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On Female Education.


On Female Education.

James Dodson

By Samuel Miller.

[taken from his Brief Retrospect of the Eighteenth Century, vol. II. (1803) pp. 283-295.]


The extension and improvement of female education has also been promoted by the writings of Archbishop FENELON, Dr. GREGORY, Dr. FORDYCE, Mr. BENNETT, Dr. DARWIN, and some others. Even the celebrated work of ROUSSEAU has contributed to this end, notwithstanding the visionary and erroneous principles with which it abounds.

But while female talents have been more justly appreciated, and more generally improved, especially during the latter half of the eighteenth century, certain extravagant and mischievous doctrines relating to that sex have arisen within this period, and obtained considerable currency. These doctrines are the following, viz. “That there is no difference between the powers and tendencies of the male and female mind; that women are as capable of performing, and as fit to perform, all the duties and offices of life as men; that their education should be the same with that of the men; in a word, that, except in the business of love, all distinctions of sex should be forgotten and confounded.” These opinions, if not wholly new, and peculiar to the last age, have doubtless obtained a currency, within a few years past, which they never before had, and which has produced much interesting discussion, and very sensible effects in society.

The most conspicuous advocate of these opinions is the celebrated MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT[1.] whose ingenious vindication of the Rights of Woman is universally known; and whose licentious practice renders her memory odious to every friend of virtue. In her principles on this subject she has been followed by several of her own sex, as well as by a few male writers. To the former class belongs MARY HAYS, who, in her Novels and Philosophical Disquisitions, has endeavoured, with great art and plausibility, to recommend the principles of this mischievous school.

It cannot be denied that a total mistake concerning the capacity and importance of the female sex, has long held that part of our species under a most degrading thraldom, and obscured the portion of intellectual and moral excellence which they possess. It may also, with truth, be granted, that the idea of an original difference between the mental characters and powers of the two sexes has been pushed greatly too far, and been made a source of long-continued and essential injury to women. Females, if it were practicable or proper to give them, in all respects, the same education as that bestowed on men, would probably discover nearly equal talents, and exhibit little difference in their intellectual structure and energies. But is it possible, or consistent with the obvious indications of nature, to give them precisely the same education as is given to the male part of our species? That this is neither practicable nor desirable will appear from the following considerations.

First. Women are obviously destined to different employments and pursuits from men. This is evident from various considerations. Among all the classes of animals with which we are acquainted, the female is smaller, weaker, and usually more timid than the male. This fact cannot be ascribed to difference of education, to accident, or to perverted systems of living among the inferior animals; for it is uniform, and nearly, if not entirely, universal, applying to all countries, climates, and situations; and if ever we may expect to find nature pure and unperverted, it must be among the brutal tribes. The same fact applies to the human species. The bodies of women, in general, are smaller and feebler than those of men, and they are commonly more timid. This is not merely the case in the more polished states of society, in which false refinement, or injurious habits, may be supposed to have degraded the female character; but it is nearly, if not equally so among savages, where women, instead of being wholly or chiefly sedentary, are rather the more laborious sex. How shall we account for this fact? Does it not seem to indicate a difference of employment and destination? Is it conceivable that there should be so much difference of structure between beings intended for precisely the same sphere of action? No one can suppose this, who believes that the various departments of nature are all formed by a Being of infinite wisdom, and that in the economy of creation and providence, means are adjusted to ends.

Again; the important offices of gestation and parturition being assigned to women, plainly point out the difference of situation, pursuit, and employment for which we are contending. The various circumstances of infirmity and confinement resulting from these offices, present insurmountable obstacles in the way of that sex engaging in many employments destined for men. If all distinctions, except in the business of love, ought to be confounded, then females ought to be called to sit on the bench of justice, to fill the seats of legislation, to hold the reigns of executive office, and to lead the train of war. But would such a kind of activity as any of these stations suppose, comport with their sexual duties? The slightest reflection, it is presumed, will be sufficient to convince every unprejudiced inquirer, that there is a total incompatibility between them.

