Daniel Defoe on Women’s education (in An Essay Upon Projects): Commentary and Analysis

Analysis, Textual Commentary and Historical context of An Essay Upon Projects by Daniel Defoe : Excerpt from « An Academy for Women »

Keywords and themes addressed : Female education debate in 17th and 18th century England, ornamental accomplishements and formal education, women’s intellectual and rational abilities in question, Philosophy and Sex of the mind (Descartes, Poulain de la Barre, John Steele), Gender roles, Protofeminism (Mary Astell, Bathsua Makin and Madame de Maintenon).

At the turn of the eighteenth century, England had experienced several major political events such as the civil wars and religious reforms in the first half of the seventeenth century followed by the glorious revolution in 1688. Unexpectedly, those upheavals contributed to advance (certain) women’s academic skills and literacy through their new experiences and responsibilities. Seminal philosophical treaties by Descartes or Locke, were also issued during this period and challenged religious conceptions and social constructs of the human mind and its cognitive capacities along with epistemology. A major early feminist figure, anticipating almost one century earlier Mary Wollstonecraft’s vindication, also rose in the person of the philosopher Mary Astell. In the context of women’s education debates, she promoted the idea of a women’s college that Defoe alluded to and took up in the essay studied in this paper.
This excerpt (taken from his essay originally titled « An Academy for Women ») dealing with the education of women is part of his first work, An Essay Upon Projects published in 1697. In it, Defoe surveys various economic and social issues of his Age. He propounded various bold proposals to improve banking practices, military conscription, or insurance plans, etc. Indeed before being known as a famous novelist and even the father of the modern novel with Robinson Crusoe (1719), Defoe was -among others- a journalist involved in political and even controversial writings which earned him both imprisonment and the admiration of political leaders and intellectuals for his out-of-the-box ideas.
Born to a family of Presbyterian dissenters, Defoe, himself, suffered from educational disabilities as he was not allowed to attend the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge. Yet he benefited from a quality higher education at a dissenting academy at Newington Green in London. He was concerned with persecution (in particular of Dissenters), social prejudices, and limitations to individual freedom (especially of religion or of speech). In addition, he believed in the individual value based on industry and self-fashioning rather than inherited social rank and estate in other words in “worth” rather than “birth”, as he argued in his professional guide The Complete English Tradesman (Letter XXII, 1726). This may explain why he had at heart the educational discrimination suffered by women. In his essay, he goes over the common stereotypical objections and prejudices against women’s instruction and brings into relief their irrelevant and unsound premises.
In order to study in more detail his line of defense, I will be first looking at Defoe’s appeal to God and Christian civilization. Then I will survey the (poor) opportunities available to girls in the 17th century and their connection to gender roles as referred to by the author. Finally I will show how Defoe, by drawing on a Cartesian approach to the soul and on women’s achievements, advocates the establishment of a female academy on equal terms with male (public) schools.

