge:[12]

"How splendid were the women of the ansar; shame did not prevent them from becoming learned in the faith."

While it was not common for women to enroll as students in formal classes, it was common for women to attend informal lectures and study sessions at mosques, madrasahs and other public places. While there were no legal restrictions on female education, some men did not approve of this practice, such as Muhammad ibn al-Hajj (d. 1336) who was appalled at the behaviour of some women who informally audited lectures in his time:[13]

European history

Ancient Rome

Portrait emphasizing the female subject's literacy, from Pompeii, mid-1st century CE

In ancient Rome, upperclass women seem to have been well-educated, some highly so, and were sometimes praised by male historians of the time for their learning and cultivation.[14] Cornelia Metella, for instance, was distinguished for her knowledge of geometry, literature, music, and philosophy.[15] In the wall paintings of Pompeii, women are more likely than men to be pictured with writing implements.[16] Some women had sufficient knowledge of the law and oratorical training to conduct court cases on their own behalf, or on behalf of others.[17] Among occupations that required education, women could be scribes and secretaries, calligraphers,[18] and artists.[19]

Some and perhaps many Roman girls went to a public primary school. Boys and girls were educated either together or with similar methods and curriculum. One passage in Livy's history assumes that the daughter of a centurion would be in school; the social rank of a centurion was typically equivalent to modern perceptions of the "middle class".[20] Girls as well as boys participated in public religious festivals, and sang advanced choral compositions that would require formal musical training.[21]

Medieval period

In medieval Europe, education for girls and women was at best patchy, and was controversial in the light of pronouncements of some religious authorities.[22] Shulamith Shahar writes,[23] of the situation in the nobility, that Among girls there was an almost direct transition from childhood to marriage, with all it entails.

Education was also seen as stratified in the way that society itself was: in authors such as Vincent of Beauvais, the emphasis is on educating the daughters of the nobility for their social position to come.

Educational opportunities for women were poor. Girls were only allowed to receive elementary instruction from their mothers, while boys could go off to be tutored, go to church-run schools, or join a guild or burger school to learn an occupation. Mostly the only schools for girls were associated with convents. However some aristocratic women were educated in palace schools during the age of chivalry in household duties, good manners, music, and conversation. In medieval Frankish society, however, women were given a more equal education and the education of the average lay women was comparable to that of her husband.[citation needed]

The majority of the most educated women in the middle ages were nuns. The nuns ran convent schools where they taught young girls chants and singing as well as reading and writing; and domestic arts like cooking, weaving, and spinning wool. One of the most notable educated nuns of the middle ages was Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), who given permission by the pope to preach and write books on theology.[citation needed]

Early modern period, humanist attitudes

In early modern Europe, the question of female education had become a standard commonplace one, in other words a literary topos for discussion. Around 1405 Leonardo Bruni wrote De studies et letteris,[24] addressed to Baptista di Montefeltro, the daughter of Antonio II da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino; it commends the study of Latin, but warns against arithmetic, geometry, astrology and rhetoric. In discussing the classical scholar Isotta Nogarola, however, Lisa Jardine[25] notes that (in the middle of the fifteenth century), ‘Cultivation’ is in order for a noblewoman; formal competence is positively unbecoming. Christine de Pisan's Livre des Trois Vertus is contemporary with Bruni's book, and sets down the things which a lady or baroness living on her estates ought to be able to do.[26]

Erasmus wrote at length about education in De pueris instituendis (1529, written two decades before); not mostly concerned with female education,[27] in this work he does mention with approbation the trouble Thomas More took with teaching his whole family.[28] Catherine of Aragon "had been born and reared in one of the most brilliant and enlightened of Europen courts, where the cultural equality of men and women was normal".[29] By her influence she made education for English women both popular and fashionable. In 1523 Juan Luis Vives, a follower of Erasmus, wrote in Latin his De institutione foeminae Christianae.[30] This work was commissioned by Catherine, who had charge of the education of her daughter for the future Queen Mary I of England; in translation it appeared as Education of a Christian Woman.[31] It is in line with traditional didactic literature, taking a strongly religious direction.[32] It also placed a strong emphasis on Latin literature.[33]

Elizabeth I of England had a strong humanist education, and was praised by her tutor Roger Ascham.[34] She fits the pattern of education for leadership, rather than for the generality of women. When Johannes Sturm published Latin correspondence with Ascham centred on the achievements in humanist study of Elizabeth and other high-ranking English persons, in Konrad Heresbach's De laudibus Graecarum literarum oratio (1551), the emphasis was on the nobility of those tackling the classics, rather than gender.[35]

