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POLITICS IN SCHOOLGIRL DEBATING CULTURES IN ENGLAND, 1886–1914

  • HELEN SUNDERLAND (a1)

Abstract

Debating was an important part of schoolgirls’ political education in late Victorian and Edwardian England that has been overlooked in the scholarship on female education and civics instruction. Debates offered middle- and working-class schoolgirls an embodied and interactive education for citizenship. Considering both the content of discussions and the process of debating, this article argues that school debates provided a unique opportunity for girls to discuss political ideas and develop political skills. Debates became intertwined with girls’ peer cultures, challenging contemporary and historiographical assumptions of girlhood apoliticism. Positioning girls as political subjects sheds new light on political change in modern Britain. Schoolgirl debates show how gendered political boundaries were shifting in this period. Within the unique space of the school debating chamber, girls were free to appropriate and subvert ‘masculine’ political subjects and ways of speaking. In mock parliaments, schoolgirls re-created the archetypal male political space of the House of Commons, demonstrating their familiarity with parliamentary politics. Schoolgirl debates therefore foreshadowed initiatives that promoted women's citizenship after partial suffrage was achieved in 1918, and they help to explain how the first women voters were assimilated easily into existing party and constitutional politics.

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Corpus Christi College, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, CB2 1RHhls60@cam.ac.uk

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I would like to thank Dr Ben Griffin for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. I am grateful to the archivists at North London Collegiate School, Manchester High School for Girls, Wimbledon High School, and Notting Hill and Ealing High School for their assistance.

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References

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1 Holton, Sandra Stanley, Feminism and democracy: women's suffrage and reform politics in Britain, 1900–1918 (Cambridge, 1986); Purvis, June and Holton, Sandra Stanley, eds., Votes for women (London, 2000); Pugh, Martin, The march of the women: a revisionist analysis of the campaign for women's suffrage, 1866–1914 (Oxford, 2000); Law, Cheryl, Suffrage and power: the women's movement, 1918–1928 (London, 1997); Gottlieb, Julie V. and Toye, Richard, eds., The aftermath of suffrage: women, gender, and politics in Britain, 1918–1945 (Basingstoke, 2013).

2 Walker, Linda, ‘Party political women: a comparative study of Liberal women and the Primrose League, 1890–1914’, in Rendall, Jane, ed., Equal or different: women's politics, 1800–1914 (Oxford, 1987), pp. 165–91; Collette, Christine, For Labour and for women: the Women's Labour League, 1906–1918 (Manchester, 1989); Thackeray, David, ‘Home and politics: women and Conservative activism in early twentieth-century Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 49 (2010), pp. 826–48.

3 Law, Suffrage and power, pp. 112–15; Pat Thane, ‘The impact of mass democracy on British political culture, 1918–1939’, in Gottlieb and Toye, eds., Aftermath of suffrage, pp. 54–69.

4 Childs, Michael, ‘Labour grows up: the electoral system, political generations, and British politics, 1890–1929’, Twentieth Century British History, 6 (1995), pp. 123–44.

5 Pugh, Martin, Women and the women's movement in Britain, 1914–1999 (2nd edn, Basingstoke, 2000), pp. 6671; Jarvis, David, ‘Mrs Maggs and Betty: the Conservative appeal to women voters in the 1920s’, Twentieth Century British History, 5 (1994), pp. 129–52; Purvis, June, ‘The Women's Party of Great Britain (1917–1919): a forgotten episode in British women's political history’, Women's History Review, 25 (2016), pp. 638–51.

6 Wallbank, M. V., ‘Eighteenth century public schools and the education of the governing elite’, History of Education, 8 (1979), pp. 119; Holt, Jenny, Public school literature, civic education and the politics of male adolescence (Aldershot, 2008), p. 31.

7 Vincent, David, Literacy and popular culture: England, 1750–1914 (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 259–69; Rose, Jonathan, The intellectual life of the British working classes (London and New Haven, CT, 2001), pp. 5891.

8 Wiggins, Sarah, ‘Gendered spaces and political identity: debating societies in English women's colleges, 1890–1914’, Women's History Review, 18 (2009), pp. 737–52.

