Daniel Defoe on wise women

Today, along with ''Robinson Crusoe,'' Daniel Defoe might be writing ''docudrama'' or ''parajournalism'' like his ''Journal of the Plague Year,'' a you-are-there reconstruction of Britain in 1666 (when he was a small boy). Here, in a passage from ''An Essay on Projects,'' he seems ahead of his time and, in some respects, of later ones as well.

I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized 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 conversible at all, since they are only beholden 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 of 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, 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 'tis 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 'tis 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. . . .

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