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Women and Learning in English Writing, 1600-1900
Deirdre Raftery

'Educating Women can be dangerous, as its opponents recognized early in the history of the centuries-long debates over the issue. It can free women from social and financial dependence on men; more, it can reconfigure their sense of their place in the world. Emily Davies, the founder of Girton College and the teleological endpoint of Deirdre Raftery’s study, downplayed higher education’s transformative potential, aware that this was the only way to gather broad-based support for her ambitious project. Nonetheless, she resisted compromising her goal of equal access to University degrees.

Raftery, also joint editor of the forthcoming Selected Letters of Emily Davies, presents Davies’ achievements as the culmination of more than three centuries of discussion of the merits and risks of educating women. Thus Davies’ diplomacy – her efforts to disarm prejudice by tacitly assuring the public that educated women would not become mannish – needs to be read in the context of the persistent stereotypes of the learned woman circulating from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century. A chapter on the Renaissance reveals little acclaim for Plato’s position that men and women are intellectual equals. Or if they are, according to the humanist Comenius, they must still be educated according to their different ends in life. Arguments on each side “varied only slightly from century to century,” supported, and one which questioned, the contemporary ideology of femininity” (p.23).  Recurrent commonplaces about the nature of Woman are rooted in classical literature (Pandora) and the Bible (Eve). Tracing the forms these take in successive countries, Raftery correlates them with a concise account of educational institutions and literacy levels for women, extensively researched in secondary sources.

On the heels of the hic mulier controversy in England (1542-1640) and the seventeenth-century French querelle des femmes, Mary Astell, the “pioneer of women’s education” (p. 33), strove to convince women readers in her Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) that stereotypes of female incapacity were unfounded. She proposed a prototypical women’s college, a kind of Protestant convent dedicated to women’s education and spiritual development, but an anonymous lady was dissuaded from contributing £10,000 and Astell’s goal remained unrealized.

Attention to women’s education in the expanding print marketplace of the eighteenth century is treated in two chapters, chapter two, “Strictures and Vindications,” and chapter three, “The Education of Women in English Literature.” The chapter division is based in part on a rather puzzling system of categories, set forth in an appendix, including both “Conduct” and “Epistolary”(p.221). The extensive overlap between these categories is not noted (letters were a popular format for conduct literature as well as travel writing, novels, and even political polemic). This leads to separate treatment of works that would be more effectively discussed together. Mary Wollstonecraft’s milestone Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is placed alongside Hannah More’s conservative riposte, Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799). But their contemporaries, Hester Chapone, Catherine Macauley (a key influence on Wollstonecraft), Laetitia Hawkins, and Mary Robinson are relegated to the next chapter.

Raftery’s review of the broad issues of the eighteenth-century debate is competent and informative. Her treatment of individual figures and works tends to a reader trained in literature. She does not show much familiarity with recent criticism of the novelists she treats. For her interpretation of Frances Burney’s novels, for example, she relies heavily on a single 1987 study, with no acknowledgement of the recent spate of critical controversy over this enigmatic figure, who is pigeonholed here as a “bluestocking”.
A chapter on the nineteenth century surveys medical pronouncements discouraging women from higher education before turning to didactic non-fiction. One difference from earlier periods is a “move outward from the ‘private’ world of the female soul, to the ‘public’ world of female philanthropy” (p. 138). Ironically, a major concern  of women philanthropists, such as the members of the Sunday School movement, was to inculcate subservience in lower-class women. The chapter culminates with a survey of periodicals’ contribution to the debate, especially those targeted to the educated middle classes. The Englishwoman’s Review, organ of the nineteenth-century women’s movement, is treated at the greatest length as “the most complete published primary source for the history of the nineteenth-century movement for the higher education of women” (p. 173).

From here the closing chapter turns to the history of the opening of higher education to English women, beginning with the foundation of Queen’s College (1848) and Bedford College (1849), but focussing on Emily Davies and the founding of Girton in 1869. Raftery finds echoes of Astell in Davies’ rhetoric and strategy, but concludes by noting that unlike Astell’s early vision of a female educational community separate from men, “Davies wished to closely replicate the men’s colleges and open to women the educational rights of men” (p.216). Those interested in the history of debates on women’s education will find Raftery’s book a rich resource. Its teleological structure, with its focus on elite women wanting access to higher education, limits it somewhat, but as a work of intellectual history it is ambitious and wide-ranging'

Elizabeth A. Bohls Albion.

English Studies: a Journal of English Language and Literature

'… Raftery's book is a very well researched study of a large variety of texts dealing with the issue of, as the author puts it, how 'higher education was opened to women in England. Thus it demonstrates that popular fiction displays the stereotypes of the plain spinster and the female pedant, even as late as Jane Austen's novels … While it might have been easy to pack a study like this with grudges against missed opportunities which intelligent women of all ages must have felt, Raftery never does so. Instead, she presents a factual and at times very lively account of how women throughout history sought to better their situation, often with the help of their male relatives and friends. In this, Sarah Fielding, despite her brother's envy for her greater learning, as no exception' Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, December 2000

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