I. A “civilized and Christian country”

Defoe opens up his essay by emphasizing the “civilized and Christian country” England is supposed to epitomize. He relies here on the popular narrative of socio-cultural improvement that developed during the Restoration (and served as the basis of stadial history). It celebrates in particular the progress of English “politeness” and “polished manners” as opposed to less advanced societies, deemed “barbarous” in reference to “savage” tribes discovered in America or in the West Indies by the first Western colonizers. In this context Christianity played a key role as a distinct mark of civilization (and morality) which for western Europeans placed them as “superior”. The christianization of indigenous people was thus seen as part of their “civilizing mission.” Literacy and education went hand in hand with it, as necessary means to read the bible but also as characteristic of refinement. In this light, the poor educational level of women stood in stark -and shameful- contrast with England’s ambition and emphasis on its higher position. He calls this miseducation a “barbarous custom” (following Bathsua Makin’s “barbarous custom to breed women low”) and implies that it is almost unchristian.
Defoe refers a second time to religion on l.17 (second paragraph) by invoking “God almighty”. He reminds his readers that women as men are god-created and endowed with “capacities” that are meant to be put to good use and enhanced. This echoes Bathsua Makin -tutor to Charles I’s children, among others- who wrote in her Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen (in 1673) that women were “persons that God hath blessed with the things of this world, that (…) ought to be educated in Knowledge.” She also concludes that women possessed reason as a logical consequence of God’s design since “Had God intended women only as a finer sort of cattle, he would not have made them reasonable.” Interestingly enough, Astell would rephrase, in a couple of years after Defoe, his argument that “God made nothing needless” in The Christian Religion (1705) by stating that “If God had not intended that Women shou’d use their Reason, He wou’d not have given them any, ‘for He does nothing in vain.”
The recourse to religion to argue in favor of female learning on an equal footing with men and intellectual fulfillment constitutes an interesting reversal and re-scripting of the traditional theological discourse. Indeed, preachers and moralists had long drawn on the bible to repress women and justify on the contrary their limited access to knowledge. Two major sources for these strictures lie in Pauline letters, more especially the verses excerpted from Timothy I, 2, 11-14 (“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet”) and in Saint Paul I Corinthians, 11:3 (“The head of everyman is Christ, the head of the W is the M and the head of Christ is God”). Through this reading and interpretation of Genesis, and in line with classical and medical theories positing women’s intellectual and physical inferiority, the Church imposed silence on women and set strict limitations on their learning under close male scrutiny and subjugation. This was presented as a divine punishment for Eve’s original sin, of whom all women were descendents and therefore inherited her fault and weakness (which also accounted for their superficiality). Eve’s sin was not only god’s disobedience but also the sin of pride and vanity associated with learned women feared and resented by men as a challenge to their authority as articulated by Saint Paul. In Reflections upon Marriage (1700), Mary Astell cleverly reverses this curse by stating that if Eve had been knowledgeable, she would not have sinned. Defoe acknowledges this male anxiety over female intellectual competition on l.25 (“for fear they shou’d vye with the men in their improvements”). The male jealousy was also mentioned by certain conduct book authors such as John Gregory1 who overtly cautions against “displaying [one’s] good sense so that [women] don’t sound ‘superior.’” He even recommends to hide “any learning” (“keep it a profound secret”). Likewise he sincerely recognizes men’s jealousy. Consequently, ignorance stands as the proper state of a respectful and modest woman. The standard of childbearing as woman’s natural role also originates in the same source whereas men are assigned to work. Although contrary to Catholicism which grants importance to the feminine ideal of Mary, protestantism reduces it to a passive reproductive receptacle and focuses on biblical male figures. In addition they dismiss the positive spiritually-inspired role of nun in the wake of the dissolution of monasteries -a traditional site of women’s instruction- by Henry VIII. Homilies and sermons consistently hammered the need for women to submit to men and stay confined at home.
Yet it is also paradoxically through religion that women managed to access literacy when reading skills were developed as a means of reading the bible2. They gain some freedom during the protestant reformation in the 16th century and then again during the 17th century-puritan reforms. The rise of new sects such as the Quakers or the Anabaptists who believed in a more direct relationship with God and in an “inner perception”, free from the Clergy hierarchy, provided women with more agency and especially the ability to talk in church. Margaret Fell (or Fox), known as the « mother of Quakerism » even argued in favor of women’s ability to preach in her landmark book “Womens Speaking Justified” (1666). Those religious groups who were involved in politics also allowed women to take part in the public sphere during the 1642-1651 civil wars by petitioning the parliament for instance and voicing their discontent.
Finally, John Milton, in Of Education (1644), contributed to the positive shift in meaning of knowledge as a sin towards a means of moral improvement and salvation: “to learn is first to try to redeem our parents’ fault.” In addition early feminist voices such as Mary Astell re-appropriated the figure of Mary (doctrine of the “second Eve” very popular in the late 17th century to redeem Eve -and women-’s sin with « her seed ») to make religion more inclusive of women. She notably emphasised that it is a woman who « received the greatest Honor » to bear the Christ who « derives his humanity from her only » (preface, Reflections…).
As a result religion served both to repress women’s learning and to vindicate their rights to it and open up new intellectual opportunities.

