Feminism in Cheltenham: Dorothea Beale


This March, we’ve celebrated the achievement and strength of young girls and women, whether it be through International Women’s Day or Mother’s Day. Within our own town of Cheltenham, we hold a key part of feminist history through Dorothea Beale, a suffragist, author, educational campaigner and principal of Cheltenham Ladies’ College (CLC).

Born 189 years ago, on 21st March 1831, she lived and worked in Cheltenham from 1858, until her death in 1906.  Although not born here, her roots in Cheltenham were from her father, a surgeon from a Gloucestershire family. 

Beale herself had strong values and wasn’t afraid to make bold moves in order to stick by them. In 1856 she decided to leave her well-established job as head of the younger school at Queens College London, one of today’s best independent schools, as she was dissatisfied with its administration. This led her to a school in Cumbria where she continued to voice her ideas on the reform of education, before resigning after little change was made.

During her search for work, and at 27 years old, she wrote The Student’s Text-Book of English and General History: From B.C. 100 to the Present Time, but it wasn’t until she came to Cheltenham that her influence and concepts in education for women were acknowledged. Her ideas led to the success of the Ladies College and during her time as principal it grew from 82 pupils to over 1000. 

Publishing her paper, On The Education of Girls, she stated: “I think that the education of girls has too often been made showy, rather than real and useful.”

1865 was the year women’s suffrage was gathering momentum and (with John Mill, an MP, directly supporting the cause) Beale saw a chance to state her case. Careful not to appear an extremist she took cautious steps to improve the education for women. The curriculum included content that pleased parents, dance and music for example, but Beale introduced subjects such as grammar, languages, and maths despite facing opposition. The success of these additions meant that it quickly spread throughout the country, and by speaking to educators across Europe and America her influence was vast. 

National Portrait Gallery / Public domain

The school grew both in reputation and size, building a new library; music rooms and laboratories. Girls began taking examinations, earning qualifications previously not offered to them. Beale even created establishments for teachers, introducing a training school for them. By 1906, “most of her teaching staff were former CLC pupils, as were 40 Head Teachers of girls’ schools in Britain and around the world.”

Whilst the Education Act of 1870 helped to enhance education for girls, for women to be accepted as “scholars, teachers and co-workers, it would take patience, diplomacy and proof of ability.” As her time as principal came to an end, Dorothea Beale still spoke about the need for women to be “thoughtful, disciplined, self-controlled, with the confidence and persistence of faith…to contend with the evils which are undermining the foundations of society.” Her impact has been an inspiration for many generations of women and Cheltenham should be proud to hold this legacy. 

So Happy International Women’s Month! What a great month it’s been celebrating all the different women through time and the important roles they have played in our lives!

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