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Defoe's essay on the education of women was, for its time, very unconventional. Most men, even enlightened men, subscribed to the belief that women were not equipped intellectually to deal with the complexities of the world. Samuel Johnson, for example, one of the most accomplished writers of the 18thC, is reported to have said in response to a question about a Quaker female preacher, "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." Johnson's observation, unfortunately, articulates the average educated man's attitude toward women in the mid-18thC.
In "The Education of Women," Defoe tries to convince by every logical argument he can muster, including appealing to religious sensibilities:
If knowledge and understanding had been useless additions to the sex, GOD Almighty would never have given them capacities; for he made nothing needless.
In other words, if God gave women the capacity to learn, then he expected them to become educated or he would not have given them the capacity in the first place. This argument was designed to appeal to enlightened men on two bases--logic and religion. If God gave women the brains to learn, then withholding education from them was an affront to God, not to mention a waste of human potential.
Defoe goes so far as to suggest the appropriate curriculum for women: languages, particularly French and Italian; rhetoric and elocution, "the graces of speech;" reading, so they could understand history and "understand the world." There is, in the midst of Defoe's argument, a fair amount of male chauvinism remaining in Defoe--"Tempers, indeed, may in some degree influence them. . . ." Women, for all their capabilities, are still more subject to emotions than men. What can one do?
The counter argument against educating women is expressed in the negative, that is, if we do not allow women to be educated, this is what we get: women will be "impertinent and talkative;" if a woman's temper is already bad, ignorance will make her "haughty, insolent, and loud;" even worse, if she is a passionate person, her lack of education will make her "much at one with Lunatic." Defoe's counter arguments, then, establish several propositions that are not actually true but sound like legitimate arguments.
A secondary counter argument, one that would naturally comfort men, is Defoe's assertion that he is not "exalting the female government in the least: but . . .I would have men take women for companions, and educate them to be fit for it." Defoe wants to assure men, of course, that when he argues for women's education he is making a practical suggestion in order to make women better companions for men, not to exalt them above men. Defoe is not, in the end, a feminist--he is simply trying to improve men's lives by upgrading their companions.
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