A school of one's own - RSA

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Maria Grey (1816–1906) was a key educationalist and women’s rights advocate in 19thcentury England. Alongside her sister, Emily Shirreff, she founded the National Union for Improving the Education of Women; Grey’s involvement with the then Society of Arts was instrumental to the success of the Union. Grey championed equal educational rights for women, teacher registration and equitable educational endowments. Her efforts led to the creation of influential initiatives like the Girls’ Day School Trust and a teacher training college.

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Maria Grey, one of the founders of the Girls’ Day School Trust, first called for men and women to be given the same educational opportunities in a speech to the Society of Arts in 1871.

Maria Georgina Grey (1816–1906) was an educationalist, writer and pivotal figure in the fight for women’s rights in 19th-century England. 

Alongside her sister, Emily Shirreff, Grey created the National Union for Improving the Education of Women of All Classes, a pressure group dedicated to advocating for women’s educational rights. 

In her 1871 address to what was then known as the Society of Arts, Grey laid out the Union’s primary aims:

  1. The equal right of women to the education recognised as the best for human beings. 
  2. The equal right of women to a share in the existing educational endowments of the country, and to be considered, no less than boys, in the creation of any new endowments. 
  3. The registration of teachers, with such other measures as may raise teaching to a profession as honourable and honoured for women as for men.

Grey’s involvement with the Society was instrumental in the Union’s early success and sustained influence.

Equal opportunities

Central to Grey’s aims was the idea that men and women should be awarded the same opportunities — though this was often misunderstood by her opposition, who confused equal opportunity with unfair advantage. But Grey was not asking for special exceptions to be made, and her objective for women to be given the same advantages as men was a goal with which many members of the Society agreed. 

Grey’s involvement with the Society was instrumental in the Union’s early success and sustained influence. It provided her with her first audience, supporters for her ideas, a committee (comprised largely of its own members) and a platform, the Journal of the Society of Arts, for disseminating news about her meetings and initiatives. 

By the 1880s, the Union served as a focal point for various organisations interested in women’s education. As these organisations deepened their collaboration, the Union became superfluous, ultimately leading to its dissolution. But its legacy lived on through initiatives such as the Girls’ Public Day School Company, which established 38 day schools for girls. Today, it is known as the Girls’ Day School Trust, and continues to provide quality education to girls across England and Wales. Grey also helped found a teacher training college in 1878, later renamed The Maria Grey Training College for Women.

Whether they know it or not, women across the UK owe much to Maria Grey.

This article was first published in RSA Journal Issue 2 2024.

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