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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.

Plato (along with most ancient Greek ethical thinkers) correctly sees that the central emotions (e.g., love, anger, fear, pity, grief) are not simply visceral feelings, distinguished from one another only by their felt quality. They are complexes of feeling and belief; they rest on and are in part made up of beliefs about the world, in such a way that removal of the relevant belief will remove not only the reason for the emotion but also the emotion itself. Anger, for example, is a composite of painful feeling and the belief that one has been wronged. The two elements are not incidentally linked: the belief is the ground of the feeling. If I discover that an apparent slight did not in fact take place, I can expect my painful angry feelings to go away. Or if they persist, I will not think of them as anger—but, say, as residual irrational irritation. This account implies that emotions may be assessed as rational or irrational, and also as true or false, depending upon the character of the beliefs that compose them. If I become angry because I hastily and uncritically believe a false story about an injury done to me, my anger may be criticized as both irrational and false.

Plato and the later Greek Stoics built their repudiation of the emotions on a deep insight: that the beliefs that are the bases of all the strong emotions involve a high evaluation of objects or persons over which I do not have full control. Fear, for example, requires the belief that my life can be significantly damaged by future events that I have no power to prevent. Pity requires the belief that someone else has been seriously hurt by an event that was not his or her fault. Passionate love requires that a unique (or at least not readily replaceable) value be ascribed to a person who is not under our control; jealousy and grief are its natural companions. (The Stoics work this out systematically, showing how anxiety is the other face of intense joy; how what in good times is gratitude will be anger in bad; and so forth.) In short: emotional life presupposes and rests upon a picture of the good life that makes it vulnerable, not self-sufficient, and subject in many ways to the vicissitudes of fortune.

Plato argues that such a life is intolerably unstable and disorderly; the evaluative beliefs on which it is based may be both pernicious and false. The true view of what is worthwhile in life teaches us that “the good person cannot be harmed,” that what is of supreme value is virtue, an internal condition that is unaffected by the world. But this means that the emotions are false through and through, and do not belong in a good person’s life. It would be both wrong and inconsistent, on Plato’s view, to supplement the education of the guardians by encouraging the cultivation of the emotions; this would be like supplementing a true belief with its contradiction.

Greek men were in fact by no means “stoical” and unemotional. Their literature shows intense and frequently violent emotional feeling; the philosophers’ obsessive emphasis on the philosophers’ obsessive emphasis on the therapy of emotion confirms this. (The zeal of Stoic writing on this subject would have no point, say, in contemporary England.) Plato wishes to change all this, for both women and men, by preventing citizens from developing the beliefs about the world on which the emotions are based. A child who has been farmed out to interchangeable wet nurses, who thinks that all older citizens are equally its parents, will never, Plato thinks, learn the intense love that is usually found in families: for this love requires the belief that one set of people is special. Later in life this same child will never know the torments of erotic passion or jealousy, because the state, which prevents intimate personal knowledge, will contrive to make sexual partners, too, seem similar and interchangeable. The intellectual life of the guardians will be a life of stable and unwavering devotion to truth, purified of the violent upheavals and disorders that characterize our ordinary lives. Thinking is always in our power, he argues, no matter what happens in the world; thus a life that ascribes supreme value to thinking contains no reasons for grief, or anger, or fear.

It is important to see that in the view of Plato and the Stoics it is this life, not the emotional life in which particular objects and persons are cherished, that is the life of gentleness and civic friendliness; for it is only when ethical beliefs are thus rearranged that we can have a politics of gentleness, rather than a politics of rage and jealousy. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus observes that if Menelaus had correctly understood that Helen was just one woman like all the others, “gone would have been the Iliad, and the Odyssey as well.” One evaluative belief, one love, caused so much suffering for so many. Medea, he continues, would have lived a life free of guilt if only she had understood that Jason was not special. Murderous rage is a disease of reason.

All this means that if we are going to criticize Plato’s attitude to the emotions we must radically criticize his conception of the human good as self-sufficient and unaffected by the workings of fortune. We must articulate and defend a conception of value that shows the worth of external attachments and commitments, arguing that a life that lacks deep personal love, commitment to particular children, etc., is impoverished by comparison with one that includes them. We cannot simply say, “Three cheers for love and caring.” If we cherish these values (as, with Martin, I do), we must also confront Plato’s hard questions: in what ways can people not be self-sufficient and yet have reasonably stable personal and civic lives? What degree and type of emotional attachment is compatible with gentleness, both private and public? How can we make room for the value of deep love, and its vulnerabilities, while protecting private and public life from destructive angers and jealousies?

