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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.”1

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 is designed to develop and test each individual’s natural abilities; and it is expected that the capacity for rulership and intellectual achievement will be found in both sexes, once the artificial barriers to women’s development that exist in all actual cities are removed. Martin shows how this conception is connected with Plato’s idea of citizenship as “doing one’s own,” that is, contributing whatever one is suited to contribute to the public good. She is disturbed, however, by the fact that in giving women the same education as men, Plato has omitted from the education of both sexes many functions traditionally assigned to women, such as child rearing and the management of the household; indeed, he has also neglected the emotions of love and care that are associated with these functions.

In Plato’s ideal city, female guardians will not educate, love, or even know their own children; they will not care for a household; they will feel no emotional tie to their state-assigned sexual partners. If they pass the test for rulership, their lives will be coolly intellectual, devoted to learning and the contemplation of truth. Troubled by neither grief nor pity, neither passionate love nor jealousy, they will feel themselves to be stable and complete, in need of nothing outside their own reason. Martin suspects that while apparently offering women equality, Plato is imposing upon them a picture of goodness that comes from male experience and neglects female experience. This life, if equal, seems to her incomplete.

In search of a view that values what Plato omits, Martin turns to Rousseau’s account of the education of Sophie, Emile’s future wife. Unlike Plato’s emotionless dialecticians, little Sophie is immediately recognizable as a woman—or, at least, as a common male stereotype of a woman. Charming, affectionate, vain, she loves to adorn herself and to delight others. She loves learning to sew because she enjoys dressing her doll in fancy clothes. Indeed, says Rousseau, her entire education is a preparation for “the moment when she will be her own doll”—dressing herself up as a living toy for her male owner. Little Emile learns to exercise his reason independently and fearlessly, to look to nobody but himself for guidance. Sophie, by contrast, learns the arts of pleasing and helping; she will use her mind only to serve her husband. Emile will think and act independently all day, then come home to a wife who supports him in his public life by managing his household, loving and caring for his children, cleverly anticipating his every want. He will make all the decisions; but, since she does what he cannot do, he will depend upon her and regard her as his “other half.”

Rousseau, Martin argues, does not believe that the natural differences between men and women are so great that these two different lives are simply natural developments of the different potentialities of each. His system of education promotes some abilities in each and blunts others. But Rousseau argues that if domestic and civic harmony is to be achieved, the best man and woman must be very unlike each other. If we cultivated, in each partner, the intellectual abilities as well as the abilities required in caring for the home, we would, he believes, have an “eternal discord”—both, apparently, within each individual and between them in their domestic relationship. But educated differently, so as to complement each other, Sophie and Emile become a single harmonious “moral person.” This harmony is a necessary foundation for public order.

Martin’s next two chapters consider doubts about this picture of the happy home Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman argues against Rousseau that Sophie, who has not been trained to reason independently, and who has been given no liberty to make her own moral and political choices, cannot do well even in the domestic role to which Rousseau assigns her. It is no accident that Sophie is manipulative and coquettish; this is what we must expect if we deny her an education similar to Emile’s. The moral firmness and administrative competence that we need in wives and mothers cannot be achieved without both political liberty and the training of reason—training that Wollstonecraft tried to prescribe.

Though Martin sympathizes with these criticisms, she notices that Wollstonecraft’s morally instructed wives, like Plato’s guardians, become rational and dependable at the cost of supressing their emotions. Most women, Wollstonecraft argues, live in a condition of moral weakness. Their senses and emotions overexcited, their reason undernourished, they are “blown about by every momentary gust of feeling.” Education must aim above all at the suppression of these feelings. Passionate erotic love, especially, must be discouraged lest it endanger the home. Martin suspects that Wollstonecraft, like Plato, has adopted a conception of rational self-control that is based upon male aspirations and experience, too quickly discarding emotions that Wollstonecraft herself sees as important in women’s actual lives.

These doubts are supported by Martin’s reading of Catharine Beecher’s A Treatise on Domestic Economy. Here (in addition to Beecher’s argument that households cannot be well run unless the housewife has a great deal of scientific training) Martin discovers a conception of practical reason that emphasizes the value of intuitive and emotional responses for making good choices in concrete situations, such as planning meals or the living space in a house. If good practical judgment is not a matter of following abstract rules of duty (as Wollstonecraft seems to assume), but more a matter of perceiving, intuitively, what those particular situations are, in all their complexity, then suppressing the emotions—which frequently aid us in this sort of perceiving—might actually damage reason itself.

Martin’s last group of educated women are the inhabitants of a strangely happy country called Herland, which has been discovered (in Gilman’s novel) by three male adventurers. For three thousand years this land has been inhabited only by women; babies are born by asexual reproduction. The women of Herland, like Plato’s guardians, have no experience of private property or nuclear families; they raise all children in common and distribute among themselves, according to ability, the tasks of citizenship. But unlike Plato’s guardians they carefully cultivate love for and in their daughters. Maternal love is, in fact, the fundamental motive for all public planning. It has produced a culture that has more or less eliminated war, poverty, and disease. And yet, as we read on, we discover that this emotion has undergone a transformation in order to become a harmonious part of Gilman’s idea of rationality. Since all children are held in common, a birth or a death matters far less than it does when the child is all you have, and all your own. Love becomes a kind of tranquil concern, hardly an emotion at all. As Martin summarizes, “No intense delight for the mothers of Herland, no shocks of joy, no sickening anxiety.” Furthermore, like both Plato and Wollstonecraft, Gilman has entirely eliminated erotic love. Herland values the serenity achieved by these eliminations. In the end all three of the women who are the chief characters in the novel marry the male invaders; two of the three couples depart from Herland. So the utopia ironically comments upon its own possible incompleteness.

Here Martin misses a chance to dig deeper into a central ethical issue. She criticizes Plato, Wollstonecraft, and Gilman for neglecting the cultivation of the emotions. She claims that Plato (I shall confine myself to this example) has unthinkingly imposed upon his female guardians a norm of cool rationality that was the public ideal for males in his culture, failing to consider the possibility that the strong emotions linked in his society with “womanish” behavior (love, fear, grief) might have their own contribution to make to his new universal norm. I think she fails to see the depth and consistency of Plato’s position; and she thereby misses a chance to make a deeper criticism of Plato. To see this we must understand the connection between Plato’s repudiation of the emotions and his interest in human self-sufficiency.

  1. 1

    Paraphrased from Plutarch, Sayings of Spartan Women, 242 CD. (This story is my contribution and is not discussed in Martin’s book.)

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