Women mathematics teachers in the 19th Century

The description below is taken from Natalie English, The Teaching of Mathematics by Women in 19th Century Britain (B.Sc. Project, University of St Andrews, 2016):

The 19th Century was a time of increasing institutionalisation and formality of education into recognised (eventually government regulated) schools. As the number of schools increased, so did the demand for teachers. Women were poised and ready to take over classrooms, spurring the eventual feminisation of the teaching profession. Women were thought well suited to the profession of teaching as it "seemed to fit into their 'womanly duties'" [4, page 10] and they were also paid significantly lower salaries than their male counterparts [5]; "Women flocked to teaching. Not only were they grateful for the salary, however meagre, they also welcomed the independence and sense of purpose teaching gave them." [7] Teaching opened up opportunities in the wider world to women, not only changing the way they were viewed in society but their perception of themselves and their abilities. Dorothea Beale herself argued that, "women alone can understand, and therefore educate women." [1, Chapter 4]

Many historians of mathematics tend to focus on big mathematical discoveries of the past but the teaching of mathematics is an important part of history and nowadays a modern mathematician is likely to be an educator. In all forms of history, but especially in that of mathematics, women although accounting for half of the population are treated as a minority. It is true that, "women, in particular, have to rise at least to the level of Sophie Germain before they are taken seriously. Yet without people who do and teach mathematics at every level, the elite could not flourish." [11, page 17]

The 19th Century was an important time period for mathematics education. This was the period in which teacher training was formalised; with many teacher training colleges and departments being opened, including those specifically for female teachers such as Whitelands College. [5] Various government interventions also helped to promote education, for example in 1833 the government began making annual grants to church schools. [3] Many of the Factory Acts also included provision for compulsory schooling for child workers, for example, Graham's Factory Education Bill (1843). In 1868, a report produced by the Schools Inquiry Commission (SIC) was published. The SIC was appointed to inquire into the education in secondary schools as a whole and "as a result of public pressure from schoolmistresses and feminists, it included within its scope the first official investigation of female education." [1, Introduction] When studying the part that women played in developing teaching as a profession, it is clear to see that, "women did not simply adopt an existing model of educational professionalism. On the contrary, they were deeply implicated in the development of teaching as a career for women, and helped shape the way it evolved as an occupation for men." [1, Chapter 4] The project, to which this forms an introduction, will explore how Dorothea Beale (1831-1906) overcame the barriers of a male dominated world to develop the opportunities for women teaching mathematics in Britain.

In the 19th Century, to earn a living was seen as an unladylike activity for the middle and upper classes: working in order to earn money was seen as a male prerogative, while women were expected to focus on domesticity. However, teaching was considered as an extension of the maternal role and was therefore viewed as the most acceptable career for a woman; at this time teaching was one of the only paid employment opportunities open to women. [10, page 1] Many unmarried women chose a career in teaching, for the primary reason that they needed to earn a living. However, this was not the case for Dorothea Beale, who declined several marriage proposals and instead believed women were better suited to active lives as teachers or nurses. [1, Chapter 2] It is said that her, "decision was underpinned by a sense of religious mission, which echoes the notions of vocation and service expressed by many Protestant philanthropists in this period." [1, Chapter 2]

The way women were viewed by society at this time was as wives and mothers and the impact of women teaching mathematics did much to advance women's rights. "The persistent belief that a woman's natural destiny was marriage had to be fought against and the ideal established of the new woman who could be a celibate careerist, professionally trained and financially independent of a husband's economic support." [9, page 118] Beale's unmarried status brought her criticism; she was a middle class, working and childless woman performing the function of a mother in her position as a female teacher and this was a focus of anxiety and tension for others. [1, Chapter 2]

During this time, there existed patterns of gender differentiation with regards to the curriculum. In general, boys were taught a much wider range of subjects whilst girls were prepared simply for motherhood and domesticity instead of academic subjects. [8, page 72] The 1870 Education Act introduced a curriculum focused on the three Rs; reading, writing and arithmetic, thus women began to learn simple arithmetic with an aim to improve domestic skills. It has been noted that, "arithmetic seldom went farther than 'money sums' in the first four rules." [10, page 2] However, throughout the 19th Century, mathematics was certainly still seen as an unsuitable subject for girls to study. For example, British philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer believed that, "if a woman undertook rigorous 'brain work' such as mathematics, energy could be diverted from her reproductive system, threatening fertility and general wellbeing." [6]

Beale's quest to make teaching an acceptable career choice for women was aided by institutions such as the College of Preceptors, founded in 1846 by a group of private schoolmasters. The College helped the professionalisation of teaching for both women and men in mathematics and other subjects in the 19th Century; offering education and examinations for schoolmistresses with an aim of regulating teaching and raising standards. [2] The examinations set by the College of Preceptors were the first secondary teaching diplomas available to women. [1, Chapter 2] Organisations such as this did much to strengthen the professional identity of teachers and provided a platform for exchanging ideas. [1, Chapter 4] The Educational Times was another important source for developing women's education, publishing papers and model answers of Preceptors' exams.

Article by: Natalie English, J J O'Connor and E F Robertson.


1. C de Bellaigue, Educating Women: Schooling and Identity in England and France, 1800-1867, Oxford Scholarship Online (2007).

2. J Delve, The College of Preceptors and the Educational Times:
Changes for British mathematics education in the mid-nineteenth century, Historia Mathematica 30 (2) (2003).

3. D Gillard, Education in England: a brief history (2011).

4. D Gore, (ed.), The Goldfinch: Working Women in Iowa, State Historical Society of Iowa 8 (2) (1986).

5. Institute of Education, Institute of Education Archives Subject Guide No.7 'Women and Education' (University of London, London, 2009).

6. C Jones, Women's access to higher education: An overview (1860-1948), HerStoria Magazine (2012).

7. C Levin and M Pinto, Only A Teacher Teaching Timeline (2015).

8. J Martin, Women and the politics of Schooling in Victorian and
Edwardian England (Leicester University Press, London, 1999).

9. J Purvis, A history of women's education in England (Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1991).

10. F C Steadman, In the days of Miss Beale: A study of her work and influence (E J Burrow, London, 1931).

11. J Stedall, The History of Mathematics A Very Short Introduction
(Oxford University Press, New York, 2012).

Last Updated October 2016