Academy for Women
Essay upon Projects
Defoe’s “Academy for Women” appears in the chapter of his Essay on Projects entitled “Of Academies”. This section begins with a general recommendation of academies modelled on “the academy of Paris” as societies which are able to promote learning and the arts of civil society. The chapter thereafter comprises a section recommending the establishment of a “Royal Military Academy”, and the “Academy for Women”. Defoe’s belief that women are as capable as men, or indeed more capable but held back by the way in which society treats them, is very much ahead of its time. (Robert Clark)
I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilised and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women. We reproach the sex every day with folly and impertinence, while I am confident, had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves.
One would wonder indeed how it should happen that women are conversable at all, since they are only beholding to natural parts for all their knowledge. Their youth is spent to teach them to stitch and sew, or make baubles. They are taught to read indeed, and perhaps to write their names, or so, and that is the height of a woman’s education. And I would but ask any who slight the sex for their understanding, What is a man (a gentleman, I mean) good for that is taught no more?
I need not give instances, or examine the character of a gentleman with a good estate, and of a good family, and with tolerable parts, and examine what figure he makes for want of education.
The soul is placed in the body like a rough diamond, and must be polished, or the lustre of it will never appear. And it is manifest that as the rational soul distinguishes us from brutes, so education carries on the distinction, and makes some less brutish than others. This is too evident to need any demonstration. But why, then, should women be denied the benefit of instruction? If knowledge and understanding had been useless additions to the sex, God Almighty would never have given them capacities, for He made nothing needless: besides, I would ask such what they can see in ignorance that they should think it a necessary ornament to a woman. Or, How much worse is a wise woman than a fool? or, What has the woman done to forfeit the privilege of being taught? Does she plague us with her pride and impertinence? Why did we not let her learn, that she might have had more wit? Shall we upbraid women with folly, when it is only the error of this inhuman custom that hindered them being made wiser?
The capacities of women are supposed to be greater and their senses quicker than those of the men; and what they might be capable of being bred to is plain from some instances of female wit which this age is not without, which upbraids us with injustice, and looks as if we denied women the advantages of education for fear they should vie with the men in their improvements.
To remove this objection, and that women might have at least a needful opportunity of education in all sorts of useful learning, I propose the draft of an academy for that purpose.
I know it is dangerous to make public appearances of the sex; they are not either to be confined or exposed: the first will disagree with their inclinations, and the last with their reputations; and therefore it is somewhat difficult; and I doubt a method proposed by an ingenious lady, in a little book called, “Advice to the Ladies,” would be found impracticable. For, saving my respect to the sex, the levity which perhaps is a little peculiar to them (at least in their youth) will not bear the restraint; and I am satisfied nothing but the height of bigotry can keep up a nunnery. Women are extravagantly desirous of going to heaven, and will punish their pretty bodies to get thither; but nothing else will do it, and even in that case sometimes it falls out that nature will prevail.
When I talk therefore of an academy for women I mean both the model, the teaching, and the government different from what is proposed by that ingenious lady, for whose proposal I have a very great esteem, and also a great opinion of her wit; different, too, from all sorts of religious confinement, and, above all, from vows of celibacy.
Wherefore the academy I propose should differ but little from public schools, wherein such ladies as were willing to study should have all the advantages of learning suitable to their genius.
But since some severities of discipline more than ordinary would be absolutely necessary to preserve the reputation of the house, that persons of quality and fortune might not be afraid to venture their children thither, I shall venture to make a small scheme by way of essay.
The house I would have built in a form by itself, as well as in a place by itself.
The building should be of three plain fronts, without any jettings or bearing-work, that the eye might at a glance see from one coin to the other; the gardens walled in the same triangular figure, with a large moat, and but one entrance.
When thus every part of the situation was contrived as well as might be for discovery, and to render intriguing dangerous, I would have no guards, no eyes, no spies set over the ladies, but shall expect them to be tried by the principles of honour and strict virtue.