Schooling for girls was rare; the assumption was still that education would be brought to the home environment. Comenius was an advocate of formal education for women.[36] In fact his emphasis was on a type of universal education making no distinction between humans; with an important component allowed to parental input, he advocated in his Pampaedia schooling rather than other forms of tutoring, for all.[37]

Modern period

The issue of female education in the large, as emancipatory and rational, is broached seriously in the Enlightenment. Mary Wollstonecraft, who worked as a teacher, governess, and school-owner, wrote of it in those terms. Her first book was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, years before the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

The Commission of National Education in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, founded in 1777, considered the first Ministry of Education in history, was a central, autonomous body responsible for nationwide, secular and coeducational training. In the late 19th century, in what was then the Russian province of Poland, in response to the lack of higher training for women, the so-called Flying University was organized, where women were taught covertly by Polish scholars and academics. Its most famous student was Maria Skłodowska-Curie, better known as Marie Curie, who went on to win a Nobel Prize.

Much education was channelled through religious establishments. Not all of these educated women only for marriage and motherhood; for example, Quaker views on women had allowed much equality from the foundation of the denomination in the mid 17th century. The abolitionist William Allen and his wife Grizell Hoare set up the Newington Academy for Girls in 1824, teaching an unusually wide range of subjects from languages to sciences.

Actual progress in institutional terms, for secular education of women, began in the West in the nineteenth century, with the founding of colleges offering single-sex education to young women. These appeared in the middle of the century. The Princess: A Medley, a narrative poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson, is a satire of women's education, still a controversial subject in 1848, when Queen's College first opened in London. Emily Davies campaigned for women's education in the 1860s, and founded Girton College in 1869, as did Anne Clough found Newnham College in 1875. W. S. Gilbert parodied the poem and treated the themes of women's higher education and feminism in general with The Princess in (1870) and Princess Ida in 1883.

Once women began to graduate from institutions of higher education, there steadily developed also a stronger academic stream of schooling, and the teacher training of women in larger numbers, principally to provide primary education. Women's access to traditionally all-male institutions took several generations to become complete. lAvDe

Educational reform

The interrelated themes of barriers to education and employment continued to form the backbone of feminist thought in the nineteenth century, as described, for instance by Harriet Martineau in her 1859 article “Female Industry” in the Edinburgh Journal. Despite the changes in the economy, the position of women in society had not greatly improved and unlike Frances Power Cobbe, Martineau did not support the emerging call for the vote for practical reasons.

Slowly the efforts of women like Davies and the Langham group started to make inroads. Queen's College (1848) and Bedford College (1849) in London started to offer some education to women from 1848, and by 1862 Davies was establishing a committee to persuade the universities to allow women to sit for the recently established (1858) Local Examinations, with partial success (1865). A year later she published “The Higher Education of Women.” She and Leigh Smith founded the first higher educational institution for women, with 5 students, which became Girton College, Cambridge in 1873, followed by Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford in 1879. Bedford had started awarding degrees the previous year. Despite these measurable advances, few could take advantage of them and life for women students was very difficult.

As part of the continuing dialogue between British and American feminists, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman in the US to graduate in medicine (1849), lectured in Britain with Langham support. They also supported Elizabeth Garrett’s attempts to assail the walls of British medical education against strong opposition; she eventually took her degree in France. Garrett's successful campaign to run for office on the London School Board in 1870 is another example of how a small band of determined women were starting to reach positions of influence at the level of local government and public bodies.

Indian history

Girl student, India


The history of female education in India has its roots in the British Regime. Women’s employment and education was acknowledged in 1854 by the East India Company’s Programme: Wood’s Dispatch. And thus slowly after that, there was progress in female education – although initially this tended to be focused on the primary school level, and related to the richer sections of society. Looking at the statistics, the overall literacy rate for women increased from 0.2% in 1882 to 6% in 1947.[38]

In 1878, the University of Calcutta became one of the first universities to admit female graduates to its academic degree programmes, before any of the British universities had later done the same. This point was raised during the Ilbert Bill controversy in 1883, when it was being considered whether Indian judges should be given the right to judge British offenders. The role of women featured prominently in the controversy, where English women who opposed the bill argued that Bengali women, who they stereotyped as "ignorant", are neglected by their men, and that Indian men should therefore not be given the right to judge cases involving English women. Bengali women who supported the bill responded by claiming that they were more educated than the English women opposed to the bill, and pointed out that more Indian women had degrees than British women did at the time.[39]


After India attained independence in 1947, the University Education Commission was created in order to recommend suggestions to improve the quality of education. However, their report spoke against female education, referring to it as: "Women's present education is entirely irrelevant to the life they have to lead. It is not only a waste but often a definite disability". - Report of the University Education Commission, Government of India, 1948-49, Vol. (i), Chapter XII, pp.401.

