Here's How Women Fought For The Right To Be Educated

by JR Thorpe

We're currently in the thick of college graduation season, which means that you and your friends are likely gathering your gowns, planning your parties, and wondering what the hell you're going to do with your lives once you've got that shiny new diploma. But women's higher education, and the specific right to earn a degree of the same quality and content as a man at a university, is in many senses a very new right; and to understand just how far we've come, it's necessary to look back a long way to the pioneers and kick-ass women who made this educational revolution.

Women's pursuit of an equal, in-depth, high-level education as adults has met many stumbling blocks over the centuries: inferior standards (or the complete absence) of education for young girls, beliefs in women's intellectual inferiority, and worries that education in non-domestic subjects wouldn't adequately prepare women for their "natural" role as wives and mothers. To the women of a century ago, the fact that 11.7 million women started college in America in 2016 — a majority of the total number of new students — would seem like a miracle. The ability to get your degrees as a woman isn't something to be taken for granted, so let's have a look at the history of women who just wanted to have the same education as everybody else — and the incredible fight it took to get them there.

In Ancient Times, Only Some Women Were Allowed To Go To School

The idea of the "university" itself is pretty old: most of the oldest ones in the world date from around 1000 AD (Oxford and Cambridge battle it out for the title of absolute oldest), though the University of Karueein in Morocco has been operational since 859 AD. However, in the grand scheme of things, these educational institutions are barely a flicker in the eye of human education, and women have been allowed access to them for only a very small period of their existence. If you want to truly look at women's higher education in history, you have to understand what educational opportunities there really were, in the eras long before universities were actually founded.

In the ancient world, the famously fierce Greek province of Sparta was unique in that it allowed women and men the same levels of (basic) education on an identical curriculum, and let them interact scholastically instead of segregating them. And India, according to the evidence of texts from the 7th and 8th centuries, viewed women traveling to university to study as pretty normal, and saw women intellectuals as perfectly capable of interrogating other academics.

Elsewhere, however, women's education was much more paltry. In ancient China, for instance, women were often educated only in social roles and correct behavior, with the idea that this information could make them good family assets and fine wives. So the women who were able to access education in ancient times were often exceptions rather than rules: for instance, the Platonic Academies of ancient Greece were open-air philosophical schools that allowed occasional exceptional adult women, like Plato's student Lastheneia (who attended dressed as a man) and the famous mathematical polymath Hypatia.

In Medieval Times, Getting To A Nunnery Was The Best Way To Get An Education

In the world of medieval Europe, women's supposed biological inferiority and need to bear children often barred them entirely from getting more than even a smattering of education. (If they wanted more, they had to absent themselves from normal life and enter a convent — which is why the great female intellects of medieval Europe and its colonies, from Hildegard von Bingen to Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, tended to be nuns).

There were, however, notable exceptions. One nun, the Spanish intellectual Juliana Morell, benefited from a father who wanted her to obtain all the trappings of an educated man: she was the first woman in history to get a university degree, being granted a Doctor of Laws in 1608 after defending her thesis in front of the Pope. (Yeah, your exams look a bit less high-pressured now, I bet.) 20 years later, polymath and linguist Anna Maria van Schuman obtained a university degree in Utrecht, but was only allowed to attend lectures while sitting behind a screen, hidden from view.

The really weird thing about medieval European ideas about education for women was that women were founding colleges all over the place — but wouldn't allow ladies to attend them. Henry VII's mother Lady Margaret Beaufort founded two colleges at Cambridge, and Jeanne of Navarre founded a college in Paris, which was male-only. For any woman who wanted to get herself a degree, this must have been utterly infuriating.

As the Renaissance bloomed, though, new ideals about women's education started to develop: the curriculum of humanist schools aimed to give more education to women in a broader way, from poetry to mathematics. It was still, however, easiest to get yourself a good high-end education if you took the veil and went to a convent.

Women Finally Got To Attend Universities In The 18th & 19th Century

It was in the 19th century that the blossoming of higher education for women really started to accelerate around the world. In 1873, for instance, Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon founded Girton College at Cambridge, an all-female college — but it wouldn't be officially affiliated with the university till 1948. 1833 saw the founding of Oberlin College, which was coed from its first class; and 1871 heralded the first coeducational college class in Britain, held in University College London in the Political Economy course with, the professor in charge noted, "five ladies who are manifesting a very intelligent interest in the subject and are evidently studying it with care."

Women who wanted to go to college in Britain were often called, with some sarcasm, "blue stockings," because of the Blue Stockings, a collection of intellectual women in the late 1700s who had banded together to attempt to further their studies on their own. In the UK and on the other side of the pond, though, the 18th and 19th centuries brought a bunch of activists arguing about the right ways in which to educate women, and what higher education would actually be for.

Some American women, like Emma Hart Willard (who founded and published her "Willard Plan" in the early 1800s), held that women needed college-level education for the sake of being well-educated mothers in the new America. Others, like the early proto-feminist Judith Sargent Murray, declared that it went beyond that, and that education was a means towards female empowerment. The fact that the Seneca Falls "Declaration Of Sentiments" by first-wave feminists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton included the line, "He has denied her the facilities for obtaining a thorough education, all colleges being closed against her" as proof of man's "tyranny" indicates that it was playing heavily on many peoples' minds.

It wasn't just a discussion playing out in the English-speaking world, either. Russia was, in the 19th century, becoming one of the world's most advanced places for formal women's education, with women allowed to access university-level training and medical courses. And across India, there were a lot of discussions about the fundamental rights of women to higher education while also worrying about violating their "traditional" roles. (A lot of people compromised by saying that better educated women made better mothers and wives; it's been a pretty standard defense over the centuries.)

Women Of Color Still Pushed Against Roadblocks To Their Education In The 20th Century

After the 19th century set the ball rolling, women's college education in America in particular began to slowly snowball in the 20th century. It's been pointed out that, as conceptions of acceptable female roles began to change, college courses for women began to adapt from vocational to purely educational, particularly after World War II. A lot of this, particularly the spike in college enrollments among women in the 1960s and 70s, appears to have been down to the influence of second-wave feminism. As female education became more accepted and highly-educated women entered the workforce, the setting was created for the phenomenon we see now: women enrolling in college in higher numbers than men.

Despite all of this, there were still many roadblocks when it came to women's education, particularly women of color. For example, though Yale University began admitting women to its graduate school in 1892, and though Yale Law School graduated its first African-American student, Edwin Archer Randolph, in 1880, Jane Bolin, the first African-American woman to receive her degree from Yale Law, only graduated in 1931 — showing the double burden women of color often had to deal with when pursuing an education (Bolin went on to become the first African-American woman to join the New York City Bar Association and the first African-American woman to serve as a judge in the U.S.).

And it was only in 2016 that Oxford, one of the world's most ancient universities, appointed a female Vice-Chancellor, effectively the head of the university, for the first time. Vice-Chancellor appointments of women are on the rise, but in 2016 they still only made up 29 percent of new appointments in the UK. Still, with schools from Harvard to McGill and Brown being led by women in the past or present, it's not too much to hope that the future of leadership in universities is, in fact, going to be very female.