Open main menu

The Influence of University Degrees on the Education of Women


In considering the education of women in connexion with recent proposals for its improvement by means of examinations for University Degrees, it may be well to inquire at the outset, what is a Degree? In what does its value consist?

A University degree is neither more nor less than a certificate. At Oxford and Cambridge it certifies that the graduate has lived during a certain number of terms in a college or hall, has been devoting his time chiefly to study, and has passed divers examinations, which were meant to test his ability and knowledge. The degrees of the University of London also certified in the beginning, that graduates in Arts and Laws had been students during two years, at one or other of the affiliated institutions, which were to the University of London what the colleges are to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Few will deny the advantages of residence for two or three years in a college; and it may be easily seen how such residence, and the intercourse between students which it implies, may be made very greatly to lessen the dangers and disadvantages from which mere examination, taken alone, can scarcely be wholly free. It is possible that a young man, preparing at home for his degree, may be sufficiently crammed to pass, and may even find his name somewhere in a list of honours; and yet mistake knowledge for wisdom, and a retentive memory for genius. But in a college, such a man would be pretty sure to find his real level. He would find among his companions some, who with far less than his own powers of memory or application, would still unquestionably be his superiors. He would be made to feel quite easily, and almost without knowing how useful a lesson he was learning, that processes are almost as valuable as results; that what a man is, is of far more importance than what at any given time he can do, and that there are a thousand excellences that can find no room for display in any University examination whatever. Moreover, residence for two or three years in a college, implies comparatively easy circumstances, and ought, therefore, to imply all that society expects from gentlemen: and though many of the colleges connected with the University of London required no extravagant expenditure, and were, perhaps, not half so costly as those of Oxford and Cambridge, yet the term of residence was generally longer, being in many of them as long as five years.

The University of London, however, was intended to promote the education, not only of gentlemen, and of persons who could afford to live for several years at a college, but of all classes of her Majesty's subjects, without any distinction whatever; and accordingly in the new Charter it was provided, that persons not educated in any of the institutions connected with the University, should be admitted as candidates for matriculation, and degrees, "other than degrees in medicine or surgery, on such conditions as the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, and Fellows by regulations in that behalf should from time to time determine; such regulations being subject to the provisoes and restrictions contained in the Charter." This change was regarded with considerable disfavour by many of those who had graduated under the old regulations, and who imagined that the value of their degrees would be reduced when similar degrees were conferred upon those who had never been to a college at all. It is obvious, however, that the colleges must look for their prosperity to their own intrinsic worth; and that the University should confer degrees upon all those who could pass the examinations prescribed, wherever they might have been educated, was clearly in harmony with the original intention of the University. The want of college training, and especially of the indirect advantage of association with men whose favourite studies lie in different directions, and who possess very different kinds of ability, was partly counteracted by the wide range of subjects in which candidates for degrees were required to pass. Nor has the change as yet done much more than recognise a right which it would have been invidious to withhold. Scarcely any of those who have taken honours during the last few years, have come to their examinations from "private study," and sixteen out of the twenty who have taken the degree of Bachelor of Science are from the colleges connected with the University. But after all, if a man can read Livy or Thucydides, Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Ethics, it really matters little how he obtained his knowledge of Greek and Latin; and if it be expedient to found a University at all, and if degrees are of any use, then the man who can prove that he possesses the requisite knowledge, has a fair claim to have that fact certified.

But if the want of money, and, what amounts to very much the same thing, the want of leisure, are to be no impediment to the recognition of a man's real worth and attainments, so far as examination can test them, why should any impediments whatever be allowed to remain? Why especially should difference of sex be an impediment?

This question was raised so early as 1856, in which year a lady applied for admission to the examinations of the University of London. The advice of counsel was taken, and an opinion was given that such admission could not legally be granted. No further steps were taken until April, 1862, when another lady preferred a request to be admitted as a candidate at the next Matriculation Examination. On that occasion a resolution was passed: "That the Senate, as at present advised, sees no reason to doubt the validity of the opinion given by Mr. Tomlinson, July 9th, 1856, as to the admissibility of females to the Examinations of the University." The matter was not allowed to rest here. On April 30th, the following Memorial was laid before the Senate.

