Teaching and the Women's Liberation Movement

Girls in formal education

The Women’s Liberation Movement has to be seen in the context of the educational system in which its members grew up. Learn more about the tripartite system, the 11+ exam and its mixed consequences - a divisive, class-based system, but one that gave opportunities for some girls to access grammar schools.

Audrey Jones discusses sexist exam questions

In 1944 the Butler Act introduced the 11+ exam and the tripartite secondary school system. As a result state-funded secondary schools were split into three categories: grammar schools, secondary moderns and technical schools. Pupils had to pass the 11+ exam in order to get into a grammar school. The divisive effects of this competitive and class-based system are obvious in the long life histories of the interviewees for Sisterhood and After. However, the vital effect of getting skills, confidence and connections through education is also obvious for the resourcing of a political movement.

The tripartite system

From 1944 onwards state-funded secondary grammar schools were intended for the most intellectually able 25% of the population. Secondary modern schools were for students who were not selected to attend grammar schools. They were largely replaced by comprehensive schools in the UK from the early 1970s. Technical schools were for students who wished to enter the science and engineering industries: they taught practical mathematical, mechanical, scientific and engineering skills. Very few technical schools were ever built and few girls and young women ever attended them.

Sandie Wyles talks about starting a girls-only youth group

The 11+ exam

At the end of primary education all students were required to sit an exam to determine which of the three kinds of secondary schools they would attend. Technical schools were not built on the scale originally envisaged and so the 11+ became a fierce competition for places at the prestigious grammar schools. This was seen as a question of passing or failing. The impact of gaining a place at grammar school versus secondary modern could be huge.

Marie-Thérèse McGivern talks about passing the 11+ exam

Secondary education and the Women’s Liberation Movement

Sheila Rowbotham, Martin Pugh and others have suggested that the Women’s Liberation Movement as a whole was much aided by the opportunities offered to a post-war generation of girls who had been able to get into the grammar school system, and the opportunities offered to them at these schools. Even though girls were denied the same opportunities as boys in many subjects, a grammar school education still provided more choices than a secondary modern education.

The majority of interviewees on this website attended grammar schools. This is not to say that women who attended secondary modern schools were not part of the Women’s Liberation Movement, but there were certainly fewer of them. Beatrix Campbell, a very active member of the movement who remains a powerful public voice in the media, talks about the experience of being one of those who did not gain the benefit of a grammar school education. She says she feels

Privileged to be part of the majority who failed, because, 75 per cent of children of my generation and before failed the 11+, and so I’m located with them.… And it was a disgraceful thing to have happened to all of us, and, didn’t mean a damn thing about whether or not you could do anything, because anybody can do anything. And I’m grateful for that experience of connection to this, to the humiliation of the majority of us. And of course I was rescued because my school in the end was offering a lot of us another experience and another story about ourselves, and we were told we weren’t failures, we could do these things, so that was great.

Experiences of black and Asian girls in the school system

During the 1950s and ‘60s immigration to the UK increased dramatically (see Race, Place and Nation). Britain’s schools in these years were not immune to the racism that was present in wider culture. Non-white girls experienced racism, as well as sexism and class discrimination, in the classroom and the playground. Black feminists such as Ann Phoenix and Heidi Mirza (Emeritus Professor of Equalities Studies in Education at the Institute of Education) have argued that education was a fundamental black feminist concern. Mirza’s book Race, Gender and Educational Desire: Why Black Women Succeed and Fail (London: Routledge, 2009) opens up difficult questions, including the different educational patterns of black boys and girls, and multiculturalism; it also illustrates black girls’ and women’s intense hunger and ambition for more and better education.

Pragna Patel discusses racism at school

Women in higher education

The 1962 Education Act established the mandatory award of a student maintenance grant for higher education. This was paid to most students on full-time courses by Local Education Authorities. The combination of this grant together with state-funded grammar schools meant that a few women from poorer backgrounds were not prevented from attending university on financial grounds.

Women entered universities in increasing numbers in the 1960s and ‘70s, at a time of political upheaval and social change. They played a crucial part in forging new political movements and shaping the politics of peace, education, and gay and women’s liberation politics. The number of women in higher education has been increasing since the 1960s; in postgraduate education women have outnumbered men since the early 2000s.

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

Women in science and medicine

Women who had trained as artists, writers, sociologists and historians were much more common in the Women’s Liberation Movement than scientists or medics. The reasons for this would be interesting to debate. Una Kroll, who talks about her battles to become an ordained Anglican priest in Equality and work, originally trained in the early 1950s as a doctor specialising in neurology. Her oral history speaks eloquently of the enormous struggles this involved, including her need to gain scholarships as the child of a single mother without much income, and living up to the huge expectations of her tutor Dorothy Russell, who had been the first woman to be appointed Chair of Morbid Anatomy at The London in 1946. Kroll recalls the competition she felt she was in with the men on her course:

I didn’t despise them, but they certainly despised us. And in order to survive, we, we had to be quite feisty. Now the other people who disliked us of course were the women, the sisters, because, they had had the pick of the men, and very often they were looking to marry the medical students, and a lot of them did, but they did not welcome the coming of these women. And we were such a small minority, there were only three of us in a class of, say, thirty, and, and at the beginning we were only there three years, so it was, three of us in ninety. And the men had all the privileges and we had none of them.

You can hear more women scientists’ stories in the British Library’s Oral History of British Science collection.

  • 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.