9 Formative works in the field include Fletcher, Sheila, Feminists and bureaucrats: a study in the development of girls’ education in the nineteenth century (Cambridge, 1980); Hunt, Felicity, ed., Lessons for life: the schooling of girls and women, 1850–1950 (Oxford, 1987); Purvis, June, Hard lessons: the lives and education of working-class women in nineteenth-century England (Cambridge, 1989); Gomersall, Meg, Working-class girls in nineteenth-century England: life, work and schooling (Basingstoke, 1997). For isolated references to schoolgirl debates, see Avery, Gillian, The best type of girl: a history of girls’ independent schools (London, 1991), pp. 259–60; Kean, Hilda, Deeds not words: the lives of suffragette teachers (London, 1990), p. 7.

10 Heathorn, Stephen J., For home, country, and race: constructing gender, class, and Englishness in the elementary school, 1880–1914 (Toronto and London, 2000); Keating, Jenny, ‘Approaches to citizenship teaching in the first half of the twentieth century: the experience of the London County Council’, History of Education, 40 (2011), pp. 761–78; Yeandle, Peter, Citizenship, nation, empire: the politics of history teaching in England, 1870–1930 (Manchester, 2015).

11 Wright, Susannah, ‘Creating liberal-internationalist world citizens: League of Nations Union junior branches in English secondary schools, 1919–1939’, Paedagogica Historica (2018), pp. 120.

12 Dyhouse, Carol, Girls growing up in late Victorian and Edwardian England (London, 1981).

13 Gomersall, Working-class girls, pp. 78–122.

14 Dyhouse, Girls growing up, pp. 41–2.

15 Sutherland, Gillian, ‘Education’, in Thompson, F. M. L., ed., The Cambridge social history of Britain, 1750–1950 (3 vols., Cambridge, 1990), iii, pp. 119–70, at pp. 141–52.

16 Catherine Sloan, ‘The school magazine in Victorian England’ (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford, 2019).

17 Magazines and records from the schools cited in this article are held at the North London Collegiate School (NLCS) Archive, Notting Hill and Ealing High School Archives, Wimbledon High School Archives, and Central Foundation Girls’ School Archive. The records of the City of London School for Girls are held at the London Metropolitan Archives (CLA/054/B/02/001–005). For references to an earlier, short-lived debating society at NLCS, see K. G. B., ‘The conversation class’, Our Magazine (OM), no. 5 (Apr. 1877), pp. 112–13; ‘Editorial’, OM, 3 (July 1878), p. 47.

18 Magazines from Manchester High School for Girls cited in this article are held at the Manchester High School for Girls Archive.

19 ‘Schools’, Journal of Education, 296 (Mar. 1894), p. 230; ‘Schools’, Journal of Education, 322 (May 1896), p. 311; Major, Edith Helen, ‘History’, in Burstall, Sara A. and Douglas, M. A., eds., Public schools for girls: a series of papers on their history, aims, and schemes of study (London, 1911), pp. 8596, at p. 95; Sondheimer, Janet and Bodington, P. R., eds., The Girls’ Public Day School Trust, 1872–1972: a centenary review (London, 1972), p. 84.

20 Shuttleworth, Sally, The mind of the child: child development in literature, science, and medicine, 1840–1900 (Oxford, 2010).

21 Reporter, M.H.S.D.S., ‘M. H. S. debating society’, Manchester High School Magazine (MHSM), 2 (Dec. 1886), p. 122.

22 E. Read, ‘The N. L. C. S. G. debating society’, OM, 13 (Mar. 1888), p. 29; Ally Tchaykovsky, ‘Debating society’, OM, 19 (Nov. 1894), pp. 144–5; Margaret Morgan-Jones, ‘Debating society’, OM, 33 (June 1908), p. 67.

23 Biagini, Eugenio F., British democracy and Irish nationalism, 1876–1906 (Cambridge, 2007), p. 89.

24 Reporter, M.H.S.D.S., ‘M. H. S. debating society’, p. 122.

25 Morgan, Simon, A Victorian woman's place: public culture in the nineteenth century (London, 2007); Gleadle, Kathryn, Borderline citizens: women, gender and political culture in Britain, 1815–1867 (Oxford, 2009); Richardson, Sarah, The political worlds of women: gender and politics in nineteenth century Britain (New York, NY, and London, 2013).

