Women’s Education in Geneva by Aline Conus

Research paper supervised by Mr. Hubert Bonin

In 18th and 19th century Geneva, the education that was made available to girls was almost entirely shaped by how people of the time understood a woman’s role in society. Girls were educated as the political decision makers saw fit – according to their own economic or political needs – and until the 20th century there was no real consideration of a woman’s right to personal or academic development.
Girls only became entitled to attend secondary school three centuries after boys first began attending. The ‘College’ was created to school the elite, while ‘L’Ecole secondaire et superieure des jeunes filles’ taught the daughters of Geneva’s bourgeois families. Unlike the ‘College,’ this second institution was focussed on preparing girls for marriage; it was not considered necessary that these students receive the same level of education as the elite classes.
It was among these more privileged families, who at least had some schooling, that the feminist movement came into being. Women with experience of education and culture at a secondary school level were still denied access to a place at university, with the frustrating explanation that their place in life was “elsewhere.” Their requests for higher education slowly spread across the classes, and developed into a more widespread demand that women should receive equal rights when it came to education.
The debates of the Grand Conseil at this time prove most interesting – especially those surrounding the changes to Geneva’s laws in 1898 and 1990. They demonstrate the prejudices that were upheld against women, and how strongly those prejudices permeated society, but also reveal the inherent weaknesses of those arguments as male privileges and the established status quo came under scrutiny.
In this short history, I have tried to summarise how women’s education in Geneva developed, from an emphasis on being submissive and docile (as they were in the 1700s) to winning the right to attend university in the early 20th century. There were many factors in this huge societal change, but here I have underlined the role of the feminist movement and the demands of the women themselves. This individual factor is interesting because it also shows the ways in which Geneva’s authorities were beginning to consider the idea of equality between women and men across their civil and political rights – not just in education. It is within this context that the work of the feminist movement can be fully understood.
Aline Conus