And if I am asked why, I must ask pardon of my own sex for giving this reason for it:
I am so much in charity with women, and so well acquainted with men, that it is my opinion there needs no other care to prevent intriguing than to keep the men effectually away. For though inclination, which we prettily call love, does sometimes move a little too visibly in the sex, and frailty often follows, yet I think verily custom, which we miscall modesty, has so far the ascendant over the sex that solicitation always goes before it.
"Custom with women, ’stead of virtue, rules; It leads the wisest, and commands the fools; For this alone, when inclinations reign, Though virtue’s fled, will acts of vice restrain. Only by custom ‘tis that virtue lives, And love requires to be asked before it gives. For that which we call modesty is pride: They scorn to ask, and hate to be denied. ‘Tis custom thus prevails upon their want; They’ll never beg what, asked, they easily grant. And when the needless ceremony’s over, Themselves the weakness of the sex discover. If, then, desires are strong, and nature free, Keep from her men and opportunity. Else ‘twill be vain to curb her by restraint; But keep the question off, you keep the saint.”
In short, let a woman have never such a coming principle, she will let you ask before she complies—at least, if she be a woman of any honour.
Upon this ground I am persuaded such measures might be taken that the ladies might have all the freedom in the world within their own walls, and yet no intriguing, no indecencies, nor scandalous affairs happen; and in order to this, the following customs and laws should be observed in the colleges, of which I would propose one at least in every county in England, and about ten for the city of London.
After the regulation of the form of the building as before;
In this house the persons who enter should be taught all sorts of breeding suitable to both their genius and their quality, and, 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; and I would venture the injury of giving a woman more tongues than one.
They should, as a particular study, be taught all the graces of speech, and all the necessary air of conversation, which our common education is so defective in that I need not expose it. They should be brought to read books, and especially history, and so to read as to make them understand the world, and be able to know and judge of things when they hear of them.
To such whose genius would lead them to it I would deny no sort of learning: but the chief thing in general is to cultivate the understandings of the sex, that they may be capable of all sorts of conversation; that, their parts and judgments being improved, they may be as profitable in their conversation as they are pleasant.
Women, in my observation, have little or no difference in them but as they are, or are not, distinguished by education. Tempers indeed may in some degree influence them, but the main distinguishing part is their breeding.
The whole sex are generally quick and sharp; I believe I may be allowed to say generally so; for you rarely see them lumpish and heavy when they are children, as boys will often be. If a woman be well bred, and taught the proper management of her natural wit, she proves generally very sensible and retentive; and, without partiality, a woman of sense and manners is the finest and most delicate part of God’s creation, the glory of her Maker, and the great instance of His singular regard to man (His darling creature), to whom He gave the best gift either God could bestow or man receive; and it is the most sordid piece of folly and ingratitude in the world to withhold from the sex the due lustre which the advantages of education gives to the natural beauty of their minds.
A woman well bred and well taught, furnished with the additional accomplishments of knowledge and behaviour, is a creature without comparison; her society is the emblem of sublimer enjoyments; her person is angelic, and her conversation heavenly; she is all softness and sweetness, peace, love, wit, and delight; she is every way suitable to the sublimest wish, and the man that has such a one to his portion has nothing to do but to rejoice in her, and be thankful.
On the other hand, suppose her to be the very same woman, and rob her of the benefit of education, and it follows thus:
Methinks mankind for their own sakes (since, say what we will of the women, we all think fit one time or other to be concerned with them) should take some care to breed them up to be suitable and serviceable, if they expected no such thing as delight from them. Bless us! what care do we take to breed up a good horse, and to break him well! And what a value do we put upon him when it is done!—and all because he should be fit for our use. And why not a woman?—since all her ornaments and beauty, without suitable behaviour, is a cheat in nature, like the false tradesman who puts the best of his goods uppermost, that the buyer may think the rest are of the same goodness.
Beauty of the body, which is the women’s glory, seems to be now unequally bestowed, and nature (or, rather, Providence) to lie under some scandal about it, as if it was given a woman for a snare to men, and so make a kind of a she-devil of her: because, they say, exquisite beauty is rarely given with wit, more rarely with goodness of temper, and never at all with modesty. And some, pretending to justify the equity of such a distribution, will tell us it is the effect of the justice of Providence in dividing particular excellences among all His creatures, “Share and share alike, as it were,” that all might for something or other be acceptable to one another, else some would be despised.
