Women in the WEA

When the WEA was founded 115 years ago working class women had few rights: they could not vote and faced enormous barriers to employment and achieving equal status in almost all areas of life. Educational opportunities for all women were extremely limited.  Girls’ secondary schools existed for those whose fathers were prepared to pay and a few women’s colleges provided secondary and further education.  Technical colleges offered vocational training, mainly to men and boys. Some, not all, universities admitted women and by 1903 a small band had been awarded degrees, although not on equal terms with men.  For the vast majority of women all this was beyond their reach.  Some church and socialist organisations ran evening classes for working class people, fostering self-improvement, domestic skills and basic education.  For working class women in 1903, the challenge was to overcome the sheer exhaustion of daily life and the prejudices of society if they were to take advantage of any educational opportunities.

Women’s lives a century later are transformed: we participate on apparently equal terms at school, in further and higher education.  Laws protect our employment rights.  As mothers and wives virtually all of the legal obstacles to equality have been swept aside by successive campaigns waged by women over the preceding century.  Yet life, in practice and in attitudes, remains stubbornly unequal.  Men still earn more than women.  Men occupy more senior positions at work, even in those fields where women dominate, such as education and health. 

The role of women at the WEA has been incredibly inspirational. We have gathered a timeline that describes the key milestones for women in the WEA since its beginning in 1903.

Women and the WEA 

  • The WEA can be proud of its early record on gender equality. The organisation began life in 1903 as the ‘Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men’, changing the current name of the ‘Workers’ Educational Association’ (WEA) in 1905 to be more inclusive of women
  • When the WEA was founded working class women had few rights: they could not vote and faced enormous barriers to employment. In 1905 the challenge was to overcome the sheer exhaustion of daily life and the prejudices of society if they were to take advantage of any educational opportunities
  • 1907 – The Women’s Advisory Committee was established to investigate the provision of adult education classes for women
  • From 1910 onwards there was a large programme of women-only provision, either offered to the general public or organised for women’s organisations
  • The extraordinary expansion of WEA women-only education from 1910-1915 owes its impetus to the tide of political activism in the suffrage movement. Suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison became involved with the WEA during this period and is reported to have been a member of the Marylebone Branch’s Executive
  • From 1911 afternoon classes specifically for women not in paid work become a standard offering
  • In 1911 Littleborough branch organised a programme of lectures on women’s health and was thrown into disarray when 500 women turned up.
  • The majority of WEA students were women from as early as the 1920s
  • The first woman district secretary – Mary Silyn Roberts, became secretary in the North Wales district in 1930, the first woman to hold the post
  • In the 1970s and 1980s the ‘Second Chance’ family and school courses brought working class women into the WEA 
  • The Margaret James Fund, established in the 1940s to support women WEA students who were going to university, was used from 1992 to fund women’s education
  • Women’s Education Committee was established in 1993
  • Ruth Spellman becomes Chief Executive and General Secretary in 2012. The first female Chief Executive in the 115 year history of the WEA

The WEA now

The impact of education to adults, and in particular women attending WEA courses has been significant. Our 2017 research highlighted that:

  • 68% of female students increased their self-confidence as a result of attending a WEA course
  • 57% of female students, who have children, believed that their relationship with their children improved as a result of attending a WEA course, and 41% helped their children with schoolwork more often 
  • 86% of female students attending our courses made new friends 
  • 42% of females, who reported having mental health issues, felt their course helped improve their mental health.

Women’s contribution to the WEA and society has paved the way for future generations and we hope that women in the WEA now and going forward continue to press for progress.  

Would you like to share your WEA story with us? Email us at shareyourstory@wea.org.uk