Great Expectations? The Evolution of Education through Five Generations of Women

20 August 2018

Alex Philips
The Evolution of Education through Five Generations of Women

Continuing and Professional Education tutor, Dr Alex Phillips, reflects on the huge social, political, and cultural changes that have impacted upon the lives of women over the last hundred years.

By exploring the stories of the women in her family, Alex examines the ways in which a revolution in educational practices and opportunities has opened up a world of possibilities for her own daughters, as well as women’s achievements more broadly. As she carefully underlines, the stories of those who have gone before us are highly personal yet profoundly political.

100 Years

I have shown my girls, born in the twenty-first century, the wedding ring of their great-great-grandmother (GGG), who was born in the nineteenth century. I was in nursery class when she died, but I do remember her. We visited her house in the countryside. She chatted to my mother and gave me sweets. Queen Victoria was on the throne when GGG was born, but only men sat in Parliament.

Women were not allowed to vote in national elections. But outside the establishment, people were pushing for equality. Around the time of her birth, St. Hilda’s College was founded by Dorothy Beale and opened its doors to female students (it became a college of Oxford University in 1960).

By the time GGG was starting school, Millicent Fawcett had founded the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). After the turn of the century, attention shifted from the suffragists to the suffragettes, with the founding of the Women’s Social and Political Union by Emmeline Pankhurst, in 1903.

As my girls watched the Red Arrows write ‘100’ in contrails across the sky, in honour of the centenary of the Royal Air Force, I thought about the ending of the Great War in 1918 and the advent of female suffrage in the UK. It is 100 years since women were granted the vote (although only if they were over 30) and Constance Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. I imagine the life of GGG as a tiny wheel rolling with millions of others in machinery and machinations a hundred years old.

GGG was married after the Great War. In 1920 she gave birth to the first of her four children, a girl (GGM) who would become known to my two girls as their great-grandmother. GGG would have been able to vote for the first time in the General Election of 1924. She may well have read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when it was published in 1929. But there were many obstacles to overcome, especially those related to opportunities and expectations.

GGM, the next in line, grew up in the 1920s, a time when children were only expected to stay in school until the age of 12. Education could be continued if your parents had enough money to send you to private school, or if you passed a scholarship for grammar school. These options were not open to many. What do you want to be when you grow up? The most likely answer for girls was ‘married’.

GGM married just after World War II and had two children: a boy and a girl (GM). Further social change emerged out of the ruins of the second devastating global conflict, including the formation of the National Health Service in 1948. The legislation, initially delayed by the war, paved the way for state-sponsored secondary education up until the age of 16.

GM, attending a local village school in the 1950s, now had the opportunity to continue her education in a ‘secondary modern’ or a grammar school. GM and her school friends had to take an examination known as the ‘11-plus’. National testing is the cause for much-heated debate at present, but it should be remembered that at this time such examinations were taking place within the context of improved access to education.

GM was one of the few in her class to pass the 11-plus and secure a place at grammar school. Relishing the challenge, she made the most of her opportunities, excelling in her ‘O’ level and ‘A’ level examinations. But at the point of higher education, GM hit the next glass ceiling. Only about one in twenty of young people went to university in the 1960s and there was a cultural stigma about women becoming ‘bluestocking’ intellectuals.

However, GM was determined to have a career and be a high flyer (of one kind or another), so she became an Air Hostess for the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), which was seen as a very prestigious job with a good salary. She wore her uniform with pride and travelled all over the world. Unfortunately, at this time BOAC insisted that their female cabin crew must be single and aged between 21-27 (no-one seemed to mind a married male pilot). She ended her fledgeling career so she could marry my father.

As the next decade dawned, legislation started to catch up with the unfairness of employment practices; the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970. In the same year, Germaine Greer published The Female Eunuch (1970) and Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex (1970). During the second wave of feminism, GM was determined that life should offer more opportunities for me.

Although I often doubted myself, she always believed in my abilities and encouraged me to aim high throughout my schooling. Above all, she nurtured the expectation that I could go to university.  I headed to Cardiff, armed with a BT phonecard and a stack of Pearl Jam, Metallica, R.E.M, and Blur CDs, to study for a degree in English Literature.

Here I am today, feeling fortunate that I have not had to choose between having a family and a career. It is my turn to encourage others in pursuing their ambitions, questioning everything they read, believing in themselves, articulating their opinions, and engaging in debate.

On the centenary of UK suffrage, I wanted to celebrate the achievements of women writers in their own words with a module that explored the social and cultural change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The title is ‘Murder, She Wrote: Women and Crime Fiction’. I chose crime writing because of its engagement with the transgressions that ripple beneath society’s veneer, revealing so many flaws, prejudices, and hypocrisies. I love the subversiveness of the genre.

Looking back 100 years reminds us not to take rights and responsibilities for granted. It is by understanding the impact of historical events on our own families that we can begin to understand them more fully. In a few years, I hope my daughters will have the opportunity and self-belief to go to university if they decide they want to go. Our journeys are personal and political. We march into the future.

Dr Alex Philips is a specialist in nineteenth- and twentieth-century genre fiction and adventure narratives and is a highly experienced tutor in adult education with Continuing and Professional Education, as well as the Open University. For more information about Alex’s new course, Murder She Wrote: Women and Crime Fiction. Continuing and Professional Education also offer other humanities courses, including literature and creative writing.