Women’s Education during the Early 20th Century

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During the early twentieth century, the Edwardian Era, women’s education was based highly on social stratification, hierarchical divisions, and beliefs that women were inferior to men. At the time, women’s education in Britain was restricted to teaching middle and upper-class girls enough to equip them with the necessities for marriage and socializing, and lessons were often taught by governesses, or women of the lower classes with enough education to be hired to teach the children of an upper-class family. Most of these lessons were in social etiquette, amongst the occasional Greek, Latin, and classical courses. Women were taught basic reading and writing skills, but beyond that, women were discouraged from pursuing academic aspirations since their main priority was to manage household duties. By analyzing the history of women’s education, the ramifications of the situation can be seen in The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.

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In the article, “”Women of Their Time: The Growing Recognition of the Second Sex in Victorian England,”” Park describes how women had to “”win recognition for their achievements in a man’s world”” (Park 49). Park endeavors to describe what changed society’s perception of women, namely how they received rights to education. One of the ways women would attempt to attain this recognition was by “”distinguish[ing] themselves academically”” (Park 52). However, graduating with honors from college was still not enough to garner recognition in the long term due to the fact that women were perceived to have an inferior mental capacity compared to men. Renowned universities such as Cambridge and Oxford did not offer degrees for women until the arrival of the twentieth century. Dorothea Beale, leader of the education movement and founder of Girton College, Cambridge’s first women’s college, is mentioned to delineate how some very influential women helped kick start the feminist movement.

The establishment of women’s colleges also increased the number of women willing to become educators at such colleges, which helped perpetuate the cycle of receiving and providing an education. Another leader of the women’s education movement, Emily Davies, wrote a pamphlet called “”Women in the Universities of England and Scotland,”” where she discussed the need for women’s higher education. In another article, “”Feminist Thinking on Education in Victorian England,”” Schwartz describes how Davies believed in dispelling the idea that a women’s mental capacities were solely based on her “”inferior”” gender. Upon the start of the feminist movement in the twentieth century, the education of women was believed to better society. In an online article archived in The British Library entitled “”Education in Victorian Britain,”” Picard includes how women “”might even be forced to take on employment as a governess”” with little prior knowledge. Schools were founded to educate children of the lower classes, yet girls were not allowed to attend. However, because female school teachers were generally uneducated themselves, public schools in England and Wales were opened. Around the same time, a report by the Taunton Commission found that males and females had essentially the same mental capabilities.

Picard also claims that at the time, it was honorable to take up an apprenticeship if the apprentice had very little education. In the book Women and the Politics of Schooling in Victorian and Edwardian England, Martin focuses on how, at the time, education was perceived as a “”social welfare,”” a way to break from the segregation of the classes (Martin 4). Martin also points out that education was actually one of the first and foremost ways that women were able to attain a higher status or position of authority. In fact, after the creation of the Langham Place Group, which contested the unfair treatment and limitations women received, the public was convinced that a “”women’s inferior position was culturally, not naturally, determined,”” and therefore, they were intellectually able to obtain an education and a job in the workforce (Martin 21). In terms of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, the readers do not know much about Russell’s background prior to her time in England. She is seen reading a book by Virgil, author of the famous epic Aeneid, when she encounters Holmes tracking bees.

As a fifteen-year-old, Russell still struggles with her Latin, and it seems unlikely that she would be reading such books. Yet on the other hand, she was probably introduced to Virgil early on, since Russell is able to respond adeptly to Holmes’s comments about bees in the first chapter. From this, it’s clear that around World War I, efforts to educate women increased, as was explicated. Just as Sutherland describes the need for women to undergo informal self-education in her article “”Self-Education, Class and Gender in Edwardian Britain: Women of the Lower Middle Class Families””, Russell indulges more in self-education, but she probably has also received some formal education, though how extensive it was is questionable. As mentioned before, it was quite commendable to become an apprentice at the time, though the idea of a female apprentice was uncommon before the first world war. Under Holmes’s tutelage, Russell is able to hone her detection skills. But as Holmes points out, though “”[Russell] is not at school she intends to pass the University entrance exams”” (King 16). Russell herself also attests to the fact that “”women were not at that time admitted to the University proper, but the women’s colleges were good”” (King 37).