II. The 17th c. Educational system for girls

Yet the teaching of reading and name writing could not make up for a decent and well-rounded curriculum. Defoe blames on the narrowness of girls’s teaching the flaws they were criticized for (namely “folly and impertinence”, l.3 or their -poor- “understanding” l.11). This again aligns with Astell who denounced in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) that “Women [were] from their very infancy debarred those Advantages with the want of which they are afterwards reproached.” The argument behind this comment is that women’s supposedly wrong manners and flaws cannot be reformed (make “conversible” l.6) without a proper learning. Wollstonecraft would follow the same reasoning in her Woman’s Vindication almost one century after Astell.
Indeed despite women’s growing literacy and investment in public life, they still suffer from misogynistic attacks and few options to study. There was no national school network yet and the social rank was another criterion determining the type of teaching girls could benefit and mostly afford. Only middle and upper class daughters could attend fee-paying boarding schools which flourished in the second half of the seventeenth-century. In addition of literacy, their instruction mainly covered religion and ornamental ladylike accomplishments such as singing, dancing needlework, sometimes foreign languages (mostly -the basics of- French). Grammar was not taught until the late eighteenth century as it was considered too rational a subject for the female mind. More rarely mathematic class could be offered. Home schooling by a tutor or a governess was more widespread though. Middle class mothers often took care of it directly with a focus on domestic duties and crafts including sewing, cooking, weaving, preserving, and the management of the servants. What Defoes summarizes derogatorily as “stitch and sow, or make bawbles.” The goal was mainly to make them “marriageable”, both useful and pleasing for their future husband, in conformity with their “natural parts” as Defoe laments it (l.7). The latter refers to the natural qualities socially and culturally attributed to femininity such as chastity, obedience, submission, meakness, modesty, softness, etc. They involve a gender -domestic- role assigned in the patriarchal “natural” order. As said above, it derives directly from the religious discourse and covers childbearing and childcare and everything family and housework related at large, under the male rule.
Poor girls received even more rudimentary lessons at Dame schools (in their home) or in charity schools which insisted on hard work and obedience to serve others. Orphans and vagrants were also channeled into apprenticeship to be trained for a trade by a master through indenture (such as seamstry and millinery in a wide range of guilds).
Overall scholarly and abstract teaching to focus on hands-on practical or vocational was neglected as Defoe stressed it rather ironically (“the height of a woman’s education”). Grammar schools (also known as “Public schools”) and universities -which delivered in particular classical and logic instruction- were reserved to (elite) boys only.