Another issue of fortune and self-sufficiency confronts Martin’s reader at this point. This is the issue of conflict of values. Given our finite power and resources, given the way the world is, can we in fact combine in a single life (and therefore appropriately teach in a single scheme of education) all the values, traditionally linked with either the male or the female, that have been defended by the thinkers she discusses? Those thinkers who defend an ideal in which male and female qualities complement one another have usually done so, she says, out of the belief that there are two discrete sets of human virtues, both needed for a flourishing community, that cannot be cultivated side by side in the same person—either because they are in some way incompatible or because some division of ethical labor is necessary in order that people should not be perpetually torn by conflicting demands.

The first type of argument is central to Rousseau’s account of Sophie, who can (he claims) be gentle and loving only if she does not learn to think for herself. We are told by Rousseau that if women take on public rights and responsibilities similar to those of men they will lose certain characteristic virtues that a community as a whole requires for its continued health. Women must be confined to the home because the home is a bastion of gentleness that would be defiled by too much freedom. (Spartan woman number 3 can no longer give the answers to numbers 1 and 2.)

One of the great merits of Martin’s book is her acute demonstration of the defects in this reasoning. She does not deny that some accounts of female freedom and female citizenship sacrifice apparent virtues that the rather repulsive Sophie does possess; indeed she stresses this point. But she argues well that both Sophie and Emile (in addition to having impoverished and one-sided lives) will fall short at their respective social tasks because each is cut off from the other’s virtues. Sophie, who has never learned to rely on herself or to use reason to organize her life, will not manage a household with the intelligence of Wollstonecraft’s rationally educated woman or Beecher’s domestic scientist. And devoid of self-respect, taught to get her way by flattery, she will not be the sort of loyal and understanding wife who could best support Emile and raise his children. Emile, trained to see himself as an isolated being who needs nothing from anyone, will have difficulty becoming the attentive husband that Rousseau requires him to be, dependent upon Sophie, her “other half.” But if he cannot be a satisfactory husband and father, there are grave doubts whether he will have the right sort of concern for the community. Martin argues persuasively that to sever the development of intellect, judgment, and the sense of personal worth from the development of abilities to love and care for a family is not only not necessary, but is actually pernicious—even given the view of human ends and social roles that governs a society such as Rousseau’s. (The third Spartan woman is in the best position to give, as well, the answers of the first and second.)

There remains the second sort of conflict. Even if the two spheres of virtue can be linked, isn’t it impossible for any one person to do and to be all of these things? Won’t a person who tries to combine the best of both Sophie and Emile be continually torn by the conflicting demands of these different spheres? One advantage of assigning to each sex only half of the total number of commitments that are recognized to be important is that there is a greater chance, then, that nobody’s life will turn out to be tragic. But we must now ask: is that an advantage, if everyone’s life is impoverished? (And impoverished, as Martin shows, even by the standards of its own proper virtues?) Of course a person who cares about and pursues many valuable things will encounter conflicts more frequently than someone who cares about only one thing. That is the price one pays for having a fuller life. Well-known philosophers have often maintained that there are no genuine conflicts of obligation. Even those who acknowledge that there are such conflicts (this position is, fortunately, gaining ground2 ) often say that public planning should work toward their elimination.

It is not clear to me that, so simply put, this view is either possible or wise. Virtually any woman or man who both works and raises children is bound to face many conflicts between work and family; many times this person will have no choice but to neglect something that he or she values doing, and would have done had the world arranged things differently. Many of these conflicts could indeed be removed by a juster and more rational public culture (by more equity in salaries, by better schemes of child care). But they will not all be removed this way. For the only way to guarantee that the demands of a child’s love never encroach upon one’s professional life is to deny the child’s love—to arrange for it to be raised, and loved, by someone else. This is what many men have frequently done. And it seems important to stress that these conflicts are present as much for men as for women—though until now fewer men have acknowledged that (for example) in spending little time caring for their children they are missing something of intrinsic value. There is a cost in recognizing how many things are valuable: it is that one also sees how often the world makes it impossible to do everything that is good.

One central question here is surely the future of the nuclear family. For, as Martin argues, we can imagine lives in which we bring up children and care for others and yet are free of many divisive conflicts if, as Plato and Gilman suggest, we assign the responsibility of child rearing to the community or state. Martin makes no final judgment on this issue. But, with Beecher, she asks some questions about the nature of practical judgment that suggest one reason, among others, to reject Plato’s idea. If the sort of ethical knowledge that is most important for making good judgments as a parent is, or requires, a particular knowledge of each child’s concrete history and personality, an ability to perceive and respond to that child as a person unlike any other, and if, as seems likely, one cannot have that concrete knowledge without intimacy, time, and also love, then we do away with the nuclear family at our peril.