But the fact that the female literacy rate was at 8.9% post-Independence could not be ignored. Thus in 1958, a national committee on women’s education was appointed by the government, and most of its recommendations were accepted. The crux of its recommendations were to bring female education on the same footing as offered for boys.[40]

Soon after that, committees were created which talked about equality between men and women in the field of education. For example, one Committee on differentiation of curricula for boys and girls (1959) recommended equality and a common curricula at various stages of their learning. Further efforts were made to expand the education system, and thus the Education Commission was set up in 1964, which largely talked about girl's education. And owing to the commission’s recommendations, aA national Policy was developed by the Government in 1968, providing increased emphasis on female education.[41]

Current policies

Whether it is pre- Independence or post, India has been taking active steps towards women’s status and education. The 86th constitutional Amendment Act, 2002, has been a path breaking step towards the growth of education, especially for females. According to this act, elementary education is a fundamental right for children between the age of 6-14 years. And the government has undertaken to provide this education free of cost, and made it compulsory for those in that age group. This government undertaking is more widely known as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA).

Since then, the SSA has come up with many schemes for inclusive as well as exclusive growth of Indian education as a whole, including schemes to help foster the growth of female education.

The major schemes:

  • Mahila Samakhya Programme: This programme was launched in 1988 as a result of the New Education Policy (1968). It was created for the empowerment of women from rural areas especially socially and economically marginalized groups. When the SSA was formed, it initially set up a committee to look into this programme, how it was working, and to recommend new changes that could be made.[42]
  • Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya Scheme(KGBV): This scheme was launched in July, 2004, to provide education to girls at primary level. It is primarily for the underprivileged and rural areas where literacy level for females is very low. The schools set up have 100% reservation: 75% for backward class, and 25% for BPL (below Poverty line) females.
  • National Programme for Education of Girls at Elementary Level (NPEGEL): This programme was launched in July, 2003. It was an incentive to reach out to the girls who the SSA was not able to reach through other schemes. The SSA called out to the “hardest to reach girls”. This scheme has covered 24 states in India. Under the NPEGEL, “model schools” have been set up to provide better opportunities to girls.[43]

Catholic tradition

In the Roman Catholic tradition, concern for female education has expressed itself in the foundation of religious orders, with ministries addressing the area. These include the Ursulines (1535) and the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (1849).[44] A convent education is an education for girls by nuns, within a convent building. This was already being practised in England before 1275 and later become more popular in France during the seventeenth century, and thereafter spread worldwide. Contemporary convent schools are not restricted to Catholic pupils. Students in contemporary convent education may be boys (particularly in India).

See also


Historical literature

  • Bathsua Makin (1673), An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen, in Religion, Manners, Arts & Tongues
  • Anna Julia Cooper (1892), The Higher Education of Women
  • Alice Zimmern (1898), Renaissance of Girls' Education in England
  • Thomas Woody (1929), A History of Women's Education in the United States, 2 vols.
  • Jon Lajoie (1980), "[1]"


