Congratulations to all the girls who did well in the recent matric examinations. They have shown that they can match or outperform their male counterparts. But amid the congratulations, pause to remember that most girls were denied the opportunity to matriculate a mere 100 years ago.
There were several reasons for this. Before 1873, when an examining body was set up in the Cape, young men who attended college in South Africa had to travel to Europe to write their university exams. Even after 1873, the courses on offer were limited and final medical degrees were not granted here before 1922.
There were also entrenched prejudices on health grounds about educating well-born girls – they were supposed to need rest during adolescence to enable their reproductive organs to develop – despite evidence to the contrary from overworked teenage servants.
Wealthy parents who could afford to educate their daughters privately or keep them at school for a decade didn’t expect them to earn a living. Their place was in the home, helping with charity work and social engagements.
Less affluent couples preferred to spend their limited funds on their sons and encouraged their daughters to enter professions like nursing and primary teaching which didn’t require matriculation. Others became typists, clerks and shop assistants and looked forward to the day when a husband would relieve them of the necessity of working for a wage which was half to two-thirds of that paid to men for similar duties.
Poor families had no access to secondary education and were quick to remove their daughters from primary school once they could read, write and sew. Some became juvenile laundresses, cooks or dressmakers and the rest sold flowers, cured fish or entered domestic service as servants or child minders, where they earned a pittance.
There were several good girls’ schools in Cape Town by 1900, including St Cyprians and Springfield (founded 1871), the Good Hope Seminary (1873), Ellerslie and Wynberg (1884), and Rustenburg (1894), but only a handful of senior pupils qualified to enter the South African College (now UCT).
The college was an all-male bastion until 1886, when four former pupils of the Good Hope Seminary were admitted to Professor Paul Daniel Hahn’s chemistry class on a trial basis “after much soul-searching”.
They did so well that the college decided to admit women students permanently in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1887. In the intervening years the number of women registered at UCT has risen from 10 to approximately 12 500 (half of the total student intake).
Today, most matric classes are co-educational, but some parents (and Oprah Winfrey) prefer a single-sex environment. The top private and former model C girls’ schools in Cape Town are inundated with applications – testimony to the premium modern families place on the education of their daughters.