Female Education in the Regency Era

Emma Linfield

Nowadays, many young women thrive in science and other academic disciplines, but women’s education was not always a given rather a privilege! This change towards women’s rights in education started in our very own Regency era, at the beginning of the 19th century.

Young girls of the aristocratic class were mostly taught at home by governesses, while girls belonging to the middle class were attending private institutions, known as ‘dame schools’. Unfortunately, girls of the working classes did not have the financial means for any of the above and had to be limited to draft versions of so-called schools, like churches.

The ‘Social Spheres’

Even though change started to appear in the first and second decade of the 19th century, when organizations promoting women’s education were initially established, the notion of the ‘separate spheres’ was also in operation. This meant that men and women had different roles in society; men in the sphere of the “outside” and women in that of the “inside”. This limited girls’ learning opportunities and restrained them in the household.

Accordingly, the classes taught to each sex respectively were influenced by the belief of the separate spheres. While boys were taught courses that would consecutively aid them in being admitted to universities, girls were taught classes that would enhance their ability to manage their household or care for their children, thus their roles as wives and mothers.

The schooling of young girls was mostly practical training to prepare them for their domestic role. This included lessons on how to read, write, and count, although always using cookery or piety books, and never poetry, politics or classic literature.

Of course, decorum couldn’t be missing; everything regarding a woman’s habits, body posture, movements and even lessons on how to get in or out of a room were included in the school curriculum. Moreover, they were taught sewing or needlework, while dancing, drawing, playing music or speaking modern languages were considered ‘accomplishments’ and were highly praised.

However, most of these ‘accomplishments’, were just acquired in order to attract a husband and to improve a young lady’s odds in making a better match. The dominating belief at that time was that girls should be educated to be “decorative, modest, and marriageable” beings. Therefore, in most cases, these talents that were gained through great effort and personal struggle were abandoned or, at best, neglected after marriage.

Such a pity!


Woman reading line art.

Bright Examples

Any further pursuit in education was primarily a matter of personal choice. The efforts for a better education were, however, very limited and always derived from personal initiative. Usually, the subjects of such a choice were women being taught by understanding parents, older siblings or teaching themselves from their libraries. Those women defied the rules and the social and educational embargo imposed upon females and advanced their cognitive development on their own.

Although examples of such cases were rare, some bright examples did exist; take for instance Elizabeth Montagu, the inventor of the Blue Stocking Society and her sister and famous novelist, Sarah Scott. The two girls could speak Latin, French, and Spanish, and they both studied literature.

And to think that I couldn’t get up in the morning to go to school! 🙂

However, their case is not one of caring parents, but rather neglectful ones. Even so, they both grew to establish themselves as central figures in the advocacy for women’s rights in education. 

And well, love may not cost a thing, but education surely did!

A governess, which by the way, had necessarily to be an unmarried woman of impeccable reputation, was paid 15-20 pounds a year (approximately 800-900 pounds today). This was a significant amount of money at that time, considering that this was the price of a good horse! Speaking of horses and strong independent women, read my fellow writer, Hanna Hamilton’s, book about an aspirant horse-rider here!

In many cases, governesses that were released of their duties after a certain time had passed, and the young lady’s education was considered complete, were kept at the house as paid companions. 

Well, that was pretty much it! 

What do you think about women’s education? 

Let me know in the comments below! 

Until next time, 

Written by Emma Linfield

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