This engraving appeared in The Graphic seven years after London University became the first in Britain to admit women in 1878. By 1880 four women had passed their BA examination there, and in 1881 two women obtained a Bachelor of Science degree. By 1895 over 10 per cent of graduates at London University were women, a figure that rose to 30 per cent in 1900.
Despite this impression of steady growth, women’s education was by no means assured even by the end of the 19th century. Most girls – particularly those from working class backgrounds – finished formal schooling at 11. While there were evening schools for the ambitious working class, particularly in metropolitan areas such as London, 85 per cent of their intake was male. All of which left young women with few opportunities outside of factory labour, domestic service or marriage. Even at the top end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the formal education of women was not considered a priority compared to the ambition of marrying favourably.
This began to change with the establishment of Cheltenham Ladies’ College in 1853. Modelled on traditional all-male boarding schools such as Eton or Winchester (today known as ‘public schools’, after the Public Schools Act of 1868), Cheltenham aimed to give young women a broad and comprehensive education. For the first time, effectively, women were being trained in their own independence.