I think both these notions false; and yet the last, which has the show of respect to Providence, is the worst; for it supposes Providence to be indigent and empty, as if it had not wherewith to furnish all the creatures it had made, but was fain to be parsimonious in its gifts, and distribute them by piece-meal, for fear of being exhausted.
If I might venture my opinion against an almost universal notion, I would say most men mistake the proceedings of Providence in this case, and all the world at this day are mistaken in their practice about it. And, because the assertion is very bold, I desire to explain myself.
That Almighty First Cause which made us all is certainly the fountain of excellence, as it is of being, and by an invisible influence could have diffused equal qualities and perfections to all the creatures it has made, as the sun does its light, without the least ebb or diminution to Himself; and has given indeed to every individual sufficient to the figure His providence had designed him in the world.
I believe it might be defended if I should say that I do suppose God has given to all mankind equal gifts and capacities, in that He has given them all souls equally capable; and that the whole difference in mankind proceeds either from accidental difference in the make of their bodies, or from the foolish difference of education.
1. From Accidental Difference in Bodies
I would avoid discoursing here of the philosophical position of the soul in the body: but if it be true, as philosophers do affirm, that the understanding and memory is dilated or contracted according to the accidental dimensions of the organ through which it is conveyed, then, though God has given a soul as capable to me as another, yet if I have any natural defect in those parts of the body by which the soul should act, I may have the same soul infused as another man, and yet he be a wise man and I a very fool. For example, if a child naturally have a defect in the organ of hearing, so that he could never distinguish any sound, that child shall never be able to speak or read, though it have a soul capable of all the accomplishments in the world. The brain is the centre of the soul’s actings, where all the distinguishing faculties of it reside; and it is observable, a man who has a narrow contracted head, in which there is not room for the due and necessary operations of nature by the brain, is never a man of very great judgment; and that proverb, “A great head and little wit,” is not meant by nature, but is a reproof upon sloth; as if one should, by way of wonder say, "Fie, fie, you that have a great head have but little wit; that’s strange! that must certainly be your own fault.” From this notion I do believe there is a great matter in the breed of men and women; not that wise men shall always get wise children: but I believe strong and healthy bodies have the wisest children; and sickly, weakly bodies affect the wits as well as the bodies of their children. We are easily persuaded to believe this in the breeds of horses, cocks, dogs, and other creatures; and I believe it is as visible in men.
But to come closer to the business; the great distinguishing difference which is seen in the world between men and women is in their education; and this is manifested by comparing it with the difference between one man or woman and another.
And herein it is that I take upon me to make such a bold assertion, that all the world are mistaken in their practice about women: for I cannot think that God Almighty ever made them so delicate, so glorious creatures, and furnished them with such charms, so agreeable and so delightful to mankind, with souls capable of the same accomplishments with men, and all to be only stewards of our houses, cooks, and slaves.
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 the man as a man of sense will scorn to oppress the weakness of the woman. But if the women’s souls were refined and improved by teaching, that word would be lost; to say, “the weakness of the sex,” as to judgment, would be nonsense; for ignorance and folly would be no more to be found among women than men. I remember a passage which I heard from a very fine woman; she had wit and capacity enough, an extraordinary shape and face, and a great fortune, but had been cloistered up all her time, and, for fear of being stolen, had not had the liberty of being taught the common necessary knowledge of women’s affairs; and when she came to converse in the world her natural wit made her so sensible of the want of education that she gave this short reflection on herself:
"I am ashamed to talk with my very maids,” says she, “for I don’t know when they do right or wrong: I had more need go to school than be married."
I need not enlarge on the loss the defect of education is to the sex, nor argue the benefit of the contrary practice; it is a thing will be more easily granted than remedied: this chapter is but an essay at the thing, and I refer the practice to those happy days, if ever they shall be, when men shall be wise enough to mend it.
First published 1697.
Contributed by Robert Clark.