26 Rogers, Rebecca, ‘Porous walls and prying eyes: control, discipline, and morality in boarding schools for girls in mid-nineteenth-century France’, in Maynes, Mary Jo, Søland, Birgitte, and Benninghaus, Christina, eds., Secret gardens, satanic mills: placing girls in European history, 1750–1960 (Bloomington, IN, 2005), pp. 115–30, at pp. 123–7.

27 Livingstone, David N., ‘Keeping knowledge in site’, History of Education, 39 (2010), pp. 779–85, at p. 784.

28 Brown, Heloise, ‘The truest form of patriotism’: pacifist feminism in Britain, 1870–1902 (Manchester, 2003), p. 9.

29 ‘Debating society’, MHSM, 2 (Nov. 1888), p. 269; NLCS debating society minutes book, 1887–1890 (spring term 1890); M. H. Jemmett, ‘The debate club’, Wimbledon High School Magazine (WHSM), 10 (Mar. 1899), p. 39; NLCS debating society minutes book, 1891–1899 (Christmas term 1899); Doris M. Levy, ‘Form notes: form Lower IV’, Central Foundation Girls’ School Magazine (CFGSM), 1 (Mar. 1904), p. 78; Gladys Miall Smith, ‘Debating society’, OM, 32 (Oct. 1907), p. 103; ‘The debating society’, Magazine of the City of London School for Girls (MCLSG), 12 (Dec. 1908), pp. 37–8; M. E. Lewis, ‘The debate club’, WHSM, 20 (Apr. 1909), p. 29.

30 Florence Anders, ‘Debating society’, OM, 24 (Mar. 1899), pp. 39–41; Margaret Morgan-Jones, ‘Debating society’, OM, 33 (Feb. 1908), pp. 26–8.

31 Pleasance E. Johnson, ‘The debating society’, Notting Hill High School Magazine (NHHSM), 20 (Mar. 1904), p. 37; ‘The debating society’, MCLSG, 8 (Dec. 1904), p. 47; Noel Hearn, ‘Debating society’, NHHSM, 24 (Mar. 1908), p. 31; M. Maizels, ‘Form notes: form IVB’, CFGSM, 1 (July 1909), p. 443; M. E. Lewis, ‘The debate club’, WHSM, 21 (Apr. 1910), p. 28; Hilda Bodley, ‘Debating society’, NHHSM, 27 (Mar. 1911), p. 37; Olive Eglington, ‘Debating society’, NHHSM, 28 (Mar. 1912), p. 30; ‘The debating society’, MCLSG, 16 (Apr. 1912), pp. 2–10.

32 Catherine Hall and Sonya O. Rose, eds., At home with the empire: metropolitan culture and the imperial world (Cambridge, 2006).

33 Mangan, J. A., ed., ‘Benefits bestowed’? Education and British imperialism (Manchester, 1988); English, Jim, ‘Empire Day in Britain, 1904–1958’, Historical Journal, 49 (2006), pp. 247–76.

34 H. Lee, ‘Debating society’, OM, 21 (Nov. 1896), pp. 117–19; Nona Byrne, ‘Debating society’, NHHSM, 25 (Mar. 1909), pp. 33–4; Levy, ‘Form notes: form Lower IV’, p. 78.

35 See for example, ‘Debating society’, NHHSM, 10 (Mar. 1894), p. 40; Gladys Miall Smith, ‘Debating society’, OM, 32 (Oct. 1907), pp. 104–5.

36 Read, ‘N. L. C. S. G. debating society’, pp. 29–30; Monica Curtis, ‘Debating society’, OM, 35 (Mar. 1910), p. 29; ‘The debating society’, MCLSG, 14 (Mar. 1910), pp. 7–9; Fanny Levine, ‘Form notes: form IVB’, CFGSM, 21 (Apr. 1910), p. 492.

37 Trentmann, Frank, Free trade nation: commerce, consumption, and civil society in modern Britain (Oxford, 2008), p. 2; Thackeray, David, ‘Rethinking the Edwardian crisis of conservatism’, Historical Journal, 54 (2011), pp. 191213, at pp. 194–9.

