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Mary Wollstonecraft's Diagnosis of the Prejudices Holding Back Girls' Education Remains Relevant Today

Frontispiece engraving by William Blake from Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life, 1791 ed. 

In 1785, aged only twenty-five, Mary Wollstonecraft, along with her two sisters and her good friend Fanny Blood, opened a school in Newington Green, London. Their aim was to fill the gaping hole in the education of young women, and there seemed no better place to start the rollout. As home to numerous religious radicals and dissenters, Newington Green was a community open to new ideas – one that had already rejected many a status quo. But, despite Wollstonecraft’s best efforts, the school soon failed. Rather than giving up, she turned to writing as a means of championing the cause. Her first book, aptly titled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, was published in 1787. By 1792, she had moved to France in search of the Revolution and was publishing what was to become her best-known work: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Moral and Political Subjects.

Contrary to the opinion of the day, Wollstonecraft argued that women were brains, not just bodies: that they were just as capable as men and deserved the same access to education in order to broaden their minds. While this much is, of course, well known, there is a further aspect to Wollstonecraft’s work that has been buried in history. It is a golden nugget, and one that allows us to better understand the obstacles girls face. Referencing the popular conduct manuals of the time, which she described as “specious poisons” that created an “insipid decency,” Wollstonecraft noted that it wasn’t only society’s warped focus on women’s biology that hampered progress towards educational equality but also, more specifically, society’s obsession with female “purity.” Even for a girl whose parents had the means and inclination to support her education, the fear that her virginity could be brought into question made schooling alongside men a virtual impossibility.

The answer to this was the governess, but this was expensive and necessarily limited women’s ability to acquire a broad education, and to mix and debate with others. Having been a governess herself, working for the Kingsborough family in Ireland following the failure of her school, Wollstonecraft had firsthand experience. In championing girls’ schooling, Wollstonecraft might have been the proverbial turkey voting for Christmas, but she knew that much more was at stake than her own job (and, in any case, she didn’t much get along with the mother of the Kingsborough brood).

At a time when respectable families placed their daughters’ “morality” ahead of their education, Wollstonecraft stated that “[w]ithout knowledge there can be no morality.” True virtue, she argued, could only ever be achieved by immersing yourself in life and experiencing the world, as men were encouraged to do, including on their grand tours. In her Vindication, she writes that “men have superior judgement” because “they give a freer scope to the grand passions, and by more frequently going astray enlarge their minds.” Men were allowed to achieve wisdom and virtue because “the hero is allowed to be mortal.” By contrast, heroines “are to be born immaculate.” For women, everything was to be lost; for men, everything was there for the taking. What Wollstonecraft ultimately called for was a “revolution in female manners.”

While the revolution in female manners is still ongoing, progress in regard to women’s schooling came in the late nineteenth century, albeit only for the wealthy. In England, Cheltenham Ladies’ College opened in 1853, followed by Roedean School in 1885. By the late nineteenth century, young women were able to acquire an education at my own university, Cambridge, in ladies’ colleges strategically positioned outside the city center. The compromise was, of course, gender segregation.

Even if young women could by then acquire a mentally challenging education, the next step, entry to the workforce, also presented a reputational risk. While it was not a viable strategy for the poorest families, families with means expected their daughters to remain at home until marriage, spending their days helping with domestic tasks, preparing themselves to become good wives and mothers. Priscilla Wakefield was, however, no stranger to paid work. Living at the same time as Wollstonecraft, Wakefield managed to carve out a successful career as a writer, publishing a total of seventeen books, while also finding time to establish England’s first savings bank for women and children. Informed by her personal experience, Wakefield offered her own solution to the problem of preserving female virtue, one which involved embracing paid work but with strict limitations attached.

According to Wakefield, the central reason why women fell into “sexual sin,” including sex work, was a lack of financial support. Limiting young women’s educational development and their ability to earn was, she thought, a recipe for immorality, not morality. Rather than protecting women, their exclusion only succeeded in leaving them vulnerable. The phenomenon of “fallen women” was, she argued, an economic and not a social problem, one that resulted from a “dreadful necessity.” By means of a solution, her Reflection on the Present Condition of the Female Sex; with Suggestions for its Improvement (published in 1798) proposed an intricate and detailed plan for women’s work, tabulated by class, with educational and training recommendations for each “class.” She attempted to reconcile work and virtue, combining Wollstonecraft-style thinking with social conservatism. With it, Wakefield recommended that poorer women be properly trained as hairdressers, cooks or seamstresses so as to avoid falling into harlotry, and that men should be discouraged from working in such professions, keeping them “safe” for women. For the handful of women born into families with means, writing and painting were at the top of her list of recommendations, as they could be conducted from the “safety” of the home, away from men. Segregation along gender lines was, for Wakefield, the route to liberation.

The cult of female modesty has hampered women’s access to education and work for a long time. Sadly, it continues to have the same effect in parts of the world today. While the number of children not in school across the world has fallen over the last two decades, at current rates of progress it will be 2050 before all girls have been educated to at least primary school level. Evidence suggests that the poorest girls tend to be withdrawn from school at puberty (between the age of 12 and 14). In 2020, the countries with the highest out-of-school rate for girls in this age group were: Mali (84% out-of-school), the United Republic of Tanzania (81%), Guinea (78%), Nigeria (78%), Benin (73%), Pakistan (70%), Mauritania (63%), Afghanistan (62%), Senegal (58%) and Côte d’Ivoire (57%).

In 2012, the struggle for girls’ education in Pakistan came into sharp focus when Malala Yousafzai, then aged fifteen, was shot in the head by masked gunmen on her way home from school. She had become the target of the militant group Tehrik-i-Taliban following her campaign for girls’ education. Four years before the attack, in 2008, she and her female friends had been denied schooling when her town, in the Swat Valley, came under Taliban control. Since her recovery, Malala has continued her campaign. So too, sadly, have her enemies.

Following the introduction of the new Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2021, secondary schools were closed to girls. At the same time, the work of the Women’s Affairs Ministry was swallowed up by the Ministry of Vice and Virtue. Under the Taliban, and much as in Wollstonecraft’s time, “morality” comes first and that morality does not include a right to an education.