Back to School: A Girl’s Education During Tudor, Regency & American Revolutionary Times

Posted by on Sep 7, 2015 in 16th Century England, 18th Century England, 18th Century U.S. | 13 comments

The end of summer is a bittersweet time for many children. Alongside the thrill of acquiring new pencil boxes, markers and notebooks is the realization that the days of seemingly endless freedom are done. In their place will be lessons to learn, homework to finish, tests to take. One day, hopefully, our children will realize how lucky they are to live in a society where education for all is the rule and not the exception—because in the past that wasn’t the case, especially not for girls.

What sort of education did girls receive a few hundred years ago? Here’s a brief roundup for Tudor England, the Regency, and the American Revolutionary era.

The Education of Tudor girls
by Anna Castle

redvelvetgirl_ElizabethanLiteracy rates of the past are hard to measure. Scholars study records like wills and court depositions to count signatures and other bits of writing by individuals. They compare that number with an estimate of the total population and arrive at a percentage of persons who could write. Reading and writing go hand in hand for us, but they didn’t always in the past. We must bear in mind that estimates based on writing will underestimate reading levels; by how much, is anybody’s guess

During the Tudor era, some petty schools admitted girls. These were the local grammar schools where most boys of the middling sort between the ages of 7 and 14 went to learn their ABCs, how to do sums, and a little Latin. But most girls were educated at home, whatever their status.

If your father was a man like Sir Anthony Cooke, a leading humanist scholar, you’d get a first-rate education. His five daughters were renowned for their learning; their tutors were Cambridge professors and Sir Anthony was tutor to King Edward VI. Middle daughter Anne was the mother of Francis Bacon. Could he have become the Father of Science without so intellectual a mother?

Ordinary girls — daughters of yeomen, tradesmen, merchants, and the lesser gentry — would be taught in the parlor by a tutor or perhaps in the evening by their father. The ABC with the Catechism was a major bestseller in the late sixteenth century. But remember that most of these girls would not learn to read, although they would hear a lot of books read to them at home, at church, and in taverns and other social places.

Death-by-Disputation185x280Working women did not enter into apprenticeships in this period, although they might be sent to learn a craft like embroidering or making caps. Many girls of the lower classes went into domestic service in their middle to late teens, for a period of perhaps 10 years. There they received room and board, some clothing, cash wages, and training in the sorts of skills they would need when they set up their own households. A few might learn to read at the whim of a strict religious mistress, but most would not have any need for literacy in their lives.

Anna Castle is the author of Death by Disputation, the second volume of her Francis Bacon Mystery Series.

A Regency Education
by Libi Astaire

A woman, especially, if she has the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Regency school advertisementMs. Austen was being only partly satirical when she penned that line. On one hand, education in general was undergoing great changes during the Regency era, even for girls. On the other hand, as fans of Pride and Prejudice know, the primary goal and occupation of women was still marriage.

For a girl born into a wealthy home where education was valued for its own sake, the sky was literally the limit. In addition to being tutored in the basics by a live-in governess—instruction in both English and French or Italian, arithmetic, etc.—the family would hire masters and tutors to give her instruction in the harp and pianoforte, painting and drawing, and possibly even astronomy and other sciences. Yet even she would learn how to sew and embroider, because these domestic arts were considered part of a woman’s basic education. There were also boarding schools, particularly in London and Bath, for well-to-do members of the gentry, some of which provided the girls with an excellent education.

During the Regency the idea of educating the poor began to gather steam. One outcome was the Sunday School Movement, whose goal was to teach Christian children how to read. Some schools also taught their students how to write. For poor families, there was also the Dame School, an elementary school located in the home of the teacher. While some did teach their students the basics, many were little more than day care centers run by a “teacher” who might be practically illiterate herself. A variation of the Dame School was the Penny School, where students paid a penny for each class they attended.

These new ideas also filtered into Regency London’s Jewish community, whose members were primarily poor. The Jews’ Hospital, for example, had a vocational school to teach Jewish teens who were members of the “respectable poor” a trade and keep them off the streets. The boys were taught shoemaking, chairmaking and cabinetmaking, while the girls were taught to knit, wash, iron, cook, do needlework and clean house. However, during the Regency period there were never more than a few dozen boys and girls enrolled, due to a lack of funds, which meant that most Jewish children didn’t receive any sort of formal secular education.

The-Moon-Taker185x280Yet whether the girl was rich or poor or somewhere in between, the goals of a girl’s education were the same: teach her to have a good and unselfish nature, and to remain cheerful in the face of adversity, so that she would be a good wife and mother. If she did possess higher learning, it was considered gauche to display it in public. Although even the influential Abbé Fénelon, who wrote several treatises on women’s education, agreed it was better for a young woman to read the Classics than engage in a popular pastime of the day—reading novels!

