Extract from my free lecture on eighteenth-century literature, the Literature of Sensibility, women writers and readers:
Women’s education was much debated throughout the century, not least in women’s novels but the generally accepted ideal was to educate women not for professions of course but to render them useful and interesting companions capable of running their households and educating their children.
There was concern throughout the century that women’s education should be practical and moral. Adam Smith approved of women whose ‘education tends evidently to some useful purpose; either to improve the natural attractions of their person, or to form their mind to reserve, to modesty, to chastity, and to economy’ (The Wealth of Nations, 1776). Thomas Gisborne objected to the notion of teaching women simply ‘to improve in personal grace, to study fashionable decorations of the body and of the mind’, noting the problems inherent in such a view of women simply as attractive objects; his arguments still have resonance: ‘is it surprising that she, when grown up, should starve herself into shapeliness, and over-spread her face with paint?’
Even Richardson, largely sympathetic to women, did not advocate too deep an education for women, warning in Sir Charles Grandison (1753-4): ‘take care you give not up any knowledge that is more laudable in your sex, and more useful, for learning; and then I am sure you will, you must, be the more agreeable, the more suitable companions for it, to men of sense'(vol I, letter 13) – education is desirable only in so much as it will enable women to please men of sense.
Women’s education was limited in our terms but set a vital precedent for the future in that women were no longer simply breeders of heirs but capable of rational and useful employments.