Female Education (1797)

Letter to the Editor, Monthly Magazine 3 (March 1797), 193-95.  

"Improvements Suggested in Female Education."

Sir,

    I am encouraged by your insertion of my defense of the talents of women, in reply to the strictures of A. B. and C. to address you upon a subject, which, if not entirely depending upon the principle in question, is yet intimately connected with it. An eloquent advocate for the rights of her sex, and of humanity, waving the controverted, though not unimportant, question, respecting sexual equality, contends, that our virtue and acquirements should be the same in nature, if differing in degree. In establishing this important truth, the deplorable consequences resulting from the distinctions hitherto adhered to in the education of the sexes, are painted with glowing coloring, and insisted upon in energetic language.

    Female education, as at present conducted, is a complete system of artifice and despotism; all the little luxuriances and exuberances of character, which individualise the being, which give promise of, and lay the foundation for, future powers, are carefully lopped and pruned away; sincerity and candor are repressed with solicitude; the terrors of opinion are set in array, and suspended over the victim, till the enfeebled and broken spirit submits to the travels, and, passive, tame, and docile, is stretched or shortened (as on the frame of the tyrant Procustes) to the universal standard. From woman, thus rendered systematically weak and powerless, on whom truth and morals have been confounded [194], inconsistent and contrary qualities are absurdly expected: for principle, it is attempted to substitute rule and dogma, while prejudice is combated only by other prejudices, equally, if not still more pernicious. The majority of human beings have yet to learn, notwithstanding a daily and melancholy experience, the dangerous tendency of every species of imposition and falsehood: one erroneous idea, entangling itself with others, from the nature of association and mind, is sufficient to destroy the whole character, nay more, to poison a community. Not an action nor a thought can be entirely inconsequential; nothing is stationary; truth or error rapidly and incessantly propagates itself.

    Sexual distinctions respecting chastity, an important brand of temperance, have served but to increase the tide of profligacy, and have been the fruitful source of the greater part of the infelicity and corruption of society. "Destroy love and friendship," says Hume, "what remains in the world worth accepting?" To insist upon the tendency which libertinism and gross sensuality must have to blunt the finer sensibilities, and vitiate the delicacy of taste, which is favorable to the production of these affections, would be unnecessary. One of the principal causes which seems to have given rise to the present dissolute and venal motives by which the intercourse of the sexes is influenced, is perhaps the dependence for which some are uniformly educated. Upon the general enfeebling effects of his system I shall not insist; its obvious consequences are sufficient for my present purpose. The greater proportion of young women are trained up by thoughtless parents, in ease and luxury, with no other dependence for their future support than the precarious chance of establishing themselves by marriage: for this purpose (the men best know why) elaborate attention is paid to external attractions and accomplishments, to the neglect of more useful and solid acquirements. "A young girl," says Rousseau, "must be trained up for a husband, like an Eastern beauty for a harem:" and he was right; while they have but one means (every rule admits of individual exceptions) not merely of gratifying the heart (sensibility and nature will here always exert their honest arts) but of satisfying their pride, their ambition, the laudable desire of distinction, even of procuring a subsistence, or barely the means of existing. If, thus situated, women marry from mercenary and venal motives (the worst kind of prostitution) with little delicacy or selection, is it reasonable to condemn them? If misery, disgust, or infidelity result from such connections, ought it to be matter of surprise? Supposing they fail in this sole method of procuring for themselves an establishment, and such failures are frequent in this expensive and profligate age, what is the consequence? Must we rigidly pursue and censure these innocent and helpless victims to barbarous prejudice, should they prefer the flowery paths of pleasure, for which their education has been in a great measure preparatory, to the almost equally degrading alternative of servile occupation, or the more specious, but not less galling situation of companion, or humble martyr to the caprice of a fellow-being, not infrequently rendered callous and despotic by prosperity and indulgence? One of the world's maxims, with a view to counteract other notions, equally false and pernicious, is, that a woman having once deviated from chastity is to be considered as irreclaimable.