III. The Rational (and Sexless) Soul

Indeed women had long been categorized as non rational and emotionally-driven “creatures”, crippled with intellectual inferiority inherited from the ancient medical discourse. The humoral and animal theory by Hippocrates and Aristotle ruled that women had cold blood and lacked “generation” (genital) power. This entailed a more fragile and under-performing brain. According to the Aristotelian twofold division of the Soul, women’s rational upper part (that is the superior one) was not able to control -and was even overtaken by-the lower appetitive part (related to the passions, desires and the senses at large). As a result women were naturally deprived of reason and good sense. In addition, anatomical differences were interpreted as deficiencies. Their womb was at risk of “instability” causing “hysteria” according to Galen. The humanist schoolmaster Mulcaster’s late 16th century account reflects those prejudices as he describes girls’ brains as “not so much charged, neither with weight nor with multitude of matters” as boys’ (in Positions). Those views were nonetheless falling out of fashion in the seventeenth century, as science progresses. Yet, the distinction and the hierarchy of the sexes remained central with a continuing emphasis on the unfitness of the female constitution, and the fear that women overtook men or feminized them. Knowledge was still seen as incompatible with or even antagonistic to femininity as Defoe suggests it (“ignorance” thought as “a necessary ornament to a woman”, l.19-20 and knowledge as “useless (…) to the Sex” l.17). Women daring to step into the academic and intellectual sphere (nicknamed “bluestockings” in the 18th century) usually fell prey of vilification. They had ventured “beyond the expectations for their sex” as Patricia Labalme3 pointed out. Worse: they appear as an “error of nature” as put by Boccacio in his De claris mulieribus that commemorates illustrious women (1355-59). In her Essay to revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen (1673), the female tutor Bathsua Makin exposed this stigma and wrote that “A Learned Woman is thought to be a comet, that bodes mischief.” Other derogatory appellations include “virago”, “amazons of the pen” (in Samuel Johnson’s words), “doctor (or) hyena in petticoat”4 or even “Unsex’d Females” as in Richard Polwhele’s poem title (1798). Philosophers investigating the human mind contributed to challenge its gendered vision. Descartes5 proved to be particularly influential for the recognition of women’s cognitive abilities through his dualist conception of the body and the mind with the independence of the latter from the former along with the rejection of prejudices and the unity of the sciences6. His French disciple, Poulain de la Barre, considered a feminist pioneer, drew on his premice to articulate the famous idea that “L’Esprit n’a point de sexe” (“the mind has no sex”7) in De l’égalité des sexes (The Women as Good as the Men). This means that both women and men could entertain “clear and distinct ideas” and think rationally contrary to Aristotle’s thesis. Consequently, their education should not be different. Later on, in An Essay concerning human understanding (1689), Locke’s “mind as a blank slate” theory implied the similarity of accumulation of experience between girls and boys. In 1693, he published a pedagogical treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education, based on his experience as a tutor, where he advised to treat children as rational creatures learning primarily through experiment. He states that girls and boys should receive the same education at home, not in schools. This philosophical and educational strain comes through in Defoe’s elaboration on the soul he compares to a “rough diamond” that “must be polish’d” (from l.13 to l.15). In the process, he joins the prejudices of women and those of non aristocratic men who are denied the quality of gentleman (“what is a man (a gentleman I mean) good for, that is taught no more ?”… ). This rhetorical question reminds Locke’s idea that “the difference to be found in the Manners and Abilities of Men, is owning more to their Education than of any thing else.” The underlying point aims to reject any innate or inborn value or virtue depending on the sex or the social extraction, and instead connects them to individual agency and more especially education, hard work and self-fashioning. In other words anybody can elevate themselves beyond one’s status or sex (social mobility). This restores not only gender but also social equality.

