Educated for What?
by Dr Sarah Aiston, School of Education
A historical view of the private and professional lives of graduate women.
The opponents of women's higher education in the nineteenth century envisaged that university-educated women would become ‘unsexed' and refuse to take their place in the traditional breadwinner model of the ‘family', whilst advocates hoped for more choice for women; namely that financial independence would provide women with more discretion in choosing a marriage partner or the option of not marrying at all. How did the first women doctors, lawyers, university teachers, schoolteachers, writers manage their lives?
Evidence suggests that early graduate women were transgressing conventional expectations in fundamental ways; their life histories were part of a larger story, namely the historic decline in the birth-rate witnessed by the Western world in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century. In their life choices graduate women symbolised all that their opponents feared - the joy of a professional life outweighed the claims of marriage and motherhood.
But what of later generations of universityeducated women? Were they refusing to take their place in the traditional family hierarchy? The simple answer is no. Graduate women in the post-Second World War era were no longer rejecting marriage and motherhood on the same scale as their predecessors; marriage proved to be increasingly popular. This was a historical period within which theoretically women could ‘have it all'. The marriage bar was removed in the 1940s and in the 1970s landmark legislation was introduced to ensure that women could compete on ‘equal terms'. Combined with the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s and the rise of second wave feminism, we might envisage the latter half of the 20th century was one of great advances in terms of the lives of graduate women. But despite this favourable context, there remained astounding persistence in sexist assumptions about women's life-plans; even for the academic elite, the role of wife and mother was never lost sight of.
Amidst a discourse that stressed the primacy of this role, university women were presented with careers seen as appropriate to their sex and those that could easily accommodate family life. Teaching was a profession that particularly fulfilled these criteria. Such a ‘moderate' conception of the role of women did not ‘fit' with high status careers, and only those women graduates who ‘travelled light' might hope to reach more senior positions, whilst many women faced difficulties not only in reconciling paid employment and domesticity, but also in gaining promotion in comparison with men. University educated women were presented with a ‘good job for a girl' as opposed to a career for a woman.