  • Barry Turner (1974), Equality for some: The story of girls' education


  1. ^ Robert J. Brent, Does female education prevent the spread of HIV-AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa?, Applied Economics, 2006, vol. 38, issue 5, pages 491-503
  2. ^ Historical summary of faculty, students, degrees, and finances in degree-granting institutions: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2005-06
  3. ^ http://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=it&u=http://pasquinoweb.wordpress.com/2011/03/22/crederci-io-sono-giusi-giusi-spagnolo/&ei=TghRTtCzHY2SgQfetOSIBw&sa=X&oi=translate&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CB8Q7gEwAA&prev=/search%3Fq%3D%2522giusi%2Bspagnolo%2522%26hl%3Den%26biw%3D1525%26bih%3D684%26prmd%3Divnso
  4. ^ http://www.lottimista.com/2011/04/18/giusi-spagnolo-la-prima-laureata-down-d%E2%80%99italia/
  5. ^ "CAMFED USA: What we do". CAMFED. http://us.camfed.org/site/PageServer?pagename=home_index. Retrieved October 11, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Plan Overseas - Why Girls?". Plan Canada. http://becauseiamagirl.ca/page.aspx?pid=3894. Retrieved October 29, 2011. 
  7. ^ "Plan Overseas - Education Girl-friendly schools see enrolment rates soar in Burkina Faso". Plan Canada. http://becauseiamagirl.ca/page.aspx?pid=3859. Retrieved October 29, 2011. 
  8. ^ Farzaneh Roudi-Fahimi and Valentine M. Moghadam. "Empowering Women, Developing Society: Female Education in the Middle East and North Africa". Population Reference Bureau. http://www.prb.org/Publications/PolicyBriefs/EmpoweringWomenDevelopingSocietyFemaleEducationintheMiddleEastandNorthAfrica.aspx. Retrieved October 29, 2011. 
  9. ^ "Population, Education and Development (2003) ISBN 9211513820". United Nations. http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/concise2003/Concisereport2003.pdf. Retrieved October 29, 2011. 
  10. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 197, ISBN 0313322708 
  11. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 196 & 198, ISBN 0313322708 
  12. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 196, ISBN 0313322708 
  13. ^ Lindsay, James E. (2005), Daily Life in the Medieval Islamic World, Greenwood Publishing Group, p. 198, ISBN 0313322708 
  14. ^ Beryl Rawson, "The Roman Family," in The Family in Ancient Rome: New Perspectives (Cornell University Press, 1986), pp. 30, 40–41.
  15. ^ Plutarch, Life of Pompey 55 LacusCurtius edition.
  16. ^ Paul Zanker, The Mask of Socrates: The Image of the Intellectual in Antiquity (University of California Press, 1995), p. 214.
  17. ^ Richard A. Bauman, Women and Politics in Ancient Rome (Routledge, 1992, 1994), p. 50 et passim, citing a section from the historian Valerius Maximus that deals with women's abilities in the courtroom.
  18. ^ Beryl Rawson, Children and Childhood in Roman Italy (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 80.
  19. ^ Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 35.147, gives a list of female artists and their painters.
  20. ^ Rawson, Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, pp. 197-198, citing also evidence from Ovid and Martial.
  21. ^ Rawson, Children and Childhood in Roman Italy, p. 198.
  22. ^ medieval women
  23. ^ The Fourth Estate: A history of women in the Middle Ages (1983), p. 141.
  24. ^ Online English text
  25. ^ Women Humanists: Education for What?, pp. 48-81 in Feminism and Renaissance Studies (1999), edited by Lorna Hudson.
  26. ^ Eileen Power, The Position of Women, p. 418, in The Legacy of the Middle Ages (1926), edited by G. C. Crump and E. F. Jacob.
  27. ^ J. K. Sowards, Erasmus and the Education of Women Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Winter, 1982), pp. 77-89.
  28. ^ See The Erasmus Reader (1990), edited by Erika Rummel, p. 88.
  29. ^ Morris Marples, Princes in the Making: A Study of Royal Education (1965), p. 42.
  30. ^ Gloria Kaufman, Juan Luis Vives on the Education of Women, Signs, Vol. 3, No. 4 (Summer, 1978), pp. 891-896. In print as The Instruction of a Christian Woman, edited by Virginia Walcott Beauchamp, Elizabeth H. Hageman and Margaret Mikesell, ISBN 978-0-252-02677-5, ISBN 0-252-02677-2.
  31. ^ Translated in 1524, by Richard Hyrde; excerpt
  32. ^ PDF, p. 9.
  33. ^ Marples, p. 45.
  34. ^ Kenneth Charleton, Education in Renaissance England (1965), p. 209.
  35. ^ Lawrence V. Ryan, Roger Ascham (1963) p. 144.
  36. ^ http://www.comeniusfoundation.org/comenius.htm
  37. ^ Daniel Murphy, Comenius: A Critical Reassessment of his Life and Works (1995), Chapter IV, The Comenian Vision of Universal Education.
  38. ^ "Educational Development of Girls and Women". http://www.education.nic.in/cd50years/s/3N/EP/3NEP0401.htm. 
  39. ^ Reina Lewis, Sara Mills (2003), Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, New York: Taylor & Francis, pp. 451–3, ISBN 0415942756 
  40. ^ "Achievement since Independence : girls Education". http://ssa.nic.in/news/girls-education-in-india-achievements-since-independence-press-release-wednesday-january-23-2008. 
  41. ^ "Post- Independence Educational". http://www.cwds.ac.in/OCPaper/Post-IndependenceEducational.pdf. 
  42. ^ "Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan : Girls Education Schemes". http://ssa.nic.in/page_portletlinks?foldername=girls-education. 
  43. ^ "NPEGEL : Brief". http://www.indg.in/primary-education/women-and-education/5._npegel-brief.pdf. 
  44. ^ Others are Society of the Holy Child Jesus, the Sisters of St. Joseph, Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, School Sisters of Notre Dame, Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, Salesian Sisters of Don Bosco.

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