    To demonstrate the truth of this philosophic and merciful adage, great care is taken to bar up every avenue against the return of this frail, unfortunate being, who, driven from the society and countenance of the virtuous and respectable, is reduced to associate with those whose habitual vices render them little calculated to assist her in regaining the path from which she has wandered. By these wise and humane methods, the tender, affectionate heart, strayed, perhaps, by its own amiable susceptibility, and artless credulity, is precipitated by despair into real depravity. The numbers of women who are thus thrown into a state of abandoned profligacy are almost incalculable and incredible; while the universal contagion spreads through every rank, strikes at the root not only of the sweetest and most affecting felicities of life, but of the order and well-being of society. Men, satiated with beauty, marry merely for wealth and convenience; while domestic happiness, and the tender confidence, and affecting endearments, of virtuous love, are almost as obsolete as the maxims of chivalry. In their stead, a heartless, mindless intercourse is substituted, the insipidity of which is its least evil.

    I am aware, that the absurd distinction alluded to, is deeply entangled with the system of property, and is one of those evils flowing from feudal institutions [195], the baneful effects of which can only cease with the renovation of civil society. Yet, in the mean time, its deplorable consequences might be ameliorated, by an alteration in the system of female education. Might not a part of the time wasted in the acquisition of useless and frivolous accomplishments, be devoted to the attainment of some ingenious art or useful trade, by which a young woman might hope to gain an honest and honorable independence, and be freed from the disgraceful necessity of bartering her person to procure a maintenance? Every parent having a family of daughters, for whom it is not in his power to make a suitable provision, is guilty of cruelty and vice, when he hazards their being exposed, helpless and unprotected, to the world. There are a variety of trades and professions, by their nature peculiarly appropriate to women, exercised, with very few exceptions, at present, entirely by men; to these many o the liberal arts might be aded, also the knowledge and practice of arithmetic and book-keeping. A woman enabled to support herself, and to acquire property by her industry, would gain by regular occupation, and the healthful exertion of her faculties, more firmness of mind and greater vigour of body. Marriages would be contracted from motives of affection, rather than of interest; and entered into with less apprehensions, when the whole burthen of providing for a family rested not upon the efforts of the man, but was cheerfully shared, between the parties. It may be objected, that the weakness and cares of a mother, in bearing and nursing her offspring, must incapacitate her for farther exertion. This objection, with but few exceptions, might be proved futile, by the example of whole towns and communities; not to insist on the number of poor hard-laboring women, with large families (the support of which is thrown by a profligate husband wholly upon them) in this and in almost every other country. The constitution, strengthened by labour or wholesome exercise, would likewise acquire greater vigour, and many of those physical evils which afflict the female frame, in an enervated and artificial state of society, would be greatly alleviated, if not wholly removed. Those women whom disappointed affection, or personal disadvantages, consigned to celibacy, in the exercise of body and mind, in occupations that promised competence or distinction, would be preserved from the numerous oils and follies, I might add, cruel insults, to which they are at present exposed

    The only happy life, it is justly observed, by Mr. Hume, is that which is equally divided between action and rest (or relaxation). Duties will need be properly performed unless softened by pleasures; nor can pleasures desire the title, unless earned by business

    Inequality, in the present state of things, is not confined to property; while one part of the community, worn down by toil, sacrifice the end to the means, the remainder are sunk in a still more destructive incapacity or intolerable lassitude, from which here is no escape but by mischievous and dangerous experiments and exertions. 

    The prosperous or declining state of a nation might, perhaps, be more accurately deduced from the possession or want of private virtue and happiness, than from the condition of its revenue or its foreign connections. Government is valuable only as a mean of which individual happiness is the end: should this not be produced, the institution becomes vain or pernicious. Till one moral and mental standard is established for every rational agent, every member of a community, and a free scope afforded for the exertion of their faculties and talents, without distinction of rank or sex, virtue will be an empty name, and happiness elude our most anxious research.

March 2, 1797.                                                            M. H.