The Glasgow Association for the Higher Education of Women, 1878 to 1883

Article excerpt

At a dinner party in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1868, conversation turned to the issue of higher education for women. Mrs. Jean Campbell, the wife of a wealthy dye manufacturer, asked Glasgow University Professor John Nichol to offer a series of lectures on English literature for women, to which he readily agreed. Though previous efforts at creating a women's college in the city had failed, the time now seemed right to make a fresh attempt. This dinner party was the first step in the formation of the Glasgow Association for the Higher Education of Women, which would later become Queen Margaret College.(1)

The progress of women's access to university education in Glasgow was unique, for although women's colleges existed in England and America, there were no such institutions in Scotland by the 1860s. In Glasgow, the first step in opening university education to women was a series of lectures offered by local university professors, starting with those given by Professor Nichol. These lectures evolved towards the formation of an educational association in the city in 1877. Next, the Association began more traditional "viva voce" courses, similar to modern-day university extension courses, and correspondence courses for students living outside the city. Finally, the Association evolved into a full-fledged, independent, women's college (like those in the northeastern United States), taking the name Queen Margaret College.

While the university systems of England and Scotland are considerably different, a brief look at English events is helpful in understanding the motivation of Scottish groups. The first two colleges for women in England were Queen's College (1848) and Bedford College (1849), both located in London, and several more were established in England during the next three decades. The most famous of these, Girton College, was founded by Emily Davies in 1872. Surviving on its own for one year, Girton soon became a part of Cambridge University.(2)

Access to university education throughout Britain was based on the successful completion of entrance examinations, which until the 1860s were only open to men. In 1863, Cambridge became the first institution to open these examinations to women, though they still were not admitted to classes. Instead, the university began to hold public lectures in history, literature, and other subjects. Finally, in 1873, Cambridge began providing university extension courses to the community. The 1868 Glasgow dinner party took place in the midst of these English developments, which were well publicized in the rest of Britain.(3) The English attempts to offer higher education to women thus provided a model for Scottish efforts.

Each of the four university cities in Scotland--Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews--saw the establishment of a Ladies' Educational Association by the 1870s. In each case, the supporters of women's higher education began by setting up lectures that women could attend, and they maintained close ties with the faculties and administrations of their city's institutions.(4) The members of the Ladies' Educational Associations were primarily the wives, widows, or daughters of wealthy citizens who had disposable income of their own. Often, members of the Scottish nobility played an honorary role to lend prestige to the organization's efforts. The Duchess of Argyll, for example, was asked to be the honorary president of the Edinburgh Association, and her daughter-in-law, Princess Louise (Queen Victoria's daughter), played the same role in Glasgow.(5)

The Ladies' Education Associations in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Glasgow all employed similar tactics, reflecting the flow of ideas around the country. In both England and Scotland, the organizers of courses for women wanted "to give as far as possible the advantages of University Education to those who cannot attend a University."(6) As the nineteenth century progressed, women became more active in professions outside the home, especially teaching and medicine. …