William Blake (1791). Frontispiece to Wollstoncraft's Original Stories from Real Life. Women called on each other to break the chain of ineffective education. Young girls should be taught to have strong minds and bodies to be better wives and mothers. They should also be encouraged to contribute to intellectual conversation beyond the domestic hearth.Women in the late nineteenth century received a very limited education. Informally, women were educated by gender specific literature, such as conduct manuals and sentimental novels. Formally, women were educated in schools specifically designated to their gender. Whether through informal or formal means, the ends of both were to instruct women on how to behave properly. Topics such as classical studies, history, economics, and politics were seen as subjects that only men needed to understand. Women of middle and upper classes were taught to be accomplished enough to meet class standards and to attract a husband. Art, music, and fine sewing were skills that women learned at school. Additionally, to be proper wives and mothers, popular opinion held, women only needed to learn domestic duties. However, many women of the Romantic period argued against such notions. They declared that uneducated women would not be able to properly educate their children and would not make helpful wives. Without knowledge, they said, one cannot expect women to behave rationally or uphold standards of morality.
In a range of conservative to radical positions, women writers asserted that education needed to be reformed in order for women to fulfill their true potential. Some women writers argued from a more conservative position. While they championed reform, the felt that education should be more practical. Rather than teaching women to be accomplished in skills that are designed to attract a husband, education should teach women how to properly fulfill their domestic, moral, and religious duties. In Letters for Literary Ladies (1790), Maria Edgeworth claimed that decorum interrupts intellectual development and believed women should avoid such attentions and become serious students.
Other women writers took the more radical stance, suggesting that education should be based on intellect, reason, and knowledge. While they did not argue for the same education as men, they did often propose that curriculum be designed in better proportion. For instance, in Letters on Education (1790), Catharine Macaulay argued for an equality of education based on the natural equality between the sexes. Some argued that denying women a true education was akin to enslaving them. In A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination (1799), Mary Darby Robinson made just such a contention. Mary Wollstonecraft, too, argued that the educational system as it was subjected women to a "state of perpetual childhood." Many of these women writers addressed their male counterparts directly, hoping that men would see the logic of equal education. In Appeal to the Men of Great Britain (1798), Mary Hays asserts that only by raising women's standards of educations could the nation prosper because only an educated mother would be able to correctly educate her children. Regardless of their position within the range of agendas, these women writers made vast contributions to the ongoing debate on female education. Whether practical or philosophical in nature, these arguments all agree that education was the source of many problems and also the key to improving them.
Blake, William. Frontispiece to the 1791 Edition to Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life. Wikimedia.
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Hilton, Mary and Pam Hirsch, Eds. Practical Visionaries: Women, Education and Social Progress 1790-1930. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.