The majority of women during most of the time of this history were unskilled working class. They worked in factories, in the fields and in domestic services carrying out menial tasks with no opportunity for education or training. This sorry and lamentable state of affairs was recorded in literature by Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. In addition whilst researching and writing the history of technical and commercial education I became acutely aware of the dearth of literature on women’s education and equally concerning the very narrow and stereotypical view of their role and position in society and employment. What educational provision was available was centred on domestic service or as a means of preparation for marriage and house wives- whatever that meant! Other areas open to women were lowly paid positions as governesses, lady’s companions or seamstresses. The lack of opportunities to enter the professions or other areas of employment other than those associated with domestic service for the landed gentry or menial clerical positions was almost non-existent for most of the 19th century. Where colleges and other institutions existed they inevitably provided opportunities for upper and middle class females. Unfortunately there are still gender inequality issues even today and the presence of the so called glass ceiling still exists in spite of legislation in many occupations and professions.
However there were a few isolated initiatives in the mid 19th century which identified and highlighted these inequalities and injustices for women particularly in regard to the lack of education opportunities and progression into the professions and other more highly respected areas of employment. One such movement was the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women and was founded in 1859. In 1926 the Society was later re-named the Society for Promoting the Training of Women and is still in existence today. The Society was founded by a remarkable individual Jessie Boucherett (1825-1905) who recognised the urgent need to open up new areas of employment for women and tackle the dire state of education for females that existed at the time. One of the main aims of the Society was to assist women to become economically independent through more meaningful employment opportunities. In order to assist and realise this aim the Society offered interest free loans to help cover the costs of their education and training and this activity has continued up to the present time.
The Society has had many remarkable supporters and members including Harriet Martineau [see biography] whom I have already acknowledged as an active supporter with Charles Knight and Henry Brougham [see biographies] of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Harriet Martineau had written an article in the Edinburgh Review – founded by Henry Brougham that inspired Jessie Boucherett to establish the Society. Harriet Martineau wrote that ‘three million out of six adult English women work for subsistence, and two out of three in independence. With this new condition of affairs, new duties and new views must be accepted’. The impact on Jessie Boucherett was significant and she wrote later in a pamphlet commemorating the Society’s twentieth anniversary that she would ‘ resolve to make it the business of her life to remedy or at least alleviate the evil by helping self-dependent women, not with gifts of money, but with encouragement and training for employment suited to their capabilities’. The Society can claim many firsts including the establishment of the first commercial school offering book-keeping and shorthand classes as well as creating apprenticeship and subsequent employment opportunities in male dominated trades and crafts including horology, photography and telegraphy. The Society also managed to gain membership grades for women in a number of Professional Institutions including Institute of Chartered Accountants and the Society of Incorporated Accountants and Auditors. The archive of the Society is sited at the Girton College Library in Cambridge.
I intend to describe the progress of the education of working women particular in the technical and commercial occupations in a separate history.