"Gentlemen,—An application having been made by my daughter for admission to the Examinations of your University, and refused on legal grounds, we beg respectfully to request that the question may receive further consideration.

"It appears to us very desirable to raise the standard of female education, and that this object can in no way be more effectually furthered than by affording to women an opportunity of testing their attainments in the more solid branches of learning. It is usually admitted that examinations are almost essential as a touchstone of successful study, and as a stimulus to continuous effort. Such a touchstone, and such a stimulus, are even more necessary to women than to men; and though we should be most unwilling to obtain these advantages by the sacrifice of others still more precious, we are of opinion that in the University of London our object might be obtained without any contingent risk. Many of the candidates for degrees would probably be furnished by the existing Ladies' Colleges, and as the University requires no residence, and the examinations involve nothing which could in the slightest degree infringe upon feminine reserve, we believe that by acceding to our wishes you would be conferring an unmixed benefit.

"We are informed that a new Charter of the University is about to be submitted to Parliament. We beg therefore to suggest that the technical legal objection, which appears to be the only obstacle to the admission of women, may be removed by the insertion of a clause expressly providing for the extension to women of the privileges of the University. I beg to enclose a list of ladies and gentlemen who have given their sanction to the proposal.

"I have the honour to be, Gentlemen,
"Your obedient Servant,
"Newson Garrett."

On May 7th, a resolution was moved by the Vice-Chancellor, Mr. Grote, and seconded by the Right Hon. R. Lowe, M.P., to the effect "That the Senate will endeavour, as far as their powers reach, to obtain a modification of the Charter, rendering female students admissible to the Degrees and Honours of the University of London, on the same conditions of examination as male students, but not rendering them admissible to become Members of Convocation." After an earnest and protracted discussion, the Senate divided. The numbers being equal, ten on each side, the motion was negatived by the casting vote of the Chancellor. The following reply to the Memorial was addressed to Mr. Garrett.

"Sir,—I am directed to inform you that, after a full consideration of your Memorial, the Senate have come to the conclusion that it is not expedient to propose any alteration in the Charter, with a view of obtaining power to admit females to the Examinations of the University.

"I think it well to add, that this decision has not been the result of any indisposition to give encouragement to the higher education of the female sex—a very general concurrence having been expressed in the desire stated in your Memorial, that an opportunity should be afforded to women of testing their attainments in the more solid branches of learning; but it has been based on the conviction entertained by the majority of the Senate, that it is not desirable that the constitution of this University should be modified for the sake of affording such opportunity.

"I remain, Sir,
"Your obedient Servant,
"W. B. Carpenter."

The matter has since been brought forward in the Convocation of the University. On the 26th March, a Resolution was passed by the Annual Committee, and afterwards embodied in the Report to Convocation, to the following effect: "That this Committee, recognising the desirableness of elevating the standard of female education, recommend Convocation to represent to the Senate the propriety of considering whether it might not forward the objects of the University, as declared in the Charter, to make provision for the examination and certification of women." After a lengthened discussion the resolution was negatived by a considerable majority.

The question having thus been fairly raised—a definite application having been made—it clearly becomes the duty of those who decline to accede to a request which appears so reasonable, to show cause for their refusal. The onus probandi undoubtedly rests with the opponents of the measure. And it must be confessed that they have not been backward in accepting the challenge, whatever may be thought of the quality of the arguments brought forward. They resolve themselves, for the most part, into an "instinct," a prejudice, or an unproved assertion that women ought not to pursue the same studies as men; and that they would become exceedingly unwomanly if they did. A woman so educated would, we are assured, make a very poor wife or mother. Much learning would make her mad, and would wholly unfit her for those quiet domestic offices for which Providence intended her. She would lose the gentleness, the grace, and the sweet vivacity, which are now her chief adornment, and would become cold, calculating, masculine, fast, strongminded, and in a word, generally unpleasing. That the evils described under these somewhat vague terms are very real and do actually exist at this moment, cannot be denied by any one who is at all conversant with English society. That any scheme of education which might tend to foster them, ought to be energetically resisted, will scarcely be disputed by any—least of all by the advocates of extended mental culture for women.