38 NLCS debating society minutes book, 1900–1909 (midsummer term 1900); H. Macdonald, ‘Report of debating society’, WHSM, 16 (Apr. 1905), p. 25; Marjorie Bailhache, ‘Debating society’, OM, 31 (Feb. 1906), pp. 30–1; D. Chick, ‘The debating society’, NHHSM, 22 (Mar. 1906), p. 33; E. J. G. Kirkwood, ‘The literary and debating society’, MCLSG, 11 (Mar. 1907), pp. 4–5; W. Todd, ‘Form notes: form IVB’, CFGSM, 1 (Apr. 1907), p. 277; Hearn, ‘Debating society’, p. 31; M. E. Lewis, ‘The debate club’, WHSM, 19 (Apr. 1908), p. 41; Clara Birnberg, ‘Form notes: form VB’, CFGSM, 1 (July 1908), pp. 373–4; May Parsley, ‘Debating society’, OM, 34 (Nov. 1909), pp. 120–2.

39 Kean, Deeds not words; Oram, Alison, Women teachers and feminist politics, 1900–1939 (Manchester, 1996).

40 Ruby C. Allen, ‘Form notices: VB’, MCLSG, 15 (Mar. 1911), p. 6.

41 H. Macdonald, ‘Debating society’, WHSM, 13 (Mar. 1902), pp. 31–2.

42 ‘N. L. C. S. G. debating society’, OM, 14 (Mar. 1889), pp. 38–9; X. Y. Z., ‘Our parliamentary debate’, OM, 18 (Mar. 1893), pp. 29–31.

43 Gladys Miall Smith, ‘Debating society’, OM, 32 (Oct. 1907), p. 104.

44 Eglington, ‘Debating society’, p. 30.

45 ‘Fifth and Fourth Form discussion society’, City of London School Magazine, 4 (June 1880), London Metropolitan Archives, CLA/053/03/01/004, p. 117.

46 ‘Debating society’, NHHSM, 30 (Mar. 1914), p. 29.

47 NLCS debating society minutes book, 1887–1890 (spring term 1887).

48 NLCS debating society minutes book, 1900–1909 (Christmas term 1907).

49 For example, see ‘School debates’, Schoolmistress, 65 (6 Nov. 1913), p. 108.

50 ‘On being up-to-date’, Teachers’ Aid (TA), 26 (11 June 1898), pp. 259–60.

51 J. B. T., ‘A scholars’ literary and debating society’, TA, 47 (30 Jan. 1909), p. 432; ‘The day's difficulties: oral composition wrinkles’, Woman Teacher's World (WTW), 8 (15 Nov. 1911), p. 294.

52 ‘The day's difficulties: subjects for debate’, WTW, 8 (31 Jan. 1912), p. 622.

53 ‘School debates’, p. 108.

54 ‘School entertainments’, TA, 22 (19 Sept. 1896), pp. 593–4. This article summarizes the preceding entertainment debates. One further debate was published that year: E. Wilkes Smith, ‘Debate for children's entertainment’, TA, 23 (26 Dec. 1896), pp. 296–8.

55 ‘The day's difficulties: school debates’, WTW, 8 (15 Nov. 1911), p. 295.

56 Reporter, M.H.S.D.S., ‘M. H. S. debating society’, p. 121.

57 Griffin, Emma, ‘The making of the Chartists: popular politics and working-class autobiography in early Victorian Britain’, English Historical Review, 129 (2014), pp. 578605.

58 Meisel, Joseph S., Public speech and the culture of public life in the age of Gladstone (New York, NY, 2002), pp. 1149; Hoegaerts, Josephine, ‘Speaking like intelligent men: vocal articulations of authority and identity in the House of Commons in the nineteenth century’, Radical History Review, 121 (2015), pp. 123–44, at pp. 125–6.

59 Goldman, Lawrence, Science, reform, and politics in Victorian Britain: the Social Science Association, 1857–1886 (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 115–17.

