On Women's Education

A central doctrine of Martineau's feminist thought from the verystart of her writing career was the importance of education forwomen. Excerpts from her second Monthly Repository article,"On Female Education," written in 1822, open this section. In that piece, written when she was barely twenty years old,Martineau made the claim, amazing for her youth and period, thatwomen's intellectual inferiority to men is based on women's lackof mental training, others' expectations of women, and women'scircumstances rather than women's ability. She cleverly sidesteppedthe issue of whether women can be men's equals, saying insteadshe was looking "to show the expediency of giving properscope and employment to the powers which they [women] do possess."

Similarly, she avoided the nature versus nurture argument of whethereducational potential is dependent on "the structure of thebody" or "bodily frame." Although in this youthfulargument, published in the organ of Unitarian Christianity towhich she was then faithful, she allowed that women should beeducated to enhance their relationships to men and make them bettermothers and held that the greatest value of education is to givewomen a better understanding of Christianity, she neverthelesshad a very clear-sighted perception of the dreariness and degradation,the retrogression that lack of education means in women's lives.

In later life, Martineau was to abandon and even to repudiatethe religion that this early essay relied upon, but she was alwaysto believe in the great importance of education for women.

Forty years later she was of a different mind on the purpose but not on the benefit of women's education. Writing in Oncea Week in 1861, she deplored the justification of "goodintellectual training as fitting women to be 'mothers of heroes,''companions to men,' and so on. . . . Till it is proposed, ineducating girls, to make them, in themselves and for their ownsakes, as good specimens of the human being as the conditionsof the case allow, very little will be effected by any expenditureof pains, time, and money."

Included here are pieces on basic education for women, includinga section from her 1848 book, Household Education, whichwas a kind of popular manual for the moral and practical instructionof a household, and a long article from Cornhill Magazine (1864) entitled "Middle-Class Education in England: Girls." In both of these she held that education should be for the sakeof improving the person. She insisted that girls should studythe same subjects as boys, that both should have time in schoolfor both study and play, mental exercise and physical exercise,but that girls should study the domestic arts as well.

Never did she question that women should become skillful at housekeeping;rather she claimed that education would make them better at it. This is drawn from her own life, for she prided herself on herneedlework, her household management, and the sensible way inwhich she entertained. She argues in several contexts that notall Englishwomen are cared for by a man and that women need tobe educated for an occupation so that they can earn their ownway. These ideas came out of Martineau's own middle-class experienceof having been left with a small legacy poorly invested. It didnot occur to her to argue for universal education. She did, however,favor higher education for qualified women early on and enthusiasticallysupported the establishment in London of Queen's College in HartleyStreet and the Ladies' College in Bedford Square (now BedfordCollege). An article on higher education, "What Women areEducated For," forms the third selection in this section.


Norwich, November, 1822

In discussing the subject of Female Education, it is not so muchmy object to inquire whether the natural powers of women be equalto those of men, as to shew the expediency of giving proper scopeand employment to the powers which they do possess. It may beas well, notwithstanding, to inquire whether the difference beas great as is generally supposed between the mental structureof men and of women.

Doubtless the formation of the mind must depend in a great degreeon the structure of the body. From this cause the strength ofmind observable in men is supposed to arise; and the delicacyof the female mind is thought to be in agreement with the bodilyframe. But it is impossible to ascertain how much may dependon early education; nor can we solve our doubts on this head byturning our view to savage countries, where, if the bodily strengthbe nearly equal in the two sexes, their minds are alike sunk inignorance and darkness. In our own country, we find that as longas the studies of children of both sexes continue the same, theprogress they make is equal. After the rudiments of knowledgehave been obtained, in the cultivated ranks of society, (of whichalone I mean to speak,) the boy goes on continually increasinghis stock of information, it being his only employment to storeand exercise his mind for future years; while the girl is probablyconfined to low pursuits, her aspirings after knowledge are subdued,she is taught to believe that solid information is unbecomingher sex, almost her whole time is expended on light accomplishments,and thus before she is sensible of her powers, they are checkedin their growth; chained down to mean objects, to rise no more;and when the natural consequences of this mode of treatment arise,all mankind agree that the abilities of women are far inferiorto those of men. But in the few instances where a contrary modeof treatment has been pursued, where fair play has been givento the faculties, even without much assistance, what has almostinvariably been the result? Has it not been evident that thefemale mind, though in many respects differently constituted fromthat of man, may be well brought into comparison with his? Ifshe wants his enterprising spirit, the deficiency is made up byperseverance in what she does undertake; for his ambition, shehas a thirst for knowledge; and for his ready perception, shehas unwearied application.

It is proof sufficient to my mind, that there is no natural deficiencyof power, that, unless proper objects are supplied to women toemploy their faculties, their energies are exerted improperly. Some aim they must have, and if no good one is presented to them,they must seek for a bad one.

We may find evidence in abundance of this truth in the conditionof women before the introduction of Christianity.

Before the revelation of this blessed religion, (doubly blessedto the female sex,) what was their situation? They were eithersunk almost to the level of the brutes in mental darkness, buriedin their own homes, the slaves instead of the companions of theirhusbands, only to be preserved from vice by being excluded fromthe world, or, not being able to endure these restraints, employingtheir restless powers and turbulent passions in the pursuit ofvicious pleasures and sensual gratifications. And we cannot wonderthat this was the case, when they were gifted with faculties whichthey were not permitted to exercise, and were compelled to vegetatefrom year to year, with no object in life and no hope in death.Observe what an immediate change was wrought by the introductionof Christianity. Mark the zeal, directed by knowledge, of thefemale converts, of so many of whom St. Paul makes honourablemention as his friends, on account of their exertions in the greatcause. An object was held out for them to obtain, and their powerswere bent to the attainment of it, instead of being engaged invice and folly. The female character has been observed to improvesince that time, in proportion as the treasures of useful knowledgehave been placed within the reach of the sex.

