studies in the history of science and culture

© March 2004
revised 27 September 2009

Arguments for and against learned women at the close of the 17th century

IN 1694, CHARLES GILDON (1665–1724) published his Miscellaneous letters and essays, on several subjects. Philosophical, moral, historical, critical, amorous, &c. in prose and verse. Gildon, an associate of John Dunton and a member of the fictitious Athenian Society, was from a noted recusant family, and became a “hack writer” after depleting his inheritance and marrying “unwisely” (indicating that he married for love, rather than money and position). Later ridiculed by Alexander Pope in The Dunciad for his unscrupulous literary transactions and hoaxes, Gildon has most recently been taken to task by Janet Todd (The Secret Life of Aphra Behn) for having “exploited” Aphra Behn after her death. A protégé and close friend of Behn’s for the last three years of her life, Gildon had access to the manuscripts Behn left at her death, and, according to one literary critic, appears “to have been inspired with sufficient admiration or affection to produce her posthumous plays and publish her collected works in the hostile atmosphere of a London where Whiggism was triumphant and Aphra’s fellow Tories, particularly Dryden, had fallen deeply into disgrace.” (Woodcock 1948) As Todd points out, it no doubt helped that after a successful dramatisation of her famous short story, Oroonoko, Behn had become current again in the late 1690s, so that Gildon was able to capitalize on Behn’s own notoriety and established audience. Nonetheless, I suspect his affection for Behn was genuine, as well as opportune.

Gildon was nothing if not a skilled ventriloquist, as were such great dramatists as Behn herself. And Gildon was especially good at “faking correspondence for a living” (Todd 313), as we see in his 1694 collection of Miscellaneous Letters and Essays. Here, Gildon is at his best when giving voice to the spirited and witty Urania, clearly modeled in part on Aphra Behn, whose own “pleasing Arts of Conversation,” coupled with “great Strength of Mind, and Command of Thought,” Gildon himself remarked on.

In the short Account of the Life of the Incomparable Mrs. Behn, prefaced to his posthumous publication of her play, The Younger Brother, in 1696, Gildon wrote that “To draw her to the life one must write like her, that is, with all the softness of her sex and all the fire of ours.” Urania has the same kind of double voice that Gildon had admired in Aphra Behn, and apparently enjoyed speaking through, himself.

Among other written dialogues, Gildon’s book includes a correspondence between two women, Cloe and Urania, on the subject of learned women (pp. 55–63). And their correspondence provides an excellent summary statement of the main arguments, pro and con, undergirding the debate at the time over the proper education of daughters.

Regardless of his multiplicity of speaking voices, Gildon’s own position on the matter was consistent, I think. In another voice, later in his book, he remarks that it is against God – “an Arraignment of the first Cause” – “to run down” the female sex (230). In this sense, Gildon’s arguments in behalf of a well-rounded education for women had a spiritual grounding, and echoed familiar themes of human development found in, for example, the mysticism of The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus. While we tend now to associate the century’s hermetic philosophies with radical religious sects and mid-century progressive politics, there was High Tory support for this kind of private program of enlightenment as well. When it came to matters of her own spiritual growth, the libertine Aphra Behn advocated “quietly following the light within me” (this from her friend and fellow playwright, George Etherage) over public religious talk, by which “the greatest mysteries in Religion, and so rarely the Business of Discourse, are turn’d into Ridicule, and look but like so many fanatical Stratagems to Rive the Pulpit as well as the Stage” (this from Behn herself). And Behn publicly supported that mystic “mad hatter,” Thomas Tryon, a Pythagorean and disciple of the mystic, Jacob Böhme. Tryon wrote 17th-century manuals on alternative health and well-being with such familiar-sounding titles as The Way of Health and The Way to Make All People Rich; or Wisdom’s Call to Temperance and Frugality (to which Tryon prefixed verses by Aphra Behn, addressed to “the author of that Excellent Book Intituled The Way to Health, Long Life, and Happiness”).