Libi Astaire is the author of The Moon Taker, the latest novel in her Jewish Regency Mystery Series. Learn more about the series at her website.


Women’s Literacy During the American Revolution
by Suzanne Adair

18th century English priimerOne myth circulating about women during the American War of Independence is that most of them were unable to read or write—thus they were entirely dependent on their husbands and fathers for matters that required literacy. According to estimates, however, white women living in North America during the Revolutionary War had an average literacy rate of about 70%. This number was higher in urban areas than on the frontier. It was also higher in the northeast as well as in certain immigrant communities like the Germans (Moravians). Very few white women weren’t involved in a family business or farm to some capacity. When men went off to war, women had to run businesses and farms. Otherwise they, their children, and their servants would starve. Thus it was advantageous for these women to possess a basic education.

During the late 18th century, reading and writing were taught as separate skills, not together as they are today, and most men and women were taught to be able to read the Bible. The number of people who could read print was greater than those who could read handwriting, and those who could write with fluency were fewer than those who could read. Beyond having this basic literacy, the number of white women who’d received instruction in more advanced topics like philosophy, political theory, and astronomy was quite small. Men believed that the innate intellect of women wasn’t as great as that of men and that the minds of women were better suited to focus on affairs of a domestic nature. Some men even thought that women were too delicate for advanced education, and it would distress or unbalance their minds. The only schools for girls during the Revolution were the Bethlehem Female Seminary (Moravian, Pennsylvania) and the Little Girls’ School (Moravian, North Carolina).

That all changed after men came home from the war and saw how well women had run the businesses and farms without them. Men of the new Republic also recognized the influence of women’s intelligence on their children; after all, a mother was a child’s first teacher. There in the home was the Republic’s first defense against the return to monarchy. Providing women with advanced education was an excellent way to ensure that the next generation didn’t backslide politically. So in the early 19th century, after this shift in thinking had occurred, women’s schools were founded in earnest.

Incidentally, during the Revolution, the literacy of women who were slaves, Africans, and Indians wasn’t included in estimates. If it had been, the percentage of women overall who possessed basic education would have been far lower. To enforce the institution of slavery, slaves were kept illiterate.


150825FINALDeadlyOccupationEBookCoverLargeAward-winning author Suzanne Adair lives in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her suspense and thrillers transport readers to the Southern theater of the American Revolution, where she brings historic towns, battles, and people to life. She fuels her creativity with Revolutionary War reenacting and visits to historic sites. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking, dancing, hiking, and spending time with her family. Her sixth book, DEADLY OCCUPATION, will be released October 2015.

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  1. Fascinating.

    The sad thing that what you wrote about in this post—all that was gained to build the transparent, non-profit, democratic, public education system in the United States that many Americans treasure, trust, or hate and take for granted because it has been there for generations—is threatened thanks to the powerful corporate education reform movement to profitize education.

    It’s obvious to those who are paying attention that there is an agenda being funded by a few extremely wealthy and powerful oligarchs to get rid of the public schools—for instance, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton family and two of the four Koch brothers in addition to the hedge fund sector of Wall Street—and their goal is to turn the teaching of our children over to opaque, autocratic, for-profit, often worse or the same, fraudulent corporate Charters.

    It’s already happening in some American cities, and the perfect example is New Orleans where the public education deformers publicly said the best thing that happened for them was when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and destroyed most of the public schools.

    The profiteers swept in and managed to buy enough votes in the Louisiana legislature to have all of the schools in New Orleans turned into corporate Charter schools, and they immediate fired 7,000 public school teachers, administrators, custodians, etc. In fact, if you read the propaganda from that for-profit k-12 education industry in New Orleans, they make it sound like an amazing success, but studies by unbiased sources have revealed that the only change is that thousands of children—the most challenging to teach and those who are poor test takers—have been kicked out of those corporate schools and are unaccounted for because no one is keeping track of them. That means the streets are now educating thousands of children in New Orleans who have no schools that will take them and the public schools are gone.

    This same model is being replicated in other cities and the deformers are working hard to turn entire states into the same thing we now see in New Orleans. If successful, this will create a caste system in the United States. Children who are difficult to teach for whatever reason and who do not do well on standardized bubble tests will be swept out of the corporate schools like dust swept under a rug and only children who are easy to teach and do well on standardized tests will be allowed to stay in school, because those at risk children cost to much to educate and that cuts into profits.