IV. “Female wit” & Civilizing role

As a matter of fact, the rise of a number of learned -essentially upper class- women in the late seventeenth century such as the writers (playwright or poet) Aphra Behn, Katherine Philips and Margaret Cavendish, or the protofeminist essayist Batsua Makin and philosopher Mary Astell quoted above belied theories of female intellectual inferiority or disabilities. The Queen Elizabeth I spoke six languages including Greek and Latin. A fact highlighted on l.22-3 by Defoe who praised the achievements of “female-wit.” In addition the period of the civil wars brought new opportunities, experiences and responsibilities (such as the management of their at war husband’s estates) to women. Some got to travel such as Cavendish who was exiled in Paris and introduced to the intellectual circles of the salons where French women discussed literary and political matters. They were respected and even celebrated for their artistic talents and opinions, which in turn influenced English women to express themselves on the public stage.
Another nonsense of the women’s denial of formal education lies in their acknowledged reputation and approved “civilizing role” not only of their children but also of male manners and behaviors at large. Defoe hints to it on l.21 by pointing out that “the capacities of women are suppos’d to be greater, and their senses quicker than those of the men.” Indeed a sustained and consistent discourse by preachers, moralists, Evangelical and Methodist reformists and leaders (from Societies of Reformation of Manners that sprang up in the late 17th century), and philosophers insisted that women should guide and improve deviant men and guard them against such vices as drunkenness, gambling, lewdness or violence. Women were then regarded as agents of civic and moral virtue along with politeness and refinement. The 18th century conduct book’s author, John Gregory, also promoted the principle that “women [were] designed to soften [men’s] hearts and polish [their] manners.” Then this female mission and power to train proper citizens for “the whole nation advantage” in the words of Makin (Essay), and ensure that men make the right decisions, also stands in contradiction with their inferiority and subordinated position.
An Academy for Women
Together civilization, christianity, women’s rational soul and proven intellectual abilities lead Defoe to call for a female “education equal to [men]” (l.4). He adds on l.33 that their teachings should “differ but little from Publick Schools.” In other words he is making the case for
an undifferentiated curriculum between girls and boys. This proposal comes across as very bold and forward-looking. Public schools suffered from important problems of discipline and violence to the point that aristocratic parents favour private tutoring. This explains why Defoe recommends to correct this situation with “some severities (…) to preserve the reputation of the house”. Still, their curriculum was wider and consisted of religious and classical subjects along with the teaching of Latin grammar, Greek history, writing and arithmetic. Defoe does not give much detail on the academic content he envisions but simply summarizes it under the general heading of “all sorts of useful learning” (l.27). Regarding the public targeted, he mentions “persons of quality and fortune” (l.37) which refers to the upper class and the elite, in keeping with the social discrimination of his time. Defoe’s awareness-raising was preceded by Makin (Essay) in which she mourned the loss of classical education formerly imparted to women by drawing on examples of learned women in the bible. She also criticized memorization by heart and encouraged instead logical thinking in the wake of the educationalist Comenius. She intended to open an advanced school for gentlewomen teaching them ancient and modern languages, English grammar, botany, astronomy, geography, arithmetic and history, in addition of the conventional accomplishments.
A more famous early call for women’s college was the Serious proposal to the ladies (1694) reiterated in her Reflections upon Marriage (1700) by Mary Astell whom Defoe holds “in great esteem” and finds “ingenious” (l.30). This avid reader studied by herself philosophy, mathematics and some modern languages and had knowledge of theology, politics, history and classical literature. Inspired by Descartes and the French boarding school of Saint Cyr founded by Mme de Maintenon in 1686 which enjoyed in its first years a rather liberal instruction, this devout philosopher put forward the project of a sort of monastery (“religious retreat”), where daughters of the nobility who did not wish to marry could live and learn. Indeed the suppression of monastic institutions by the Protestant reformers contributed to the decline of female education. Her approach to knowledge was not scholastic ; rather she emphasizes community, conversation and freedom through the reading of philosophy, classical rhetoric or women writers (such as Anne Dacier and Madeleine de Scudéry, Sappho) in French. Her goal was to bring women self-sufficiency and to cultivate reason, virtue and the capacity to discern the truth. Queen Anne welcomed her project but the Church of England rejected it on the grounds that it would promote Catholicism and would free women from male hold. For this reason, Defoe is careful to define his Academy away from “all sorts of religious confinement and above all, from vows of celibacy” which were characteristic of catholic nunnery and convents condemned by Protestants who valued and encouraged marriage.
To conclude, in this essay Defoe demonstrates a good familiarity and sympathy with the protofeminist and women defenser’s discourse of his time. He takes up here most of their arguments by drawing on religious, cultural (progress of politeness and civilization) and philosophical (the Cartesian sexless soul) appeals to denounce the irrelevance of the common objections to female education. Yet, in a still heavily gender segregated society, his position sounds rather original and forward-looking. His commitment to an identical curriculum between (at least middle upper class) girls and boys and his celebration of female “genius” represents probably his most daring claim. Indeed, it counters directly the construct of femininity as naturally non intellectual or rational and unfit to formal knowledge. Then, his voice contrasts sharply with the dominant male anxiety over the feminine ascendancy and the need for a domestic subservient female labor. The influential Spectator, in the person of Richard Steele, while supporting the development of reason in girls, also endorsed the association of femininity with natural domesticity. Increased capacities in women were only desirable to improve their domestic service and civilizing role as good mother and spouse by redressing their superficiality. In contradistinction with Descartes, he wrote “there is a sort of sex in souls” designed for a specific “employment”. Moreover he (and Jonathan Swift) satirized Mary Astell in more than one edition of the Tatler. Thus by the end of the eighteenth century little progress had been made and female educationalists such as Catherine Macaulay, Hester Chapone or more famously Mary Wollstonecraft were still fighting to conquer those rights. It is not until the mid 19th century with the advent of the first female colleges and the 1870 Forster Act that -state funded- secondary and higher education finally started to open more widely to girls. Yet it would take again more than one century -between the 1980s and 1990s- to achieve Defoe’s “scheme” of a generalized undifferentiated curriculum, equal opportunities and the closing of the academic gender gap… [Alexandra Galakof]

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