“Cloe to Urania, against Womens being Learn’d” (pp. 55–57)

Cloe here summarizes the arguments of her beau, Lysander, in order to see how they’ll “influence” Urania, “and how she’ll defend the Point against an Opponent, she has often so well handl’d without one.” (56)

According to Cloe, Lysander makes three primary arguments. First,

Lysander will have it, That Learning in common Prudence ought by the Men to be deny’d us; since it wou’d not only make us proud, and imperious, and aspire to the command over Men; which, as we might by such Auxiliary force easily obtain, the Charms of the Body alone giving us too great an Ascendant over Men; for we shou’d not want the desire of obtaining it, having got the means. Secondly, That since, as he will have it, we were design’d by God for Obedience, not Rule, to be instructed by our Husbands, and to study only Houshold Affairs, it wou’d be Impious to raise us from the Office Nature had allotted us, to a Nobler Station. Thirdly, That Learned Women are seldom Chast, Learning disposing ’em to Inconstancy, and Infidelity to their Husbands in longing for foreign Embraces, and that betwixt a Womans Desire and Act, there is nothing but Opportunity.
(Gildon, Miscellaneous Letters and Essays 56)

Cloe next tells Urania that Lysander bolstered each argument with examples from life and literature, although she chooses not to pass these on.

And finally, Cloe tells Urania, Lysander then “much urg’d a Book call’d Advice to a Daughter, the Authority of which was too much Establish’d for me to Condemn.” (56)

That final appeal to male literary authority capped Lysander’s argument and effectively closed off any further discussion of the matter with Cloe.

And so Cloe closes her own letter to Urania.

“An Answer to the foregoing Letter in Defence of Womens being Learn’d. Urania to Cloe.” (pp. 57–63)

Urania begins her letter with an acknowledgment of Lysander’s powers as a speaker: “a Man of a great deal of Wit,” Lysander “delivers his Arguments on any Subject with that address, that they appear much stronger from his Mouth, than in Writing.” (57) But because writing separates Lysander’s “feeble Reasonings” from his formidable presence, Urania can see clearly what Cloe, who “loves” rather than judges Lysander, can not. (58)

To Lysander’s first argument, Urania counters that learning in fact “teaches one to know ones self” which,

... in any Woman of sense, produce Humility, not Pride. It furnishes us with Masculine, nay, Divine Thoughts, that are equally serviceable to our selves, and Husbands. It makes us contemn the designing Flatteries of Men, when they deifie that Beauty, which vanishes in a moment, and which Fools preserve with so much Care ... Learning teaches Wisdom, which can never render us so opposite to the Establish’d Oeconomy of the World, as to make us once think so wildly, as to attempt the inverting so prevalent, and inveterate a Custom as the Soveraignty of the Men. Besides, Nature has form’d us too weak, to effect a Revolution that depends on the Force, and Strength of Body, as well as Mind, since Politics are meer useless Theories, without Able Hands to put ’em in Execution. But if we must needs suppose this mighty Revolution effected, who would not be willing to be Subject to so agreeable a Power, in which Wisdom, and Beauty join’d.
(Gildon, Miscellaneous Letters and Essays 58–9)

Furthermore, we must not forget that “a great many Women without Learning direct their Husbands, and have a very awful influence over them.” (59) And “Learning wou’d qualifie that extraordinary Ascendant, by making that Rational, which was before only the blind Effect of Passion and Fondness.” (59)

To Lysander’s second argument, Urania counters with:

Lysander makes a little bold with the Secrets of the Almighty in that Assertion, tho’ I confess, the Curse that was laid on Eve for her Transgression, might give him occasion to say so....
(Gildon, Miscellaneous Letters and Essays 59)

However, others have already shown that “if Woman was created the Subject, and Vassal of Man, it had been no Punishment to’ve inflicted that Subjection on her.” (59) Nonetheless, Urania continues, learning does not lessen obedience, but makes its practice “a Duty of Reason, not Custom, and Imposition, two weighty and provoking Motives of Opposition.” (59) Besides, not all husbands are able to instruct their wives, “too many Gentlemen” being “wholly” devoted to “the Bottle, the Whore, the Dice, with Hunting, Hawking, Coursing, and the rest of that wretched Train, as if they were born never to think” (60). This kind of man would, in fact, do well to “emulate” his learned “Wives Virtues ... in Masculine, and Rational Excellencies, by improving his Mind.” (60)

To Lysander’s third argument, Urania counters:

... the Assertion is too general to be true, to which I my self cou’d bring not a few Exceptions.
(Gildon, Miscellaneous Letters and Essays 60)