    • Sadly, American education is well below standards in other developed countries. I found it so in 1960 when I first arrived here from Europe, and I have seen it deteriorate further. In order to leave no child behind, standards have eroded, and yet schools struggle to meet those minimal standards through a barrage of testing, fearing the punishment that is sure to follow. In some places, teachers were so afraid of losing their jobs that they corrected all tghe wrong answers on the tests.

      • I think you will find this interesting.

        The U.S. Public Education system k – 12 is one of, if not the largest in the world. For instance, mandatory education in China only goes to 6th grade and students who don’t rank high on tests to get into high school are sent to vocational schools or return home. About 20% of high school age children in China make it into high school.

        There are more than 15,000 public school districts, about 100,000 schools, 3.5 – 4 million teachers and almost 50 million children in America’s public schools. Schools in affluent communities tend to offer more rewarding AP and honors courses compared to those in poorer communities that are also underfunded.

        For instance, I think almost everyone in the world agrees that Stanford, a private, for-profit university in California, is one of the top five universities in the world. Stanford ends up on all the lists. I’ve seen it ranked #2, #4 and #5 when compared to every university in the United States or even the world.

        If Americas school were doing so poorly compared to European schools than why do many of Standford’s American students come from public schools like our daughter, many of her Stanford friends and her fiance did. She graduated from Stanford in June 2014.

        In addition, when we see the world rankings for universities in every country, Ameircan universities make up about half of the top 100, and the U.S. is ranked #4 or #5 in the world for the most college graduates. I think that it is arguable that many public schools in the United States are doing a comparable job to their counterparts in Europe.

        Have you heard of the International PISA test? If you have, then I’m sure you’ve heard of how dismal the U.S. has done when the U.S. overall average is compared to the other OECD countries that are tested. But I suspect most people have no idea why the U.S. average looks so bad because in the United States almost 25% of the children live in poverty compared to Finland where less than 5% of the children live in poverty. When the PISA was broken down into six socioeconomic levels from lowest to highest, the U.S. did a lot better. In fact, children who live in poverty do poorly on the PISA in every country but the average of those same children in the U.S. outscored similar student in every country where the PISA is taken by students. No other OECD nation has a higher ratio of children living in poverty.

        The following link will take you to one of the studies that looked at more than just the overall average of the International PISA test for U.S. students—-the study came out of Stanford.

        Poor ranking on international test misleading about U.S. student performance, Stanford researcher finds

        And The Economic Policy Institute double checked the Stanford study:

  2. Dear heaven! I am European-educated and came to this country’s educational system as a non-native speaker. An intimidating prospect. Thanks to my education, I succeeded, though I had to learn objective test-taking. I have since taught in the American system and watched a child and now grandchildren through it. The system is appalling, with teachers hamstrung by testing and teaching plans made by non-teachers. The students lose interest in middle school, and the university system is so over-priced that the middle class can no longer afford to send their children.
    Other countries (among them China) have an “elitist” system, meaning one that requires high academic performance for admission to universities, but then university is free or nearly free, supported by taxes. The rise of these countries in productivity even when the country is relatively poor proves that their system works well.

    And from what I’ve seen in performance rankings between students of different countries, the U.S. is generally behind.

    Rather that arguing the point, we should support changes in American education, including free universities for qualified students.

    • My apologies! This has turned into an inappropriate rant.
      Forgive me for being angry. My two grandchildren, honor students both, don’t have the money to go to the local state school, let alone a prestigious university like Stanford. I’m very bitter on the subject.

      • IJ Parker, if your grandchildren are good students and have good test scores, they may do better by applying to a small liberal arts college. The top ones meet 100% of need, so if your grandchildren can get in, they can go. My two oldest went to such a school and their combined tuition was more than our annual income at the time.

        They also had attended a community college first. I have heard one researcher argue that the US has a mediocre public school system and the best university system in the world, starting with its community colleges.

        • My perception from inside a great state school, going to lots of conferences, is that the quality of college educations has risen dramatically over the past 20 years, from community colleges through small, regional liberal colleges, on up to what used to be mostly agricultural schools. I credit this to the influx of highly qualified women earning PhDs when the gates came down in the 70s and 80s.
          Austin Community College is gigantic, but the people I know who teach there are tip-top. It’s very hard to get a job on that faculty!

      • Stanford does have a grant/scholarship program for children who qualify but don’t have the money to pay the tuition. Stanford is a very wealthy university with hundreds of millions or billions of dollars in their foundation. But being accepted by Stanford is difficult. They only accept about 6% of undergrad applicants. The competition is fierce.

