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Boarding schools for girls in eighteenth century England: A first step towards the improvement of women’s education

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  1. Introduction
  2. How the boarding schools developed during the eighteenth century
  3. Alternatives to convents
  4. Daniel Defo's 'Essay upon Project' in 1697
  5. Thomas Gisborne's 'Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex'
  6. 'Thoughts on the Education of Daughters'
  7. Conclusion

In the eighteenth century, a huge debate on girls' education began to take place in England. It questioned the way young ladies should be educated, the curriculum they should follow as well as the place where this education should be set. At that time, the question was centred on the public-private debate, which means that authors wondered whether domestic education was better or not than the one provided in boarding schools for girls.

The fact is that these new public places for the education of young ladies were very recent at the time. If it showed a will to improve women's education, the curriculum taught there was not really intellectual. The aim of girls' education seemed to remain the same one as before, that is, to find a husband and to acquire the good manners necessary to enter the polite world. In response to this criticism, many authors expressed themselves in this debate, most of them advocating for a more intellectual instruction. In any case, the public-private debate remained the most important one about education at that time, even more than the one on the content of the curriculum for women, whether it was in schools or at home. As a consequence, boarding schools were highly criticized.

First, it is interesting to wonder how these boarding schools developed during the eighteenth century and to find to whom they were addressed. Then, the curriculum will be further analyzed in order to be able to understand what was taught in these institutions and how this instruction was provided. Finally, these elements will permit us to understand the public-private debate that took place at that time and to highlight the criticisms made against boarding schools.

Until the mid-sixteenth century, the education of girls and women in England was given in convents. When Henry VIII decided to close them, another way to provide women with education was needed. Many authors made proposals on this subject, leading to the rise of boarding schools for girls in the middle of the eighteenth century.

In the mid-sixteenth century, England entered a period marked with religious events that profoundly modified the country. The most important one is the Protestant Reformation, with the emergence of Anglicanism as the official religion. Henry VIII, king who ruled over England during that period, ordered the dissolution of the monasteries and convents in 1536, because of their belonging to the Catholic Church of Rome, the new enemy of the country. When considering the term monasteries, one should understand all the Catholic institutions of England, including convents and nunneries.

At that period, girls and women of higher social ranks used to enter convents and nunneries to receive their education. It was essential for them in order to find a situation in the world, as well as a husband, and to be able to converse in mundane places in England. As soon as the dissolution of monasteries began, they were facing a new difficulty, one of the place of their instruction: ?La dissolution des monastères et couvents a brutalement mis un terme à une instruction féminine de qualité.? or "The dissolution of the monasteries and convents brutally put an end to female education quality."

[...] According to Mary Wollstonecraft, in boarding schools, temper is neglected, the same lessons are taught to all, and some get a smattering of things they have not capacity even to understand; few things are learnt thoroughly, but many follies contracted, and an immoderate for dress among the rest.?[28] Therefore, boarding schools were accused of educating girls in a futile way, being unable to provide them with a sound education. This is due to the difference of level of all young ladies, but also of background. [...]


[...] The first one consisted in sending one's daughter in the household of a relative where she would be taught with other girls on many different subjects.[2] The second one was to put one's daughter into a grammar school for boys, which was only allowed until the age of nine, and longer than they may learn to read English?.[3] These two ways of educating girls can be considered as a first step towards the creation of boarding schools for women. The closing of the convents provoked a rise of proposals about girls' education, which were ingrained in the public-private debate. [...]


[...] Women, Religion and Education in Early Modern England. London : Routledge Denizot, Paul. Du catholicisme au protestantisme : Grandeur et décadence de l'institution féminine ? L'Education des femmes en Europe et en Amérique du Nord, de la Renaissance à 1848 : réalités et représentations. Ed. Guyonne Leduc. Paris : L'Harmattan, Des idées des femmes Milton, Mary and Jill Shefrin. Educating the Child in Enlightenment Britain. Farnham : Ashgate Surrey Paul Denizot, Du catholicisme au protestantisme: Grandeur et décadence de l'instruction féminine? [...]

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