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"Intellectual difficulties" : redefining the Victorian family’s role in the debate over women’s education Pecho, Jennifer Grace

Abstract

Born in 1849 to upper middle-class parents, Constance Maynard was one of the first women in England to receive a university degree. As an adult Maynard addressed women's education to various academic and governmental bodies and helped to establish a tradition of women's educational institutions in Britain. Her education and career, however, challenged prescriptive notions of "appropriate" gender roles in Victorian society which painted women as only wives and mothers. Maynard authored an unpublished autobiography and a diary written from the age of sixteen. Her writings help to illuminate the public debates surrounding the "Woman Question" and the education of women taking place in Victorian society. Historians of these debates have consistently painted the middle-class family as a bulwark against social change and portrayed the Victorian family as something against which Britain's first generation of college educated women could rebel. Like the historians who have examined her writings, Maynard participated in constructing a dichotomy between the conservative Victorian home and the liberating effects of women's education. She ignores her family's influence on her childhood and adolescent education and separates her adult achievements from her experiences in the Maynard family home. Victorian parents like the Maynards, who, despite institutional and ideological impediments, persisted in educating their daughters, however, confronted questions of defining "appropriate" familial, gender and social relations. Examination of Maynard's writings allows the historian to reconsider the Victorian family's role in the decisions affecting the lives of single, educated and professional women in modern Britain. Maynard's impressions of her childhood home and reflections on the decisions made about her education form the basis for the history of a woman who defied convention, but also for the history of a family which experienced and challenged ideal conceptions of gender roles and relations. Maynard's story enables the historian to write the family into the history of the debates over women's education. Rather than opposing family life to the values of single, Victorian women, Maynard's experiences lend themselves to a more integrated history of gender identity formation and the lived experiences of families in Victorian Britain.

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