Nor did Lysander establish that the “whoring” to which he claims learned women tend “was the effect of their Learning, not Nature” (60). Furthermore, “those Women, who, tho’ Learn’d, are Whores, wou’d be much more prostitute without it; for tho’ those Inclinations, Nature and Constitution have given ’em, are not always entirely overcome by Learning, yet are the violence of them regulated, and reduc’d to a greater Moderation.” (61) Yes, continues Urania, learned women attract “a more Numerous Train of Addresses from the Men” because they are so rare. But if you changed the “rarity” of this among women, making learning “common” to all, “the chief bait” for such amorous advances would disappear. (61)

Having dispensed with Lysander’s three arguments, Urania then indulges

... a pleasant Fancy of my own, which is, That the Practice of admitting Women to the Arts and Sciences, wou’d convince the Infidels of the Jewish and Turkish Perswasion, that Women have Souls, since they were not wholly taken up with the Ornament, and care of the Body only, and then we might hope an equal Share in the Paradice of Mahomet, with the Men, and not be shut out of the Synagogue by the Rabbi’s.
(Gildon, Miscellaneous Letters and Essays 61)

This was a curious note to end on, and may have had something to do with the prevalence of popular musings on comparative religion in an age of religious upheaval. Within new science circles, there was a resurgent interest in syncretism, loosely associated with the pansophists around Comenius and Kircher. During the 1660s–1670s, four individuals associated with the Royal Society produced titles relating to Islam: first, Joseph Glanvill’s Lux orientalis, or, An enquiry into the opinion of the Eastern sages concerning the praeexistence of souls: being a key to unlock the grand mysteries of providence, in relation to mans sin and misery in 1662; then Henry Stubbe’s unpublished mss., An account of the rise and progress of Mahometanism with the life of Mahomet and a vindication of him and his religion from the calumnies of the Christians, written sometime after 1671; then John Evelyn’s translation, The history of the grand visiers, Mahomet and Achmet Coprogli, of the three last grand signiors, their Sultana’s and chief favourites, with the most secret intrigues of the seraglio ... in 1677; and also in 1677, Robert Boyle’s The Gospels and Acts in Malay (in Arabic character). About Boyle’s book, Aubrey wrote: “At his owne costs and chardges he gott translated and printed the New Testament in Arabique, to send into the Mahometan countreys.”

Presumably, the distorted world-picture given in much travel and colonial writing in English had something to do with the upsurge in popular interest in Islam, as would have Alexander Ross’ sensational translation of the Koran from French in 1649 (Robert Hooke owned a copy of the 1649 edition of The Alcoran of Mahomet, Translated out of Arabick, in octavo), which was “reissued with a Caveat in 1688 expressing the popular conception of Mohammed as cunning and power hungry.” (Todd 467n14)

In addition, Gildon would have been influenced to raise the issue of women’s subjugation within all three of Europe’s institutionalized religions by Behn’s own play, Abdelazer; or, The Moor’s revenge. Behn’s tragedy, which was staged in the same year, 1677, that produced Boyle’s and Evelyn’s titles,

... was set in Spain and turned on the hatred of Muslim and Christian. It had, however, a very tenuous connection with history, converting as it did the excessively pious fifteenth-century Queen Isabella into a lust-crazed murderer. Far more it drew on literature, and Behn’s Moor came from a Renaissance theatrical tradition of rationally villainous Muslims. Such men cannot blush, because of their swarthy skin, are faithless, fearless, contemptuous of women and adept at plotting.
(Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn 185–6)

Janet Todd argues that Behn used Islam politically to comment on the northern Christian world:

Christendom used alien Islam for a variety of purposes, from erotic titillation to religious historiography, but, in the seventeenth century, there was a growing scholarly interest in the social and ideological aspects of the faith. In the early years, high churchmen had studied Arabic scholarship as part of the search for pure biblical texts. In the later, Islamic doctrine was used to bolster up unitarian arguments about the Christian God and to challenge orthodox theology. Behn fitted this tradition, revealing again the scepticism she had felt in Surinam and suggested in her address before The Dutch Lover. The “case of Sanctity was first ordain’d, / To cheat the honest world”, she wrote, and she expressed Abdelazer’s scorn for the mob in religious terms: “The giddy Rout are guided by Religion, / More than by Justice, Reason, or Allegiance”. The religion she had in mind was probably Protestant Dissent, now becoming increasingly vocal: for James, Duke of York, the heir to the throne, had openly embraced Roman Catholicism and England was feeling very Protestant indeed.
(Todd, The Secret Life of Aphra Behn 185)

Urania may well have invoked Judaism and Islam in similar fashion.

