A Man and a Woman seated by a Virginal, Gabriel Metsu, c.1665, oil on oak (National Gallery, London, NG839)
My recent research has had me reading lots of histories of women written in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which has been a lot more amusing than it might sound. Of course, this is a really interesting body of literature, with lots of attempts to highlight the good points of women throughout history, with many examples offered so as to inspire contemporary women to follow in their footsteps. Ironically, it was often written by men, who often chastised women for being so ignorant of their own history – a history that has consistently been marginalised – implying that it was only men who were capable of taking these female role models from history for contemporary reading. Mansplaining at its finest.
My favourite (not favourite for enjoyment purposes, but level of incredulity upon reading it!) of these has to be William Alexander’s 1796 The History of Women, from the Earliest Antiquity, to the Present Time. He begins his introduction by telling the reader that he recognises that lots of men admonish women without valid reason, following this with his ideas on the responsibilities of men for making better the so-called follies of women:
“if the whole may be traced either to the total want of, or to an improper education; and if the power of neglecting this education altogether, or bestowing it improperly, be lodged in our hands, as having the sole management and direction of the sex; then it will follow, that we should act a much better and more becoming a part, in trying to amend their faults by a more judicious instruction, that to leave them ignorant, and complain that they are so; to teach them folly, and rail at them for having learned what we taught them.”
I read this pretty much as “if it is our fault women aren’t better educated, as we alone can manage women and tell them what to do, then we must try better to fix the problems with women by telling them what to do in a better way.” I know I’m looking at it with my modern twenty-first century eyes, but if this is a kind of apology to women for leaving them in the dark about their own history (even though plenty of women had tried to write such a history or text – see Christine de Pizan or Mary Hays, for instance), it’s probably better to actually apologise rather than say “it might be our fault, and if it is…” – I told you that reading these texts was inadvertently (and ironically) funny!
Similarly, the way Alexander advertised his book also suggested that women were incapable of making their own decisions about their education. He then patronisingly suggests that surely anyone who is educated well enough will already know everything he has written, but he must repeat because women have to be explicitly told to engage with their own history. It said:
“but as to the generality of the Fair Sex, whose reading is more confined, now spend many of their idle hours in poring over novels and romances, which greatly tend to mislead the understanding and corrupt the heart, we cannot help expressing a wish, that they would spare a part of this time to look into the history of their own Sex; a history, which we flatter ourselves will afford them no irrational amusement, and which will more gratify the curiosity of the female mind in whatever relates to themselves, than any thing that has hitherto been published.”
My personal favourite part of this is the final bit, in which Alexander humbly says that he thinks he has done a good job in writing women’s history for ignorant women, so much so that women will of course enjoy it and it is better reading for them than anything that has ever been published. Quite a bold claim, really, and one that is particularly aggravating seeing as it follows a nice little dig of men wishing that women would spend less time reading novels and instead devote this time to understanding their own history. A history that Alexander has so helpfully laid out for them in such plain and simple terms any woman will understand. (I hope you can sense my eyes rolling?)
Maybe I’ve read too much into this – and perhaps had a little too much fun paraphrasing Alexander – but I think this represents a problem within the eighteenth century regarding female education, or perhaps more accurately, a double-edged sword. New philosophical developments within the Enlightenment movement meant that it was now more widely accepted that women should be educated, but actually, women became a subject of study for men at the same time. Plus, it led to debates over how much women could know and what they should know. It is clear that Alexander felt that, in order for women to have a successful education, they should look to the past and emulate exemplar women from history. However, the caveat to this was that women should do this under the watchful eye of their male relatives and guardians, using a book that is written by a man and therefore approved by men. According to Alexander, women could be educated, but they could not have their own initiative.
I promise there are other texts that are more optimistic and inclusive of female intellectual endeavours than this – but William Alexander has given me so much infuriated amusement whilst researching my latest chapter, that I couldn’t help but share!
Want to read for yourself?
Alexander’s text is available on Early English Books Online.