        Stanford offers free tuition for families making less than $125,000

        Stanford Will Now Be Free To All Students From Families That Earn Less Than $125,000 Per Year

      • Depending on the state your grandchildren live in, there are the community colleges that cover the first two years of a four or five year education. The tuition is much less and the credits transfer to four year state colleges in the junior year when they move to a four+ year university.

        There are also options for going to college that won’t cost much or anything but it means some risk. For instance, joining the U.S. Military (recommend the Air Force should be the safest branch) and the military has programs where they pay some or all tuition. I’ve known former students of mine who came from very poor famlies and stayed in the military earning their BA and Masters through state colleges in California that offered many courses on-line. Even station in Japan and Israel, they used their laptop to link up and attend lectures and submit work to professors and UC Northridge—a state college in California.

    • You are 100% correct about the obsessive testing in the United States and scripted lessons that teachers are forced to teach often against their will to children or else they will probably get fired. The testing mania started with President G. W. Bush and his No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 that mandated 100% of 17/18 year olds graduating from high school HAD to be college and career ready, something that no country on the planet has ever achieved in history. Schools that didn’t achive this impossible mandate were to be closed and turned over to the private sector and this is happening all across the Untied States.

      Guess the big movers behind this testing insanity that is also being used to rank and fire teachers? A UK corporation called Pearson that came into the US the year before NCLB and started buying up testing companies to get ready for the war on the public schools. the teachers’ unions and public school teachers.

      There is a war going on in the United States—that you won’t read much about in the traditional corporate media—but there are plenty of well-researched books and Blogs on this issue. I will recommend a few for anyone who wants to learn about what’s really going on.

      Thank Americans, for instance, like Bill Gates, who thinks he knows how we should teach our children in classes with 100 children and one monitor and every child glued to a computer screen learning from computerized scripted lessons, and to achieve this Gates is spending literally billions to destroy the public schools, in addition to Arne Duncan, David Coleman, Eli Broad,the Walton family, the Koch brothers and several Hedge fund billionaires who want to profit off of our children by getting rid of the transparent, non-profit, democratic public schools and replace them with autocratic, for profit, opaque and often fraudulent, worse-or-the-same corporate Charters. If you want a better quality education for your children and grandchildren, I suggest moving north to Canada where they have managed to resist this insanity—so far but the pressure is immense from the private sector to profitize education for all of our children and turn them into a commodity that Hedge Funds profit from, are profiting from in about a third of the states so far.

      Be careful what you read in the corporate media—just because the 1st Amendment protects the media’s freedom of expression from the government doesn’t mean what they report is honest and balanced—it often isn’t.

      For instance, Rupert Murdock’s New Corp, the second largest media corporation in the world behind the BBC, is a big mover in the privatization of public education and he’s spent hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve this. The same thing is happening in the UK and other European nations but not all of them because some countries are resisting this hostile corporate take over of public education. Finland is one of those countries.

      First recommended book: “Reign of Error, The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” by Diane Ravitch.

      And any of the books by Mercedes K. Schneider

  3. US education is very bumpy. Most schools are OK. Schools in poor neighborhoods are horrible. It’s a crappy job, so the A students don’t go into teaching. That’s a big part of the problem, which goes all the way back to the Tudor period (to re-inject an historical note.) Schoolmasters were paid by the parents of the children they taught, so their wages varied considerably. The best teachers could find their way into decent posts, leaving the dregs for the poor schools.

    Rural schools in America might have had good teachers (like my grandmother) or bad ones. Teachers boarded with the families they taught and were paid very little. Somewhere between colonial times and the twentieth century, it evolved into a pre-marital job for women. Temporary, no career ladder, so low pay & what I call lip-service respect. No power, no influence. In the 70s and 80s, smart women could find other jobs. I believe the quality of teachers has declined, thanks to the crappiness of the job. Too much disciplining, too much top-down control, bad pay, sometimes hazardous working conditions. It’s a wonder anyone ever becomes a public school teacher these days!

    • I taught for thirty years in the public schools (1975 – 2005), and I wouldn’t recommend teaching in the public schools in the Untied States to someone I hated. It’s much worse today than when I left teaching in 2005 and we can thank that decline to people like Bill Gates but to be fair it all started in 1983 when the Reagan administration released a flawed and fraudulent report called “A Nation at Risk” and then every president since has ignored the follow up study, The Sandia Report, in 1990 that revealed A Nation at Risk was riddled with errors and misinformation.

  4. Sorry, I should have also suggested “The Teacher Wars: A History of American’s Most Embattled Profession” by Dana Goldstein.