Secondly. To make the education and the employments of the two sexes precisely the same, would, if practicable in itself, be productive of the most immoral consequences. Let us suppose young females to mingle promiscuously with the youth of the other sex, in their studies, in their amusements, and in all the means adopted to strengthen the bodies and the minds of each. Let us suppose, that after the elements of knowledge were acquired, the same employments were assigned to each sex. Let us suppose the various stations of civil trust to be filled indifferently by men and women; the places destined for the instruction of lawyers, physicians and surgeons to be occupied by a jumbled crowd of male and female students; the clerkships in counting-houses, and public offices, executed by a joint corps of male and female penmen; and the bands of labourers in manufactories formed without any distinction of sex. What would be the consequences of these arrangements? It would convert society into hordes of seducers and prostitutes. Instead of the regularity, the order, the pleasing charities, and the pure delights of wedded love, a system of universal concubinage would prevail. Seminaries of learning would be changed into nurseries of licentiousness and disease; the proceedings of deliberative assemblies would be perverted or arrested by the wiles of amorous intrigue; the places of commercial or mechanical business would become the haunts of noisy and restless lewdness; and all sober employment would yield to the dominion of brutal appetite.

The far-famed author of the Rights of Woman, in the introduction to a book designed for the use of young ladies, does not scruple to say, that “in order to lay the axe at the root of corruption, it would be proper to familiarize the sexes to an unreserved discussion of those topics which are generally avoided in conversation, from a principle of false delicacy; and that it would be right to speak of every part of the body, as freely as we mention our eyes or our hands.” Such are her ideas of the decency and the moral tendency of breaking down all distinctions in the ordinary intercourse of the sexes! It may be pronounced, that all history and experience are directly opposed to this doctrine, and prove, that Miss WOLLSTONECRAFT was as ignorant of human nature, as she was inimical to true virtue. Let us take a retrospect of those countries and ages, in which the intercourse of the sexes, with respect to violations of what are commonly called the laws of decorum, came nearest to the point of freedom here recommended. In the ancient gymnastic exercises, it is well known, that the young women were obliged to run, to wrestle, to throw quoits, &c. and, in these exercises, to appear naked, as well as the men; and at their feasts and sacrifices, they were also obliged to dance, in the same state of perfect nudity, amidst crowds of male spectators. What was the consequence of these proceedings? According to the doctrine of that bold reformer, whose sentiments are under consideration, such freedom in exposing the naked limbs, and those parts of the body which are generally concealed, ought to have " laid the axe at the root of corruption/' and rendered the people who indulged in these habits, the most virtuous in the world, with regard to the intercourse of the sexes. But was this really the consequence? Directly the reverse! The exercises in question were converted into occasions of wantonness and libertinism, so gross and flagitious, that they became subjects of universal complaint, and filled even pagans with horror.

The truth is, whenever the intercourse of the sexes has been most guarded, and the fences of delicacy and modesty most carefully kept up, there the highest degree of virtue and order has invariably prevailed. It is so far from being a corrupt opinion, that throwing off reserve[2.] is the best way to “lay the axe at the root of corruption,” that uniform experience proves this course to be the most mischievous and corrupting that can be imagined. There is no way of avoiding this consequence, but by maintaining, that many things which Christianity, and those who take their standard or morality from it, pronounce vicious, are really innocent, if not laudable. Accordingly, Miss WOLLSTONECRAFT, and her disciples, seem to believe, that the restraints which marriage imposes ought not to be submitted to; and if we may consider the life of that remarkable woman as a commentary on her doctrines, it is plain that the destruction of chastity is the native fruit of her admired system.[3.] What could be the effect in society, if every female were to imbibe the sentiments, and act the part of this shameless advocate of lewdness? The essence of domestic bliss would be destroyed; the reign of licentiousness would be universally established; chastity would be banished from the earth; some of the strongest ties which bind society together would be dissolved; and the female sex degraded to the most abject condition.

Thirdly. To advocate the system which would confound all distinctions of sex, except in the business of love, is as much opposed to the spirit of Christianity as it is inconsistent with the pursuits of the female sex, and immoral in its consequences. Those who are familiar with the scriptures will recollect, that a line of distinction between the sexes is frequently and carefully drawn therein, and an habitual reference to this distinction represented as highly important in the system of human duty. Upon this distinction, considered in several points of view, are founded some of the most interesting conjugal obligations, and all the leading principles of domestic government. The scriptures, indeed, do not exhibit woman as an enslaved and servile being; they represent her as a rational and immortal creature, as the counsellor, companion, and help-mate of men, and teach us, both by precept and example, to consider her as holding a high and respectable station in society. But they exclude her, by direct prohibition, from the office of public religious instructor, and plainly intimate, that several other employments and pursuits are unfit to engage her attention. In short, they distinctly and unequivocally hold up the idea of an appropriate sexual character, and represent a corresponding peculiarity of studies and action, as properly belonging to the male and female.

