Why did Defoe write his essay "On the Education of Women"?
Daniel Defoe wrote this essay to promote the idea that women should be educated. That much is fairly obvious. What is interesting, though, is why he thought women should be educated. Defoe believed that women should be educated so that they could be better wives and companions for men.
In modern times, we believe (in the West, at least) that women should be able to go out and get jobs and contribute to the economy. They should essentially be the same as men in economic terms. But Defoe did not make this argument. Instead, he argues that women would simply be more fun to be around if they were educated.
As an example of this, look at what he thinks they should study. He is not advocating that they study math and science. Instead, he says that they should be taught
... in particular, Music and Dancing; which it would be cruelty to bar the sex of, because they are their darlings. But besides this, they should be taught languages, as particularly French and Italian...
He does go on to say that they should read history books, but there is no talk of more practical subjects. Instead, the idea is that they should be more "cultured" so as to be more interesting.
Later in the essay, we see Defoe explicitly reject the idea of women participating in the same sorts of things that men do. He says (I have added the bold letters)
Not that I am for exalting the female government in the least: but, in short, I would have men take women for companions, and educate them to be fit for it. A woman of sense and breeding will scorn as much to encroach upon the prerogative of man...
From this, it is clear that Defoe's reasons for wanting women educated are not modern ones. Instead, he simply wants women to be more pleasant companions. He believes that this will happen if they are more educated.
Defoe wrote his essay to make an argument for educating women. He gives several reasons for this. First, it is "barbarous" for a civilized and Christian country like England to deny women education—and especially wrong to accuse women of being rude and foolish when it is the fault of the men who refuse to educate them.
Second, Defoe says the following:
The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond; and must be polished, or the lustre of it will never appear.
In other words, God gave women the same soul, including the same capacities as men for learning; he would not have done this had he not expected them to be educated for God makes "nothing needless."
Third, Defoe asks, is a wise woman not necessarily better than a foolish one?
Fourth, Defoe argues the following:
[the] capacities of women are supposed to be greater, and their senses quicker than those of the men.
Therefore it makes men look bad to withhold education from them. It makes it appear that men do this because they are afraid women will compete with them.
Finally, Defoe contends, God would have not made women so delightful only to be the "Stewards of our Houses, Cooks, and Slaves."
Defoe wants women educated so that they will be better companions to men. The key is that he wants men to take women as "companions" rather than mere housekeepers or slaves. At the time this essay was written in the early eighteenth century, this idea of marriage was far ahead of its time. It was a still a radical argument when Mary Wollstonecraft made it 60 years later in The Vindication of the Rights of Women.