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Women’s Education: A History of the Feminist Polemic


Lady Mary Chudleigh’s 1701 poem The Ladies’ Defense (NALW1 231) articulates the dilemma of women who aspired to be taken seriously as intellects and found the doors of education closed to them:

’Tis hard we should be by the men despised,
Yet kept from knowing what would make us prized:
Debarred from knowledge, banished from the schools,
And with the utmost industry bred fools.
Laughed out of reason, jested out of sense,
And nothing left but native innocence:
Then told we are incapable of wit,
And only for the meanest drudgeries fit . . . . (512–519)

In her poem “The Introduction”(NALW1 238), the lyric poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, echoes Chudleigh’s lament:

How are we fallen, fallen by mistaken rules?
And education’s, more than nature’s fools,
Debarred from all improvements of the mind,
And to be dull, expected, and designed. (51–54)

Finch’s poem references such strong women as the Old Testament heroine and judge, Deborah, as evidence that women are capable of more than “the dull manage of a servile house” (19).

Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (NALW1 263) also takes up the issue of women’s education, offering a practical solution, what she called a “religious retirement” that would allow single women to avoid marriage. Astell employed a theological strategy that others such as Mary Wollstonecraft would later use to argue for women’s education, begging the question: “can ignorance be a fit preparative for Heaven?” (265).

Such debates concerned women in the New World as well. Judith Sargent Murray took up such an argument across the Atlantic in her On the Equality of the Sexes (NALW1 337). A full decade before Wollstonecraft’s more famous polemic (but not published until 1790), Murray argues that women’s sentimentality, much satirized in the eighteenth century, resulted from the lack of rational education for women. She, like Lady Chudleigh, bemoans the catch-22 women find themselves in:

But imbecility is still confined,
And by the lordly sex to us consigned.
They rob us of the power t’improve,
And then declare we only trifles love. (35–38)

Murray, too, uses a theological argument to make her case for women’s education, asking, “[I]s it reasonable that a candidate for immortality, for the joys of heaven, an intelligent being, who is to spend an eternity in contemplating the works of Deity, should be so degraded as to be allowed no other ideas than those which are suggested by the mechanism of a pudding, or the sewing the seams of a garment?” (340).

Of course, Mary Wollstonecraft is perhaps the figure most associated with early feminist polemics. Drawing on Enlightenment ideas, and building on John Mill’s 1869 The Subjection of Women, as well as her own A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft makes the most sustained argument for female equality through education in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (NALW1 373). In it, she argues that the miseducation of women has infantilized them, and reasons that for women to be better mothers, they must be educated in a rational way: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” (375). Unlike those before her, who made their proposals to the “ladies,” Wollstonecraft was the first to extend her argument to women of the middle class, and she was also one of the first to secularize the argument.

In her influential treatise Woman in the Nineteenth Century (NALW1 560),American feminist Margaret Fuller extends her argument to include women of other races well as of other classes: “Those who think the physical circumstances of Woman would make a part in the affairs of national government unsuitable, are by no means those who think it impossible for the negresses to endure fieldwork, even during pregnancy, or for sempstresses to go through their killing labors” (560).

Fuller wasn’t the first to make such arguments, but she did help to legitimate them. Sojourner Truth’s stirring oration “Ain’t I a Woman?” (NALW1 510). links the suffrage and abolitionist movements, deftly subverting the hypocrisy inherent in racist logic: “That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me the best place! And ain’t I a woman?” (510). Though born into slavery, illiterate all her life, and speaking in her second language (her first was Dutch), Truth was such a dynamic force in the abolition and suffrage movements that legend has it that she bared her breast at a women’s rights convention to debunk rumors that she was secretly a man.

South African feminist Olive Schreiner synthesized the ideas of many of these advocates for women’s education. Schriener coined the term “sex-parasitism” to make the case (like Wollstonecraft before her) that the inferior position of women was unhealthy for society as a whole. Linking her argument to colonialism and slavery in Woman and Labor, Schreiner argued that women of a certain class

have sunk into a state in which, performing no . . . . active social duty, they have existed through the passive performance of sexual functions alone . . . . Then, in place of the active laboring woman, upholding society by her toil, has come the effete wife, concubine or prostitute, clad in fine raiment, the work of others’ fingers; fed on luxurious viands, the result of others’ toil, waited on and tended by the labor of others. (NALW1 1360)

Scheiner was so indebted to the ideas of Wollstonecraft that she planned to publish an edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman at the turn of the twentieth century. She recognized that Wollstonecraft and those before her would blaze the way for later figures such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, and Mina Loy to continue the tradition of the feminist polemic into the twentieth century.

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