60 Balfour, Lady Frances, Ne obliviscaris: dinna forget (2 vols., London, 1930), ii, p. 138.

61 C. Birnberg, ‘Form notes: form IVB’, CFGSM, 1 (July 1906), p. 229.

62 A girl in form Lower V, ‘Debating’, WHSM, 12 (Apr. 1901), p. 25.

63 Wiggins, ‘Gendered spaces’, pp. 740, 745.

64 W. R. Richmond, ‘A teachers’ parliamentary debating society’, TA, 8 (13 Apr. 1889), pp. 33–5.

65 M. A. Turner, ‘Debating society’, OM, 20 (July 1895), p. 64.

66 Mumford, Edith E. Read, Through rose-coloured spectacles: the story of a life (Leicester, 1952), p. 26.

67 Light, Alison, Forever England: femininity, literature and conservatism between the wars (London, 1991), pp. 210–12.

68 Gladys Miall Smith, ‘Debating society’, OM, 32 (June 1907), p. 66.

69 NLCS debating society minutes book, 1900–1909 (spring term 1905); NLCS debating society minutes book, 1891–1899 (Christmas term 1895).

70 ‘Notting Hill High School debating society’, NHHSM, 9 (Mar. 1893), pp. 39–40.

71 ‘The day's difficulties: school debates’, WTW, 8 (15 May 1912), p. 1100.

72 M. H. Jemmett, ‘Debate club’, WHSM, 1 (Dec. 1889), p. 15.

73 Winifred Taylor, ‘Debating society’, NHHSM, 15 (Mar. 1899), p. 38.

74 ‘Debating society’, NHHSM, 30 (Mar. 1914), p. 29.

75 NLCS debating society minutes book, 1887–1890 (spring term 1887).

76 Hanham, H. J., Elections and party management: politics in the time of Disraeli and Gladstone (London, 1959), p. 105; Davis, John W., ‘Working-class make-believe: the South Lambeth Parliament (1887–1890)’, Parliamentary History, 12 (1993), pp. 249–58.

77 Matthew, H. C. G., ‘Rhetoric and politics in Great Britain, 1860–1950’, in Waller, P. J., ed., Politics and social change in modern Britain: essays presented to A. F. Thompson (Brighton, 1987), pp. 3458.

78 Wiggins, ‘Gendered spaces’, p. 748.

79 NLCS debating society minutes book, 1887–1890 (midsummer term 1888).

80 ‘The debating society’, OM, 13 (Nov. 1888), pp. 113–14.

81 Ibid., p. 113; ‘N. L. C. S. G. debating society’, p. 39.

82 Margaret A. Turner, ‘The debating society’, OM, 20 (Nov. 1895), pp. 105–8.

83 Lois Biddle, ‘Form notes: form IVA’, CFGSM, 1 (Dec. 1909), p. 469.

84 Red Tape, ‘Quintessence of parliament’, MCLSG, 20 (July 1916), pp. 36–9.

85 Wilford F. Field, ‘A school parliament’, TA, 16 (20 May 1893), pp. 186–7. For further instalments, see TA, 16 (27 May 1893), pp. 202–3; TA, 16 (3 June 1893), pp. 218–19.

86 ‘Parliament in school’, TA, 31 (9 Mar. 1901), p. 547; TA, 32 (8 June 1901), p. 227.

87 ‘Interesting lessons: the children's parliament’, WTW, 8 (14 Feb. 1912), p. 700.

88 NLCS debating society minutes book, 1887–1890 (midsummer term 1888).

89 Thompson, James, ‘“Pictorial lies”? Posters and politics in Britain, c.1880–1914’, Past & Present, 197 (2007), pp. 177210, at p. 194.

90 This is evident from the first parliamentary debate, ‘The debating society’, OM, 13 (Nov. 1888), pp. 113–14.

91 Read Mumford, Through rose-coloured spectacles, p. 22.

92 X. Y. Z., ‘Our parliamentary debate’, p. 31.

93 Rogers, ‘Porous walls and prying eyes’, p. 126.

94 Hon. Secretary, ‘The Sodalitas debating society’, CFGSM, 1 (Dec. 1907), p. 318.

95 Janet Evans, ‘Oddments’, CFGSM, 1 (Apr. 1910), pp. 488–9.

96 Philo, Chris, ‘“The corner-stones of my world”: editorial introduction to special issue on spaces of childhood’, Childhood, 7 (2000), pp. 243–56.

I would like to thank Dr Ben Griffin for his helpful comments on an earlier version of this article. I am grateful to the archivists at North London Collegiate School, Manchester High School for Girls, Wimbledon High School, and Notting Hill and Ealing High School for their assistance.

POLITICS IN SCHOOLGIRL DEBATING CULTURES IN ENGLAND, 1886–1914

  • HELEN SUNDERLAND (a1)

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