It may be well to examine first that theory of the difference between manhood and womanhood which underlies most of the objections commonly brought against the thorough culture of women; and which, if it were true, would render all further argument superfluous. The differences between a man and a woman are either essential or conventional, or both. In any case it is difficult to understand how they affect the right of a woman to pass an examination and to take a degree. The differences themselves are often exaggerated, both by women and by men. So far as they are manifested by any external acts, they are almost entirely conventional; and of those which are essential, and which belong to the inmost being of woman or man, it seems difficult to understand how any information can be obtained, or comparison instituted. For how can things be compared, which ex-hypothesi are wholly unlike? How can we possibly know or learn that, to which there is nothing analogous in ourselves? We understand the nature of animals, because, and in so far as, we are animals ourselves. To the same extent possibly a dog might understand a man; but no ingenuity could ever impart to an animal the knowledge of the human spirit, with all its endless resources, its freedom, its aspirations, its power to "look before and after." Nothing could make a brute religious, or explain to a brute what religion is; and, on the other side, are we not taught that we can know God only so far as we are partakers of the Divine nature; only because God created man in His own image? If there be then in woman a mystic something, to which nothing in a man corresponds; if woman has what man wants, or wants what man has; if this difference be natural, essential, and therefore for ever unalterable, it simply marks out a region of utter unlikeness which is protected by that unlikeness from intrusion, or visitation. Perhaps then we may leave altogether out of the question those mystic differences, which can give no clear proof of their own existence, which have no faculty of speech, no means of expressing what they are.

But at any rate, there are differences, we are told, which can manifest themselves. The strength of the woman, we are told, is in the heart; the strength of the man, in the head. The woman can suffer patiently; the man can act bravely. The woman has a loving care for the individual; the man an unimpassioned reverence for the general and universal. These, and such as these, are represented as the outward tokens of essential differences, which cannot be mistaken, and ought never, in any system of education, or work of life, to be overlooked.

If these are natural differences, it is idle to ask whether we should praise or blame them, for the nature of a thing has no moral qualities whatever. A tiger may be dangerous, but is certainly not cruel; a fox may be cunning, but cannot be dishonest; and if dogs delight to bark and bite, because God hath made them so, who shall find fault with them? But natural differences should certainly guide our systems of education; and if it is really in the nature of a woman to have very much feeling and very little sense, were it not a kind of fighting against Providence, to attempt to rescue her from this very dangerous form of insanity? Yet, surely, it may be affirmed with the utmost confidence, that a woman's affections ought to be as well regulated as a man's; that she should know how to give as well as to receive, and be prompt to act as well as patient to suffer. She should not sacrifice the many for the one, nor the long endless future for the passing moment. And do we really wish to people the world with male creatures, devoid of all gentleness and affection, losing sight of the individual in the mass, irritable and impatient under the irremediable discomforts and reverses of life? Does religion include no tender affections for the man, no intellectual strength for the woman? And do we not read that God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him, male and female created He them? Should not a man's thoughts of God be a woman's thoughts also? And why should that compassion of the Almighty, which is spoken of in Scripture as womanly, be strange to the heart of man? A woman surely ought to have a sense of the law of justice, and a man, of the law of love. Moreover a genius for detail is quite worthless, if the parts are not fittingly arranged and subordinated to the whole.