After the fanciful speculation that women’s educated practice of arts and sciences might promote gender equality in paradise and synagogue, Urania turned her attention to “that celebrated Book of the Advice to a Daughter.” The book Cloe had deferred to was by Lord Halifax (George Savile, 1633–1695), and published in 1688 under the title The Lady’s New Years Gift; or, Advice to a Daughter. It became popular immediately, was frequently reprinted, and quickly found its way to colonial America.

In his Advice to a Daughter, Halifax made the usual claim that women were intellectually inferior and ruled by their passions:

You must first lay it down for a foundation in general, That, there is inequality in sexes, and that for the better economy of the world; the Men, who were to be the law givers, had the larger share of reason bestow’ed upon them; by which means your sex is the better prepar’d for the compliance that is necessary for the performance of those duties which seem’d to be most properly assign’d to it.

Of necessity, wrote Halifax,

We are made of differing Tempers, that our Defects may the better be Mutually Supplied: Your sex wanteth our Reason for your Conduct, and our Strength for your Protection; Ours wanteth your Gentleness to soften and entertain us.

While marriage based on inequality between the sexes was woman’s lot in life — “You are therefore to make the best of what is settled by law, and not vainly imagine, that it will be changed for your sake,” he advises his daughter — there were certain balancing compensations; thus,

... you have more strength in your Looks than we have in our Laws, and more power by your Tears, than we have by our Arguments.

Urania, reading Halifax in the same critical spirit he denied “your Sex ... in respect that the Voluminous Enquiries into the Truth, by Reading, are less expected of you,” tells Cloe that the Advice to a Daughter is “a Book I have very little Esteem for.” (61)

Urania fastens on the veiled contradictions in a single passage from Halifax:

These are his Words.--

As to your particular Faith, keep to the Religion that is grown up with you, both as it is the best in it self, and that the Reason of staying in it on that Account, is somewhat stronger for your Sex, than it will perhaps be allow’d to be for ours, in respect of the voluminous Enquiries into Truth by reading, are less expected from you.-----
(Gildon, Miscellaneous Letters and Essays 62)

She then expostulates:

The stress of the whole lyes on a false support; I mean, the corrupt Custom of the Age; which, he says, will not Expect Our reading, and search after the most Material of Truths, that this Life is given us for; if Truth be obscur’d by so many Volumes, ’tis the fault of those in whose hands it has so long been reserv’d. If it be a Truth that is also necessary for our Future Happiness to be rightly inform’d in; ’tis certainly equally our Duty to enquire into it; and they are to blame who deprive us of the fittest means, Learning, and it be an incumbent Duty, ’twill be but a weak, and poor Excuse for continuing in an Errour because we were bred in one; Besides, this wou’d hold on all sides, and must of Consequence be very fallacious; and I must needs add, That whatever Figure a Lady wou’d make, by the Direction of this Advice, in the Court, she wou’d make but a very indifferent one in Reason. But ’tis evident, that he is not in earnest, when a little after he prescribes a quite contrary Rule-----Let me recommend to you (says he) a method of being Rightly inform’d, which can never fail; ’tis in short this-----Get Understanding, and practice Virtue, &c. Now how she shou’d get this Understanding he leaves her, and us in the Dark; tho’ I am confident it can never be obtain’d to a degree of being Rightly inform’d without Learning; unless he wou’d have it by Inspirations, which I humbly presome [sic], is none of the most solid Understandings in our Age.
(Gildon, Miscellaneous Letters and Essays 62–3)

And with this spirited critique of the august Lord Halifax, Urania closes her letter to “my charming Friend,” Cloe.


discussion of Gildon’s “An Essay at a parallel betwixt Philosophy, and the Love of Women” (a letter addressed “To the Honourable George Ganvil Esq.”, from Gildon’s 1694 Miscellaneous Letters and Essays) in the IN BRIEF topic on the gay she-philosopher

discussion of passage “Whether it be proper for Women to be Learned?” from 1691 issue of The Athenian Mercury

a GALLERY exhibit on the emblem for The Athenian Society (1692)


Engraved frontispiece (opposite title page)
From The Lady’s New-Years Gift, or, Advice to a Daughter (3rd ed., 1688), by George Savile, Marquis of Halifax.

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