‘Why Can’t a Woman Be Like A Man?’

Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that!
There heads are full of cotton, hay, and rags!
They’re nothing but exasperating, irritating,
vacillating, calculating, agitating,
Maddening and infuriating hags!
Pickering, why can’t a woman be more like a man?”

Asks Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady; the musical based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. The gist of the tale is –  Higgins picks up a Cockney flower girl in order to prove he can change her accent to deceive others of her station – but he is not doing it for Eliza, out of the goodness of his heart – it is for his own sense of importance. Eliza doesn’t get an education, she gets trained like a performing monkey. Made in 1964, the musical is revealing in it’s shocking attitudes towards female education.

So when and how have females been educated? Have we really progressed? Were women educated equally to men – once upon a time? Find below a brief race through our educational history.

  • In ancient Greece – although it was generally unacceptable for women to be educated, the Pythagoreans and Epicureans allowed women, such as Lastheneia of Mantinea and Axiothea of Phlius, both disciples of Plato, to participate in schooling as well as symposia. Female poets were more common, including Erinna, Corinna, and Praxilla. Pythagoras believed that reason was the most important human characteristic, and that it was unaffected by gender. He felt that both males and females should receive the same skills and there should be no differentiation between the topics of education.

  • In ancient RomeEducation of women began around the 2nd century BC. The education of elite Roman women was normal. Education meant literacy, numeracy, knowledge of both Latin and Greek languages and reading in both languages, and also history. Girls were educated along with boys in some households, but as they grew older they started to learn different things. Literary education beyond the basics of reading and writing was available to some elite girls. These girls received such education, however, not to prepare themselves for future occupations, but to increase their value as wives.

  • 5th to 15th century – During the Middle Ages, schools were established to teach Latin grammar, while apprenticeship was the main way to enter practical occupations. Two universities were established: the University of Oxford followed by the University of Cambridge. A reformed system of “free grammar schools” was established in the reign of Edward VI of England. The earliest schools in England – at least, those we know anything about – date from the arrival of St Augustine and Christianity around the end of the sixth century. It seems likely that the very first grammar school was established at Canterbury in 598. Educational opportunities for many were slim, for women it was marriage or the nunnery.

  • Early 16th century – many boys still went to chantry schools, whilst girls; in a rich family, had a tutor who usually taught them at home. In a middle class family their mother might teach them. Upper class and middle class women were educated. However lower class girls were not, neither were lower class boys.

  • 17th and 18th century – following the reign of Queen Elizabeth I who was a brilliant and highly educated woman, women’s education suffered a serious setback. Powerful men opposed the education of women beyond reading and writing their names. King James I, successor to Elizabeth, rejected a proposal that his daughter be given a classical education saying, “To make women learned and foxes tame has the same effect – to make them more cunning.”

  • 19th century – Education greatly improved for both boys and girls. In the early 19th century there were dame schools for very young children. They were run by women who taught a little reading, writing and arithmetic. However many dame schools were really a child minding service. Girls from upper class families were taught by a governess. Boys were often sent to public schools like Eaton. Middle class boys went to grammar schools. Middle class girls went to private schools were they were taught ‘accomplishments’ such as music and sewing. In 1811 the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principle of the Established Church (The Church of England) was formed. The state did not take responsibility for education until 1870. Forsters Education Act laid down that schools should be provided for all children. If there were not enough places in existing schools then board schools were built. In 1880 school was made compulsory for 5 to 10 year olds. However school was not free, except for the poorest children until 1891 when fees were abolished. From 1899 children were required to go to school until they were 12.

  • 21st century – onward and upwards. We are informed that girls are overtaking the boys; though there is still institutional bias; at Oxford and Cambridge the majority of students are male, and women hold only 20% of professor roles in UK. Boys and girls are pretty equal when it comes to A Level results, and girls are more likely to go to university.

blog women know your limits
Women Know Your Limits; Harry Enfield’s 1950s parody.

Some educated women from history –pre 19th century

  • Hildegard of Bingen; (1098 –1179) Saint Hildegard of Bingen, O.S.B., also known as Saint Hildegard, and Sibyl of the Rhine, was a German writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, Benedictine abbess, visionary, and polymath. She wrote theological, botanical and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, and poems, while supervising brilliant miniature illuminations.

  • Cleopatra VII; (5th c BC) studied philosophy, literature, art, music, medicine, and was able to speak six different languages. These languages were Aramaic, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. Being very educated, she soon learned of all her political surroundings and of her father’s status and power he had as Pharaoh. When the Greeks ruled Egypt in the first century B.C., they stressed education for both royal boys and girls.

  • Queen Elizabeth I ( 1533 – 1603) Her studies included languages, grammar, theology, history, rhetoric, logic, philosophy, arithmetic, literature, geometry, and music. She was also taught religious studies.

  • Margaret More (Thomas Mores daughter) one of the best educated women in Tudor England. The first female commoner to publish a book. Educated equally to her brother by her father; a Humanist education that included ;grammar, writing, reading, religion, Latin, Greek texts (usually women were not allowed to read these)

  • Hypatia (ca. AD 350–370–March 415) was a Greek Neo-Platonist philosopher in Roman Egypt who was the first historically noted woman in mathematics and the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics .As head of the Platonic school at Alexandria, she also taught philosophy and astronomy.

  • Mary Astell (1666–1731); was an English philosopher. She was born in Newcastle. Today she is best known for her theories on the education of women and her critiques of Norris and John Locke.

  • Mary Wollstonecraft, (1759-1797); Anglo-Irish feminist, intellectual and writer. Established a school at Newington Green, when she was 24 years old. In 1788 she became translator and literary advisor to Joseph Johnson, the publisher of radical texts. In this capacity she became acquainted with and accepted among the most advanced circles of London intellectual and radical thought.

  • Boudicca (d. AD 60 or 61) ;was queen of the British Iceni tribe who led an uprising against the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. Dio says that she was “possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women”.

blog Cleopatra_-_John_William_Waterhouse
You don’t get to be as prominent as Cleopatra without having plenty of smarts.

Q: Why can’t a woman be like a man?

A: Because they haven’t been allowed to (mostly)!


Gillard. D (2011) Education in England: a brief history www.educationengland.org.uk/history


Maggie Hunt; Greek Art and Archaeology, May 1, 2004