Women’s Lot

Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman

by Jane Roland Martin
Yale University Press, 218 pp., $21.50

Three Spartan women were being sold as slaves. Their captors asked them what they had learned to do. The first replied, “How to manage a household well.” The second said, “How to be loyal.” The third said, “How to be free.”

This ancient story, retold by Plutarch (in which Sparta serves as the proverbial example of a city that gives its women unusual latitude), poses some perennial questions about the education of women. If women are to be seriously educated, what sort of education should it be, and what will they become as a result? Will (and should) they become experts at dealing with a separate women’s sphere, the sphere of the household? Will they still love and care for their husbands and children as before? Or will (and should) they become free and autonomous citizens, just like men? It is probably no accident that the anxiety generated by these questions is neutralized by their fictional context: since Plutarch’s Spartan women are slaves anyway, it hardly matters if they have learned to be free. (As his story ends, the third woman manages to commit suicide.)

These questions are the subject of Martin’s fascinating book. Philosophers have frequently discussed education. They have far less often addressed themselves to the special problems connected with the education of women. The philosophical discussions that have taken place are seldom consulted by contemporary theorists. The result, Martin claims, is that public debate on this issue is impoverished. Important public figures repeatedly make assumptions that have been successfully challenged centuries ago by major thinkers. If we doubt this, we might consider the assumptions behind Mr. Donald Regan’s idea of what (educated) women would and would not comprehend about the Geneva summit.

Martin wants to correct this situation by calling our attention to several complex and well-argued philosophical accounts of women’s education from which we can learn as we make our own choices. Instead of writing a continuous history of such views, she has decided (wisely, I think) to study five accounts in detail, offering her own comparative commentaries on them. She chooses Plato’s account of the education of female guardians in the Republic; Rousseau’s portrait of Sophie, Emile’s “other half” (1762); Mary Wollstonecraft’s vindication of women’s equality (1792); Catharine Beecher’s account of a professional domestic science (1842); and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel about an all-female society, Herland (1915). The views are selected both because of their intrinsic interest and because of the ways in which they complement and reflect one another. The later writers have usually read the earlier ones and often either citicize or further develop their ideas. Even where this is not so, the juxtaposition of views, together with Martin’s critical comparisons, illuminates each account by showing us what alternatives it has rejected or ignored.

We begin with Plato’s female guardians, who will be given, from birth, an education identical to that proposed for men. Education for Plato …

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