Attaining a decent education is important for all members of the society and especially for women who have been denied both or either one of these opportunities for the greater part of history. A woman’s achievements resulting from the utilization of the knowledge and wisdom provided by quality education have the capacity to ripple across her generations, across the society and create changes that a man in the same position could not accomplish even on his best days. This is because, throughout history, women have been considered the custodians of morality and the vessels through which genuine transformation can be achieved through their roles in child rearing and education. This paper seeks to provide information on the kind of education that was available for women in the early to middle stages of the 19th century and the ways in which women, thus educated, utilized the knowledge they had gained in school.
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The early 1800s witnessed rapid growth in secondary education. This exponential growth was followed closely by the growth of the collegiate for young girls and women. By the middle of this century, a large number of women were being admitted to state colleges to learn and were. These bold women would be the first to take the bold steps towards equity and often received a lot of mistrust from the society and received biased labels such as ‘sex kittens’ (Peril, 2006). Secondary schools were flourishing as academies and academies such as The Young Ladies Academy became pioneers for the establishment of academies in this century. It was typical for boys to attend school and receive instruction in a diverse range of technical subjects such as arithmetic, reading, writing, geography and so on. Sadly girls were not given the privilege of receiving such detailed instruction in schools. In fact, in the early stages of incorporating women to education system, they were only allowed to attend school during the summer when the boys had come home to work on the farms and it was only with the rapid development of secondary schools that they were allowed to go to school in the winter during the same time as the boys (Lutz, 1976).
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In spite of this change, the curriculum taught to girls at the “finishing school” was drastically different from that taught to the boys. Girls would only receive a basic form of education in; reading, writing and arithmetic skills and the rest of their curriculum was devoted to needlework, knitting and religious education. True womanhood and its qualities were emphasized by the society and girls who were fortunate enough to receive an education were taught on how to remain obedient, submit to the wishes of their husbands within the home and in doing this, maintain the virtues of true womanhood. In fact, women in these schools were discouraged from having any intellectual pursuits since female intellect of any kind was greatly shunned and condemned by the broader society. Men were charged with the responsibility of expanding the society through industrial and economic pursuits while women were charged with the responsibility of protecting this society from moral and religious corruption and both sexes had to be educated so as to be able to fulfil these responsibilities.
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However, in 1815, a wave of change began taking over and this wave was redefining the paradigms that surrounded women education. This wave of change was pioneered by women such as Catharine Beecher, Mary Lyon and Emma Willard. These women had but one common goal which was to transform the curriculum that was used to teach girls. They did this by establishing seminaries, which were secondary schools that were more serious and gave young girls the opportunity to receive the same instruction as the boys. Their efforts were not without bottlenecks, Catherine Beecher for instance, had to teach close to a dozen subjects to her students every day. She had little time to teach each subject in detail and had to gloss over the basics of each to save on time. However, her efforts were rewarded when she appealed for donations, managed to expand her school, hired more teachers and was able to accomplish her mission of teaching each subject to completion (Ring, 1993). The seminary held its students up to the same standard as the boys. It gave them an equal chance at learning but once the woman was out of the seminary, there was little she could do with this education.
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In the 19th century, the responsibilities of the woman were centred on the care of her home, her children and her husband. Women from the upper class had the responsibility of displaying their husbands’ wealth to the public through their dressing and various expensive adornments on their person. Moreover, these women could use their education, the affluent status of their husband as well as the wealth in their households to foster corrections and social change by donating to worthy causes. Women form middle-class families had the responsibility of increasing the affluent nature of their families by setting standards for dressing and lifestyle. While they could find jobs as shopgirls or factory workers, working women in the 19th century were not supposed to earn a wage and often faced discrimination while at work in addition to the burden of the unsafe working conditions. Using their education to acquire some form of independent was a strenuous task and the further women in this age tried to pursue it, the more attractive the option of marriage seemed. Women who could not secure a husband and had acquired a decent education had to result to becoming distressed governesses or needlewomen to sustain themselves and live with the labels of being “unnatural” that would be laid upon them by the society.
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When one thinks about utilizing an education, one makes the supposition that this utilization would involve a vibrant career that would foster economic independence and free will. However, women in the 19th century did not receive the kind of education that would allow them to break free from the patriarchal systems that dictated every aspect of their lives. Instead, they were given an education that would ensure that they remained shackled to their husbands, that they would remain submissive to his will and use all their education to serve him better, take care of his household better, submit to and obey him better and take care of the children. Women were denied the extensive arithmetic and language skills that were given to the men. They were taught just enough to give them the capacity to educate their young children and provide meaningful instruction and shape the values of their sons, who were supposed to have a more direct impact on the nation. These roles were what the 19th-century society considered as the defining hallmarks of true womanhood and it is the skills required to perform these roles that formed the larger part of the education that was given to women.
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In spite of the discriminative environment under which women lived, education was not lost on them. It is the provision of this education that laid the foundation for the establishment of the society for promoting the empowerment of women (SPEW) and other societies that contributed to the rise of feminism as well as the enhancement of female consciousness towards gender equality (Solomon,1985). It is this education that gave women such as Catharine Beecher the knowledge to teach a better curriculum to women in her seminary and transform the education of women from a privilege to a right. The effects of education on women and their capacity to utilize it to effectively manage responsibilities that were only given to men would not be apparent until the onset of the civil revolution in America (Woloch, 1984). When women would be pushed by the futility of attaining the dream of marriage and the necessity of replacing the men who had gone off to the civil war in the workforce, to move away from their homes and use their education to teach in schools, perform clerical work in government offices as well as manage vast plantations containing thousands of slave workers.
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To conclude, the provision of quality education for women has come a long way from this age when women were not allowed to be intellectual nor provided with the opportunity to use the knowledge they acquired in school for any other tasks other than housekeeping, taking care of children and pleasing their husbands. However, tracing the journey of gender equality from this tender age allows one to appreciate the historical milestones that have granted women some form of equality in the attainment of quality education, the capacity to achieve a state of independence and maintain free will as well as the opportunity to pursue a vibrant career.
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