Education and the Women's Liberation Movement

Education and the Women's Liberation Movement

How did the Women’s Liberation Movement help transform education and the place of women in academia? Find out about compulsory, further and higher education for girls and women, as well as sex education provision in the 1970s and the development of Women’s Studies courses at universities.

This animated clip comments on different educational opportunities for boys and girls

This animated clip, made in 1998, comments on different educational opportunities for boys and girls, and points out the positive impact of making all opportunities available to both sexes. © Leeds Animation Workshop

The Spare Rib Reader (London: Penguin, 1982) presented a ‘Diary of a Feminist Teacher’, ‘Ten Ways to Counter Sexism in a Junior School’, and ‘Schoolgirls up against Sexism’ with an introduction stating that:

There can be no equality at work between men and women unless there is equality of opportunity. But our education system offers a semblance of equal opportunity rather than its reality. It disadvantages all women compared to men, and it also discriminates between women on class and race grounds. Working-class girls have never been encouraged to further their education for the sake of it. They have always received vocational education at school which has been geared to low-paid women’s work, or to domestic work, and only a token number continue into higher education.

It is important to see the politics of educational opportunity in the context of gains that had already been made. Crucial for the generation of women who powered the liberation movements of the ‘60s was the fact that they themselves had generally benefited from better education than their own mothers. This was mainly because the 1944 Education Act had made education compulsory for girls and boys until the age of 15. Those who passed the 11+ had the chance to work for the equivalent of today’s GCSEs and A levels.

Deirdre Beddoe on wanting to be a sailor

In the 1960s fewer than one in ten women went to university, and most studied the arts and humanities. Women who studied science, philosophy and other male-dominated subjects often excelled, but their work did not always gain the recognition it deserved. Very few women continued to postgraduate education. In contemporary society the situation has changed. According to statistics from UCAS (University and Colleges Admissions Service), over 50% of students who entered higher education in 2011 were women; 34% of these women chose to study a maths or science-based subject (including medicine and engineering), compared to 35% of the men in the same year.

Women’s Studies developed through the women’s movement campaigns and in study groups and workshops. These generated new ideas and research about women, their relationships and their position in the world. Women’s contribution and engagement with the world was minimised in most traditional learning. The WLM unleashed a tremendous desire to learn about women’s history, science and the arts, and the work that women had done in the past as well as the present. This new knowledge was used to publish and teach feminist courses in every subject and to rethink the constitution of all academic disciplines. As a formal subject, therefore, Women’s Studies in Britain did not grow out of universities; it grew out of the WLM and typically worked through adult educational organisations such as the Workers’ Educational Association, as the oral histories of Mary Kennedy, Barbara Taylor, Sally Alexander, Mary McIntosh, Deirdre Beddoe, Marie-Thérèse McGivern and many others testify. One of the earliest was Juliet Mitchell's class for women as part of the Anti-University in Shoreditch in 1968, which was based at 49 Rivington Street, previously home of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. However, in the mid-1980s, some creative institutions began to offer first postgraduate, later undergraduate courses in Women’s Studies, beginning with an MA at the University of Kent in 1981. Through the struggle for equal representation, courses in Black Women’s Studies and Lesbian Studies were also developed from the 1970s onwards. This was not without controversy, as many activists worried about the diversion of energy to an elitist ‘ivory tower’, and the separation of practice from theory. You can find out more about courses today from the Feminist and Women’s Studies Association. You can also hear more pioneers of Women’s Studies, including Diana Leonard and Leonore Davidoff, in the Pioneers of Qualitative Research collection at the University of Essex, which was a hub for radical sociology and related thought.

Anna Davin on teaching Women's Studies

  • Sisterhood and After Research Team
  • This article was researched and written by the Sisterhood and After Research Team, who are experts in the history of contemporary feminism and narrative life methods. The team included Abi Barber, Dr Polly Russell, Dr Margaretta Jolly, Dr Rachel Cohen, Dr Freya Johnson-Ross and Dr Lucy Delap. Further information about the team and project is available in the About the project section.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.