In truth, it is exactly in this subordinating of the whole to its parts, that even the charity and affection of women has often done great mischief; and is capable of doing any amount of mischief, if it were not restrained by that power of generalisation, and order, which now women sometimes find in men, and ought to find in themselves. A beggar dying in the streets of starvation, should be relieved by anybody who is able to relieve him; his individual life is not to be sacrificed for any theory or system, however comprehensive. If it is a man who sees him perishing with want, he would be bound, and we may fairly hope he would be willing, to save him. On the other hand, the majority of street-beggars are impostors, and certainly ought not to be relieved. To relieve them is a direct encouragement of idleness and vice. Even the little children, who will certainly be cruelly flogged unless they take home a fair amount of money, after a day's suffering and shame, would never be employed in so shameful a business as begging, if ill-regulated kindness had not made it profitable. Individually they may be as greatly in need of assistance as any sufferers whatever; the reasons why they are not to receive alms are reasons derived from the careful combination and comparison of very many facts of very different kinds. Is it really thought desirable then, that women should be ignorant of those facts, and the general rules deduced from them? Is the wisdom of the male sex to be for ever fighting against the tender-heartedness of the female sex? And is the thought of man to form wise and useful rules of conduct, only that the impulsiveness of woman may break them? But why do women look to the individual rather than to the many, and deal with separate examples rather than with general rules? It is surely not necessary to look for any recondite and essential ground of this difference if we can find one obvious and conventional, which will account equally well for the phenomenon. Women, in fact, have never been instructed in general principles. A man talks to a man about the statistics of poverty or crime; they carefully consider together what are the causes, which, in the majority of cases, have produced either of these gigantic evils; causes, such as ignorance, drunkenness and the like. They do their best, therefore, not to collect money to give away in alms to any beggar who may ask their assistance, but they establish a school, provide places of refreshment and amusement, orderly and well-conducted, and where, by satisfying natural desires, the temptation to unnatural excesses may be reduced to a minimum. They take care, or at least they know that they ought to take care, that the relief of poverty shall be of a kind to remove as far as possible the causes of poverty, and every new experiment they make for the relief of misery and the prevention of crime, widens their theories and improves their rules of practice. But it has not been the habit of men to talk with women, and act with them, after this manner. Without a word of instruction about the reasons for what they are about to do, they are asked to visit some poor man's cottage, and administer what relief they may think necessary; or to visit some school or workhouse, or to collect money, or to make clothes, like Dorcas. It is surely not very surprising that women confine themselves to that sort of work which alone has been entrusted to them from generation to generation. It is not wonderful that they do that sort of work well, nor does it require any mystic difference between the sexes to account for the fact that they do not know what, through hundreds of generations, they have neither been required nor encouraged to learn.

We are told, however, that the course of study required for obtaining a degree in the University of London is altogether unfit for women. "Do the advocates of the Burlington House degrees know," asks a writer on female education, "what is actually required by the London University for ordinary graduates? Why, the candidate is required to pass in nearly the whole range of pure arithmetical science,—in geometry, plane and solid; in simple and quadratic equations; in the elements of plane trigonometry; in elementary Latin; in the history of Rome to the death of Augustus; in English composition, and English history to the end of the seventeenth century; in either French or German; in statics and dynamics treated with elementary mathematics; in an experimental knowledge of physics and optics, and a general conception of plane astronomy; in animal physiology; in elementary Greek, and Greek history to the death of Alexander; and in the elements of logic and moral philosophy. Does any one in his (or her) senses suppose that the understanding of average young ladies would be the better for passing this examination well, or for trying to pass it anyhow, as the proper aim of their education? We might get one or two clever women, several Miss Cornelia Blimbers, and many Miss Tootses—if we may suggest an intellectual sister to Mr. Toots—out of such a system, but certainly not an improved standard for ordinary women. I believe that we should have half the young women in the country in brain fever or a lunatic asylum, if they were to make up their minds to try for it."

It is perhaps equally probable that we should have half the young men in the country in brain fever or a lunatic asylum, if they were to make up their minds to try for it. Graduates are a very small minority of the men of England, and yet their education has determined the education of the great majority who are not graduates. It is by no means obvious that it would do women any harm to know enough for the B.A. (London) pass-examination. They are already expected to learn not much less at Queen's College, in Harley Street; and a degree would be to women, in their present stage of cultivation, what honours are to men.