It is evident, then, from reason, from the uniform course of nature, from experience, and from the word of God, that females are destined for different pursuits and employments from men, and that the sphere of their activity should be different. This, of consequence, will call for a different education, will lead to different habits, and will give rise to distinguishing characteristics. Do not the professional employments of men every day beget observable peculiarities of character and taste? And is it not perfectly natural, on the same principle, that there should be sexual peculiarities? Nor is there any necessity for supposing a radical inferiority of intellectual power in females. It will be readily granted, that with the same kind, and the same degree of cultivation with men, they would exhibit equal capacity of mind. But the necessary reserve of the female sex, their domestic duties, their sedentary life, the infirmities and confinement resulting from the peculiar sexual offices before alluded to, and the various peculiarities of their situation, are abundantly sufficient to produce in them a different genius and character of mind from those of men, whose active employments, daring enterprises, aspiring ambition, diversified scenes and occupations, familiarity with danger, and unceasing labours to gain fame, wealth, or pleasure, impart to their minds a vigour, a courage, a solidity, a wariness, and a persevering patience in exertion, which are rarely found in women.[4.]

What, then, is the conclusion of the matter? It is, that women, as well as men, are rational beings ; that they are made not to be the servants, but the companions of men; that, for this purpose, where it is practicable, their minds should be cultivated with care, liberally imbued with knowledge, and so strengthened and polished as to fit them to shine not only in the routine of domestic employments, but also in the social circle, and in the literary conversation. Every man who understands the true interests of society, will desire to see females receive the best education which their circumstances will afford. And every one who considers the importance of enlightening and forming the minds of the young, and who recollects that this task must, for a number of the first years of life, be almost entirely entrusted to mothers, will perceive the propriety of having them more accurately and extensively informed than they commonly are. But when women carry the idea of their equality with the other sex so far as to insist that there should be no difference in their education and pursuits; when they contend that every kind of study or occupation is equally fit and desirable for them to pursue as for men;[5.] when they imagine, and act on the presumption, that they have talents as well suited to every species of employment and enterprise, they mistake both their character, their dignity, and their happiness. The God of nature has raised everlasting barriers against such wild and mischievous claims. To urge them is to renounce reason; to contradict experience; to trample on the divine authority; and to diminish the usefulness, the respectability, and the real enjoyment of the female sex.

Notwithstanding, however, the falsehood and mischievous tendency of the doctrines taught in the Wollstonecraftian school, they have obtained much currency, particularly in Great-Britain, France and Germany; and have concurred with the general progress of luxury and false refinement to corrupt the morals and degrade the character of the female sex, especially towards the close of the period under consideration.[6.] In proportion as principles of this nature have been received, the becoming modesty and reserve of the sex have been diminished or laid aside ; their peculiar duties have been forgotten; and the comforts of domestic life have experienced serious encroachments.

It must also be acknowledged, that the increased intelligence and the taste for reading, which remarkably characterize the female sex of the present day, compared with their condition a century ago, are attended with some circumstances which the friends of virtue and happiness cannot contemplate with unmingled pleasure. By far too great a portion of the reading of females is directed to Novels, and other productions of light and frivolous character, which, at best, can only amuse, and which often exert a corrupting influence, instead of enlightening the mind, and forming it to a love of wisdom and virtue. Hence the frequent complaint, among the sober and discerning, that modern female education is calculated to make superficial, assuming and dissipated, rather than wise and useful women; and that they have just learning enough to detach them from the peculiar and proper duties of their sex, but not sufficient to expand, enrich, and regulate their minds. This complaint has, doubtless, some foundation.[7.] But instead of proving that a taste for literature is improper or injurious in females, it only serves to admonish us, that their studies should be more extensive and better directed; that an acquaintance with novels only will never make any woman a good housewife, mother, friend, or Christian; and that literature in them, as well as the other sex, though, in itself, an invaluable blessing, may be perverted into a heavy curse.

The elegant accomplishments of music and drawing were also more commonly made a part of female education, at the close of the eighteenth century, than at any former period with the history of which we are acquainted. We now see every day, in the houses of those who belong to the middle class of society, instruments of music, and productions of the pencil, which, a century ago, were rarely seen in the houses of the most conspicuous and wealthy. This increase of attention to music, as a part of female education, during the last century, is more especially remarkable in Great-Britain and America.



[1] As this lady is better known by her maiden name than by that which, she assumed after becoming; the wife of Mr. GODWIN, the former if retained.