I wish to imply by what I have said, not that great stores ofinformation are as necessary to women as to men, but that as muchcare should be taken of the formation of their minds. Their attainmentscannot in general be so great, because they have their own appropriateduties and peculiar employments, the neglect of which nothingcan excuse; but I contend that these duties will be better performedif the powers be rationally employed. If the whole mind be exercisedand strengthened, it will bring more vigour to the performanceof its duties in any particular province.

The first great objection which is made to enlightening the femalemind is, that if engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, women neglecttheir appropriate duties and peculiar employments .

2nd. That the greatest advances that the female mind can makein knowledge, must still fall far short of the attainments ofthe other sex.

3rd. That the vanity so universally ascribed to the sex is aptto be inflated by any degree of proficiency in knowledge, andthat women therefore become forgetful of the subordinate stationassigned them by law, natural and divine.

To the first objection I answer, that such a pursuit of knowledgeas shall lead women to neglect their peculiar duties, is not thatcultivation of mind for the utility of which I am contending. But these duties may be well performed without engaging the wholetime and attention. If "great thoughts constitute greatminds," what can be expected from a woman whose whole intellectis employed on the trifling cares and comparatively mean occupations,to which the advocates for female ignorance would condemn her?These cares and these occupations were allotted to women to enablethem to smooth our way through life; they were designed as a meansto this end, and should never be pursued as the end itself. Theknowledge of these necessary acts is so easily acquired, and theyare so easily performed, that an active mind will feel a dismalvacuity, a craving after something nobler and better to employthe thoughts in the intervals of idleness which must occur whenthese calls of duty are answered, and if nothing nobler and betteris presented to it, it will waste its energies in the pursuitof folly, if not of vice, and thus continually perpetuate thefaults of the sex. . . .

It must be allowed by all, that one of woman's first duties isto qualify herself for being a companion to her husband, or tothose with whom her lot in life is cast. She was formed to bea domestic companion, and such an one as shall give to home itscharms, as shall furnish such entertainment that her husband neednot be driven abroad for amusement. This is one of the firstduties required from a woman, and no time can be misemployed whichis applied to the purpose of making her such a companion, andI contend that a friend like this cannot be found among womenof uncultivated minds. If their thoughts are continually occupiedby the vanities of the world, if that time which is not requiredfor the fulfilment of household duties, is spent in folly, oreven in harmless trifles in which the husband has no interest,how are the powers of pleasing to be perpetuated, how is she tofind interesting subjects for social converse?...

If we consider woman as the guardian and instructress of infancy,her claims to cultivation of mind become doubly urgent. It isevident that if the soul of the teacher is narrow and contracted,that of the pupil cannot be enlarged. . . .

With respect to the second objection, viz., That the greatestadvances which the female mind can make in knowledge must fallfar short of the attainments of the other sex,--I allow that theacquirements of women can seldom equal those of men, and it isnot desirable that they should. I do not wish to excite a spiritof rivalry between the sexes; I do not desire that many femalesshould seek for fame as authors. I only wish that their powersshould be so employed that they should not be obliged to seekamusements beneath them, and injurious to them. I wish them tobe companions to men, instead of playthings or servants, one ofwhich an ignorant woman must commonly be. If they are calledto be wives, a sensible mind is an essential qualification forthe domestic character; if they remain single, liberal pursuitsare absolutely necessary to preserve them from the faults so generallyattributed to that state, and so justly and inevitably, whilethe mind is buried in darkness.

If it be asked what kind and degree of knowledge is necessaryto preserve women from the evils mentioned as following in thetrain of ignorance, I answer that much must depend on naturaltalent, fortune and station; but no Englishwoman, above the lowerranks of life, ought to be ignorant of the Evidences and Principlesof her religious belief, of Sacred History, of the outline atleast of General History, of the Elements of the Philosophy ofNature, and of the Human Mind; and to these should be added theknowledge of such living languages, and the acquirement of suchaccomplishments, as situation and circumstances may direct.

With respect to the third objection, viz., that the vanity souniversally ascribed to the sex is apt to be inflated by any degreeof proficiency in knowledge, and that women, therefore, becomeforgetful of the subordinate station assigned them by law, naturaland divine: the most important part of education, the implantingof religious principles must be in part neglected, if the shareof knowledge which women may appropriate, should be suffered toinflate their vanity, or excite feelings of pride. Christianhumility should be one of the first requisites in female education,and till it is attained every acquirement of every kind will becomea cause of self-exaltation, and those accomplishments which arethe most rare, will of course be looked upon with the most self-complacency. But if the taste for knowledge were more generally infused, andif proficiency in the attainments I have mentioned were more common,there would be much less pedantry than there is at present; forwhen acquirements of this kind are no longer remarkable, theycease to afford a subject for pride....

Let woman then be taught that her powers of mind were given herto be improved. Let her be taught that she is to be a rationalcompanion to those of the other sex among whom her lot in lifeis cast, that her proper sphere is home---that there sheis to provide, not only for the bodily comfort of the man, butthat she is to enter also into community of mind with him; . .. As she finds nobler objects presented to her grasp, and thather rank in the scale of being is elevated, she will engraft thevigorous qualities of the mind of man on her own blooming virtues,and insinuate into his mind those softer graces and milder beauties,which will smooth the ruggedness of his character....


From Gayle Graham Yates, (Ed.)., Harriet Martineau on Women.New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985, pp. 87-93.

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