Women are expected to learn something of arithmetical science, and who shall say at what point they are to stop? Why should simple equations brighten their intellects, and quadratic equations drive them into a lunatic asylum? Why should they be the better for the three books of Euclid, which they are required to master at Queen's College, and "stupefied" by conic sections or trigonometry? Why should Latin give them a deeper insight into the philosophy of language, and introduce them to a literature and history which may raise them above the narrowness or the extravagance of their own age, and the language of the New Testament be forbidden, as too exhausting a labour, a toil fruitful only of imbecility or death? Is it really necessary that women should be shut out from the knowledge of the physical sciences? Would a knowledge of physiology make them worse mothers, and an acquaintance with the chemistry of food less fit to superintend the processes of cooking? It is not asked, be it remembered, that one single woman should be compelled to take a degree, or held disgraced for being without one; but simply, that she may try if she chooses, and that if she chooses and succeeds, then she shall receive that certificate of her strength and culture, which will be fairly her due.

But the value of degrees in female education would be far greater indirectly than directly; they would raise the standard of excellence by a sure process, even though it might be slow, of every school and every teacher in the kingdom. A very small proportion of girls would attempt to take them; fewer still would succeed; fewer still would take honours. But every school-girl in the land would very soon become aware of the fact, that women might hope and strive for a thorough culture, which has never yet been generally offered to them. The Arts regulations of the University of London would guide the studies of women as gently and effectually as they now guide the studies of boys and men. A very simple example of this may be given. There is an increasing neglect of the Greek and Latin Classics in ordinary education. The reason why these languages are still taught in the majority of middle-class schools, is neither more nor less than this: that some knowledge of them is required for the B.A. degree, and even for matriculation in the University of London. That which in the case of boys seems drawing near to death, is, in the case of girls, just beginning to live; and the classic languages in girls' schools and colleges have to force their way to general acceptance through many difficulties and prejudices. The same influence which arrests the decay in one case, would favour the growth in the other case. Whether the reasons for the study of the classical languages be understood or not, reasons of the utmost cogency do actually exist. They have been considered and reconsidered over and over again, and in all variety of circumstances, by those who are best qualified to judge; and they still retain their place of highest honour and prime necessity, in thorough human culture. The study of them justifies itself in every case where they are really studied, and not simply acquired as accomplishments. It would be a very great advantage, and especially in a country so devoted to commerce as our own, that they should be studied, even though very few might perceive the reasons why. That they were necessary for a certificate of merit, or for a University degree, would be a satisfactory answer for teachers to give to that large class of parents who really know nothing about genuine education, but who feel that they must obtain for their children what other children have, and a reputation for knowledge at any rate, if not knowledge itself.

In the foregoing observations it is not intended to assert that the curriculum of the London University is absolutely the best that could possibly be devised for women. There are differences of opinion as to whether it is absolutely the best that could be devised for men. But in the meantime, here it is, ready made to our hands. Men accept it, admitting it to be imperfect, as the best at present attainable. Women are desirous of sharing its advantages and disadvantages. They need, even more than men, "an encouragement for pursuing a regular and liberal course of education" after the period at which their school education ceases. To found a separate University for them would be a work of enormous difficulty and expense, and one which the existence of the University of London renders unnecessary. If indeed there were no University having the power to examine and confer degrees without collegiate residence, a new institution would undoubtedly be required. As it happens, however, that quite irrespective of the claims of women, the constitution of the University of London has already been so modified as exactly to meet their requirements, the suggestion to found a new University may be regarded as simply a device for getting rid of the question.

Those who entertain the fear that an enlarged course of study would, by overworking the female brain, eventually produce wide-spread idiocy, should remember that mental disease is produced by want of occupation as well as by an excess of it. It has been stated to us by a physician at the head of a large lunatic asylum near London, having under his charge a considerable number of female patients of the middle-class, that the majority of these cases were the result of mental idleness. It is a well-known fact that in those most melancholy diseases known by the names of hysteria, and nervous affections, under which so large a proportion of women in the well-to-do classes are, more or less, sufferers, the first remedy almost invariably prescribed is, interesting occupation, change of scene, anything in fact, that may divert the mind from the dull monotony of a vacant life.