In order to properly train for the entrance examinations, Russell finds a retired schoolmistress, Miss Sim, who was willing to educate her “”in the basic knowledge of the humanities”” (King 37). This is quite similar to the concept of the governess, although in this case, Russell takes a few lessons just to earn enough marks to be accepted. It must be noted that while Oxford opened up women’s colleges around the time of the setting of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, Russell does not have access to Bodleian library or the chemistry laboratory, and she experiences first-hand the “”men and women who were not intimidated by [her] proud, rough-cut mind”” (King 42). Indeed, Russell is able to be a part of the larger community, whether through performing arts or disguising herself as an Indian nobleman. Russell also does not have any familial expectations to get married, settle down, and manage a household. She has some freedom to explore her identity, which she chooses to do by attending Oxford and participating in “”the career of Ratnakar Sanji,”” which allows her access to the chemistry laboratory and to the Bodleian (King 44). Despite there only being women’s colleges, Russell is able to attend the lectures and discussions. It’s also quite ironic that Russell developed a passion for theoretical mathematics despite it being one of the subjects that women were told not to study.

After her first year, Russell claims that she “”began serious work with [her] tutors”” at Oxford (King 149). It’s intriguing that she had to write an essay for mathematics, which she presented to her tutors at the end of the Michaelmas term, but this was a form of evaluation at the time. Russell’s attitude toward Holmes is also very haughty and audacious. Though she admits later that “”the effrontery of a girl not yet nineteen pointing her finger at a man three times her age”” was not appropriate, she comes off as quite different in the first chapter of the book (King 222). Her bold and caustic remarks do not signify that Russell received a proper education in “”social etiquette.”” The book also remarks on how Watson never had the audacity to pick apart Holmes’s tactics while Russell did so freely. Russell is not submissive and she even admits that most of her youth was spent on dressing as a young man, in both practical clothing and disguise. Similar to how Holmes perceives Irene Adler in “”A Scandal in Bohemia,”” there is this idea that Russell has the “”cold, calculating mind of a man and body of a woman,”” and she is able to dispel any beliefs that an “”inferior”” body is detrimental to the mind.

There are many occasions when Russell has to constantly prove her advanced mental faculties against the skepticism she receives, such as when she tells Chief Inspector Connor that she is Holmes’s assistant. Connor’s “”eyes sparkled with amusement,”” and he seems to insinuate that Russell is probably not an intellectual assistant, but an assistant for pleasure simply because of her gender (King 100). Holmes is quick to correct this assumption, but it no doubt educates the readers on how women were perceived during the Edwardian Era. It is also quite fascinating that Patricia Donleavy is a highly educated mathematics tutor at Oxford. At the time, women were urged to refrain from the study of mathematics for fear that it would harm their mental and childbearing abilities. However, perhaps this can be accounted for because Donleavy essentially underwent an informal education based on Moriarty teaching her mathematical games when she was a child. Upon juxtaposing the Donleavy-Moriarty relationship with the Russell-Holmes relationship, quite a few similarities are exposed, namely that Russell and Patricia both have the “”disadvantage”” of being female but are taught by men who are oblivious to their gender. Despite the major differences in their personalities, both Donleavy and Russell defy social standards with their intelligence.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is a prime example of how women were perceived throughout the Edwardian Era and how the movement for women’s education slowly came into being. Women like Emily Davies and Dorothea Beale played a crucial role in the fight for women’s education, and it wasn’t long before the Education Act of 1918 mandated that compulsory education should last until the age of fourteen for boys and girls alike. Through this research, King is able to reflect gender discrimination and classification during the twentieth century.

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Women's Education During the Early 20th Century. (2020, Mar 31). Retrieved July 4, 2022 , from
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