Behind the School Walls? A Comparative Study of Girls’ Education in England and France, c. 1810-1867
Christina de Bellaigue

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Oxford University

Primary Discipline

As a National Academy of Education / Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow based at the Stanford Institute for Research on Women and Gender, my aim will be to extend and revise my doctoral dissertation for publication. My thesis explores the development of secondary education for girls in England and France from 1810 to 1867. Uncovering the expansion of private schooling for girls, the recruitment of schoolmistresses, the strategies involved in establishing a school and claiming professional standing, and the instruction girls received, my work illuminates unexplored areas of the history of women’s education. It reveals that in both countries, private lay boarding schools had an influence on the development of female education that has often been overlooked. By adopting a comparative perspective, my research also underlines the national peculiarities of the history of education on either side of the Channel. It demonstrates that the period saw the emergence of two distinct models of female schooling in France and England, which might respectively be characterised as ‘conventual’ and ‘domestic’. Exploring the contrasts between these conceptions of the school, my work sheds new light on the evolution of secondary schooling in Europe.By comparing the experiences of women on either side of the Channel, my research also engages with the question of national differences in notions of femininity. Using the comparative study of girls’ boarding schools as a prism through which to explore how conceptions of femininity were shaped and acted out in practice, my thesis uncovers the complex interaction of the forces shaping women’s lives in the nineteenth century; it demonstrates the interpenetration of gender with all aspects of life, decisively undermining any notion that gender, or religion, or notions of the state, can be treated as dominant.I will use the fellowship year to build on these finding and to broaden the scope of the thesis. After reviewing my interpretation in the light of recent work on gender and education, I will draw on new research to write two new chapters. First, expanding my study of the role and status of women teachers, I will examine literary and artistic representations of schoolmistresses. Images of forlorn governesses proliferated in the 1840s, generating support for the reform of female education. Yet caricatures of ‘strong-minded women’ were also multiplying, revealing hostility to the idea of female learning. I will look at how such images influenced debates about women’s education and examine the ways in which schoolmistresses might benefit from or be constrained by them. A second new chapter will examine the lives of those women who crossed the Channel and analyse their contribution to the development of educational studies. Women teachers were active in disseminating the pedagogical practices of Pestalozzi and Fröbel in a period that saw the emergence of comparative education as discipline. Did those crossing the Channel in this period help to foster pedagogical innovation? I will explore this question while uncovering the ways in which education might enable women to cross both national and gender boundaries through their work.As a National Academy of Education/Spencer Post-Doctoral Fellow, I look forward to contributing to current debates and to benefiting from intellectual exchange with leading scholars in both education and gender studies. With the support of the NAE and Spencer Foundation, I hope to produce a book offering a stimulating and original contribution to ongoing debates about national differences in notions of femininity and significantly extending our knowledge of the history of education in Europe in the nineteenth century.
About Christina de Bellaigue

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