The strongest arguments which can be used in favour of offering some stimulus to the higher intellectual culture of women are in fact those which have been thoughtlessly advanced on the other side. Amazons have never been persons of high intellectual attainments, nor have the most learned women shown any tendency to rush into Bloomerism and other ugly eccentricities. It is true, indeed, and a fact of the utmost significance, that women with great natural force of character, do, when denied a healthy outlet for their energy, often indulge in unhealthy extravagances, simply because it is a necessity of their nature to be active in some way or other. But the fast women and the masculine women are not those who sit down to their books and devote themselves to an orderly course of study. It may be asserted with still greater emphasis, that the hard and cold women are precisely those whom a consciousness of their unimportance to the world in general has made callous to everything but their own petty, personal interests, and in whom the sense of duty and responsibility, or in other words, the conscience, has been deadened and seared by fashionable frivolity.

Great stress has been laid on the alleged fact that women do not themselves want University examinations and degrees. It is always difficult to ascertain the "sense" of women on any given subject. Many shrink from even affixing their names to a memorial, and there is no other recognised method by which they can, in any corporate manner, express their opinions. There can be no doubt that among the more thoughtful, there are many who are eager to obtain for younger women educational aids of which they cannot themselves enjoy the benefit. The cordial support given to this proposal by Mrs. Somerville, Mrs. Grote, Mrs. Gaskell, Mrs. Mary Howitt, &c., and by a large proportion of the ladies concerned in the management of Queen's College and Bedford College, sufficiently attest the fact.

It is probably equally true that there are many others who are not very anxious for any alteration in existing systems of education. This ought not to be surprising to a reflecting mind. It is perfectly natural that people who do not know by experience the value of learning, and who are pretty well satisfied with themselves as they are, should not care much about securing to others advantages which they are incapable of appreciating. The tendency, almost the professed object, of their education, has been to make them unreasonable. It would be strange indeed, if on this one subject, they should be able to reason and judge. Their indifference is much less astonishing than that of men, who willingly forego for their daughters, opportunities of intellectual advancement which they well know how to appreciate, and which they consider of the highest importance for their sons.

There is one part of this subject which is of special practical importance, and also of peculiar difficulty: the right of women to take degrees in Medicine. This, it should be remembered, is wholly distinct from the general question, which it has been the object of this paper to discuss. The course of study and of practice necessary for the M.B. or M.D. degree, is by no means a necessary part of that human culture, which every man and every woman should be encouraged and urged to seek. But the right to practise as a physician would be valuable as opening the way for useful and remunerative employment to those ladies who do not wish to be governesses, or to engage in ordinary trade; and as affording to all women the alternative of being attended by physicians of their own sex. It cannot be denied that a large number of women find very great satisfaction in some kind or other of doctoring, and do actually practise it, whether they know anything about it or not; yet this is so grave a matter that it has been thought necessary, quite recently, to bring the practice of medicine more completely under legal control. The want of skill or care may so easily and quickly produce fatal mischief, and even murder itself may be so easily hidden under the disguise of the unskilfulness of a physician, that it has been thought necessary to require the surest guarantees of competency from all those to whose professional attention, the health and lives of their patients are so often entrusted. Here, however, as in Arts, what has been asked on the part of women is, not a lower standard of medical skill, not easier examinations, but that they should be allowed, in medical schools of their own, to acquire such knowledge as would enable them to pass the examinations and acquire the skill which are now thought necessary and sufficient in the case of men.

The holding of degrees by women is not without precedent. In the Italian Universities and in that of Göttingen, women have held high positions. Towards the end of the last century a female physician graduated at Montpelier. In 1861, the degree of Bachilier ès-Lettres was conferred on Mdlle. Daubié, by the Academy of Lyons, and within the last few months, another French lady, Mdlle. Chenu, passed her examination for the degree of Bachilier ès-Sciences at the University of the Sorbonne. It appears not unreasonable to hope that before many years have elapsed, Englishwomen will be placed in a not less favourable position than their continental neighbours, and that whatever advantages may belong to University examinations and degrees, will be thrown freely open to them.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1921, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.