[2] It is not forgotten that Miss WOLLSTONECRAFT speaks much of the importance and efficacy of reserve; but it is a reserve to be exercised equally between persons of the same sex as between persons of different sexes. And she, at the same time, inculcates doctrines which are utterly inconsistent with that reserve which the virtuous part of mankind have always considered as indispensably necessary to be maintained between the sexes.

[3] See Memoirs of MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT GODWIN, &c. by WILLIAM GODWIN. The author forbears to speak of this work in the manner which he thinks it deserves. It is a most instructive commentary on the principles held and published by the singular woman whose life, character and end it exhibits. It is vain to apologize for her crimes and infamy by pleading that she was led astray by a set of delusive opinions, and that she intended no hostility against society. The truth is, the person who is immoral upon principle belongs to the most criminal class of offenders. When a woman becomes a prostitute or adulteress, merely from the strength of passion, and in opposition to her convictions, detestable as her character is, she is less to be abhorred than she who deliberately numbers these crimes among the rights of woman, and considers them as belonging to the proper dignity and independence of the female sex.

[4] Miss HANNAH MORE, in one of her Essays, seems to admit the idea of an original inferiority of mental character in females. She expresses herself in this manner: “Women have generally quicker perceptions; men have juster sentiments. Women consider how things may be prettily said; men, how they may be properly said. Women speak, to shine or please; men, to convince, or confute. Women admire what is brilliant; men, what if solid. Women prefer a sparkling effusion of fancy to the most laborious investigation of facts. In literary composition, women are pleased with antithesis; men, with observation and a just deduction of effects from their causes. In Romance and Novel-writing women cannot be excelled. To amuse, rather than to instruct, or to instruct indirectly, by short inferences drawn from a long concatenation of circumstances, is, at once, the business of this sort of composition, and one of the characteristics of female genius. In short, it appears, that the mind, in each sex, has some natural kind of bias, which constitutes a distinction of character; and that the happiness of both depends, in a great measure, on the preservation and observance of this distinction.” Essay, p. 9—13. In the sentiment here expressed I cannot altogether agree with this excellent and illustrious woman. That there is some such difference as she has stated between the sexes, I am ready to allow; but this appears to me to arise not so much from any original inferiority in the structure of the female mind, as from a difference of education and employment; from a difference in the circumstances in which women are placed in society, with respect to inducements to action, the nature of their amusements, &c. a difference which is necessary and proper, and which, to set aside, would be to derange the order? and destroy the happiness of society.

[5] It is by no means the intention of the writer to say, that the profound investigations of mathematical or metaphysical science are unfit for all females. Where persons of this sex are so situated, with regard to property and employment, as to render investigations of this kind convenient and agreeable, there appears no rational objection to their engaging in them. But when females devote themselves to studies of this nature, to the neglect of religious and moral improvement, which are indispensably necessary for every sex and age; and to the omission also of geography, history, chemistry, and some of the more attractive branches of natural history, if they do not depart from the province of their sex, they certainly have a singular taste as to what is most useful and most ornamental in females, situated as they are in society.

[6] It is not pretended that the Amazonian style of dress and manners in females was never known previous to the appearance of Miss WOLLSTONECRAFT’S Rights of Woman. Whoever looks into the Spectator; the Guardian, &c. and indeed into some of the essays written long before those celebrated works, will see the unseemly dress and deportment of the women of those days severely lashed; and in language which, with scarcely any alteration, would apply to the close of the eighteenth century. How shall we account for the fact, that indecencies of this kind are continued and extended, notwithstanding the severity of rebuke that has been uniformly directed against them; and notwithstanding the abundant evidence which is constantly presented, that they are viewed with disapprobation, and even with abhorrence, by all the more estimable part of the other sex? It is difficult to find an answer to this question, which would not reflect most severely, either on the understanding or the principles of many modern females, or on both. It is to be lamented, that the evil complained of, instead of declining with the increase of reading and cultivation among the female sex, is increasing with still more rapid progression.

[7] If the statement given in a former page, respecting the character and destination of the female sex, be just, then engaging in literary pursuits of such a kind, or to such a degree, as will render them either unfit or indisposed to act in their peculiar domestic sphere, is, in ordinary cases, unwise and mischievous. This remark applies, with particular force, to that kind of reading which has a tendency to consume time, without conferring a single advantage of solid information, or of real wisdom. Those young ladies who, instead of studying theology, morals, grammar, geography, history, chemistry, &c. give all their reading hours to Novels, would do well to ask themselves, how far this kind of employment is likely to qualify them to be dignified heads of families, respectable companions of their husbands, or useful members of society?