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Women’s Education: A History of the Feminist Polemic

Questions for Discussion, Writing and Research

1. While there is certainly an august tradition of the feminist polemic, not all women writers included in the Anthology subscribed to the notion of a feminist manifesto. Read Anna Letitia Barbauld’s The Rights of Woman (NALW1 309). How does such a text critique such polemics? Despite having been encouraged by her family to read; write; learn French, Italian, Latin, and Greek; and even run a boys’ school, Barbauld refused to run a girls’ school, believing that women should aspire to be good wives and mothers. As Barbauld argues,

Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought;
Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move,
In Nature’s school, by her soft maxims taught
That separate rights are lost in mutual love. (29–32)

Is Barbauld hypocritical? After all, she benefited from education, but she didn’t necessarily advocate it for other women. What do you think?

2. One might not normally connect the pioneering nurse, health educator, hospital administrator, and sanitation reformer Florence Nightingale to the history of the feminist polemic, but the literary critic Elaine Showalter argues that Nightingale’s Cassandra (NALW1 1017) represents a major contribution to British feminism, providing a “link between Wollstonecraft and Woolf” (NALW1 1016). The text belies Nightingale’s own early declaration to the prominent American feminist Harriet Martineau that she was “brutally indifferent to the wrongs or rights of . . . . [her] sex” (1016), for, in Cassandra, Nightingale bemoans the fate of “Mrs. A,” who

has the imagination, the poetry of Murillo (a well-known seventeenth-century Spanish painter), and has sufficient power of execution to show that she might have had a great deal more, Why is she not a Murillo? From a material difficulty, not a mental one. If she has a knife and fork in her hand for three hours of the day, she cannot have a pencil or brush. (1018)

How do you account for this apparent paradox between her disavow to Harriet Martineau and the above quote? Do you think it represents a change in Nightingale’s position on the issue of gender over time? Do some research on Nightingale’s life. What events may have influenced such a change in Nightingale’s thought?

3. Nightingale echoes Mary Astell’s determination of the monastery as providing the “union of the life of action and that of thought of any other mode of life” (1018) and anticipates Virgina Woolf’s cautionary tale of Shakespeare’s Sister (NALW2 237) when Nightingale avows that, because of the different spheres allowed the genders, “Christ, if He had been born a woman, might have been nothing but a great complainer.” Nightingale is at her most radical when she predicts “till at last there shall arise a woman, who will resume, in her own soul, all the sufferings of her race, and that woman will be the Savior of her race” (1021), speculating, “the next Christ will perhaps be a female Christ” (1023). What do you think about such a revolutionary statement? Is Nightingale’s statement blasphemous? Why or why not?

4. Read the excerpts from Margaret Fuller’s Woman in the Nineteenth Century (NALW1 560). How does Fuller participate in the theological arguments that early feminist polemicists put forth? How is Fuller’s text particular to its time in its application of Transcendentalist ideals to feminism?

5. Read excerpts from Olive Schreiner’s Woman and Labor (NALW1 1358). How does Schreiner’s notion of “sex-parasitism” build on early arguments about how a poor education makes women silly and sentimental?

6. Read Dorothy Richardson’s predictions in Women and the Future (NALW2 123), specifically “Women in the Future”(NALW2 127). How does it participate in the tradition of feminist polemic outlined above?

7. Besides Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf is the writer probably most associated with the form of feminist polemic. Read the excepts from A Room of One’s Own (NALW2 237). How does Woolf’s creation of Judith Shakespeare dramatize the dilemma early women writers found themselves in? How does Woolf's characterization of Judith emphasize the class issues Wollstonecraft raise?

8. Perhaps the most radical, and certainly the oddest, polemic in the Anthology is Mina Loy’s Feminist Manifesto {NALW2 255]. In it, Loy argues for the surgical devirginization of women through the destruction of the hymen during puberty. What does Loy argue such a measure would achieve? What other propositions in her text do you find shocking? What do you make of the manifesto’s idiosyncratic appearance on the page? What does that achieve?

9. Read Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet [I, being born a woman and distressed] (NALW2, 446). How does this poem participate in the polemic tradition described above?

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