So Aristotle argues against Plato: in an education based on the family, with its greater “precision of particularity,” “each one will be more likely to get what is fitting.”3 Such arguments do not establish the superiority of what a notorious recent Boston Globe editorial rejecting foster parenting by gay couples was pleased to call the “normal family,” namely a heterosexual couple, the woman a housewife. Many nontraditional parents, including single adults and homosexual couples, male or female, could provide a satisfactory family life. But any commitment to the raising of a particular child or children as one’s very own will bring with it a potential for conflict with the claims of work and citizenship that was absent from Plato’s city. If we choose this value, we will have to learn to think wisely about these conflicts.

Martin’s discussion leaves us, then, with the delicate and difficult task of combining all these commitments in a single life. (For we have said that they are all valuable; and that if they conflict in some particular situations, they are more often mutually supportive, and indeed frequently mutually necessary.) Where in the philosophical tradition is there a portrait of such a rich and complete existence? Each of the writers Martin discusses describes a life lacking in something that the discussion of them taken together shows to be of serious value. Those who emphasize freedom, intellect, and citizenship neglect or deny the household and/or the emotions; those (such as Rousseau and Beecher) who portray the value of household activity slight women’s intellectual work and public freedom; all the writers alike seem to deny the value of erotic love (unless we imagine that Sophie and Emile will have an exhilarating relationship).

If we look beyond Martin’s book to the ethical tradition more generally, the ideas we find are only a little better. Aristotle, for example, purports to describe a “complete” good life for a human being, one that will include every activity that is of intrinsic human worth. And his life does indeed include much that other parts of the tradition neglect: it includes personal friendship alongside justice, social and convivial excellences alongside intellectual pursuits. And yet he excludes from intrinsic value both erotic love and household work, together with close daily caring for children—believing that these are activities belonging to or requiring cooperation with inferior female beings. To a reader of Martin’s discussion this life, too, must seem not “complete” but incomplete.

Martin’s book ends with questions, not solutions. This, I think, is appropriate—for it has become plain in her discussion that the conclusions suggested by her criticisms are not to be found in the philosophical tradition at all. The tradition can help us see the issue more clearly; but a new, normative chapter remains to be written. And, as her contemporary references suggest, Martin thinks it is being “written” right now by women and men who are trying to live in the fuller way she proposes. Her open-ended conclusion invites us to realize that if the aspiration to completeness is expressed anywhere at all, it may be in our own muddled daily live—as, in a way unprecedented in history, many women and men are now trying to express, in their sometimes bewildered confrontation with particular choices: a commitment to work, to citizenship and social justice, to personal love, to the care and raising of children, to the household, to friendship and hospitality, to other values as well. All this, many hope, without the compromises and failures of recognition that have characterized so many centuries in which the lives of men and women were separated. As they do this they sometimes encounter painful conflicts (conflicts, for example, between obligations to care for children and the demands of a career for uninterrupted time and thought; between either of these and the intensity of attention that personal love requires). It sometimes will turn out, too, that the quality of some activity is impaired by a commitment to balancing so many heterogeneous concerns.

This life can feel overcrowded—as if the small number of values that sat comfortably side by side in Aristotle’s gentlemanly scheme of the good life were suddenly being asked to move over to make a place for as many more importunate newcomers. It is certainly not the life of the leisured Athenian gentleman. It is frequently hectic, breathless, lacking in grace and ease. And yet women and men who try to live such lives frequently discover that these many values support and illuminate one another when all are respected—that citizenship can be instructed by the experience of knowing and intimately caring for one’s children; that personal love can be richer and more interesting when both partners care about and seriously pursue some form of work; that children can be better educated if they see that the adults who love and care for them also love and work for other valuable things.

It is too soon to see this new view of life clearly or to assess it; right now it is not a view at all, but a plurality of different lives. But ethical views, if they are to be of any use, are stories or summaries of particular lives. And it is in these lives, not in the study, that valuable new ethical conceptions are constructed. Martin ends with a plea that any future theory of women’s education should bring itself “into tune with the full range of people’s lives”—reminding us that it is in their daily choices, if anywhere, that men and women will succeed in constructing a new and fuller meaning for that venerable philosophical expression, “the complete human life.” Like Martin, I find this idea remarkably exciting.

  1. 1

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

  2. 2

    See, for example, Bernard Williams’s essay “Ethical Consistency” in Problems of the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1972).

  3. 3

    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics X.9, 1180b11–13 (my translation).

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