Frictions, fictions, and forms: Woman's coming of age in eighteenth-century educational discourses

Date of Completion

January 2001


Literature, Comparative|Literature, Germanic|Literature, Romance|Women's Studies|Education, History of|Literature, English




This genre study seeks to understand the debate embedded in eighteenth-century English, French, and German nonfiction on women's education as a contest over competing narratives of a woman's life. While the work of thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau, and von Humboldt had an international impact in shaping narratives about women and education, national political and social contexts also conditioned thinking about the “woman problem,” and fostered genre innovations to provoke new thinking about women's education. ^ In response to the centrality of this theme for the period, this study addresses a broad range of texts: a ladies' journal (Sophie von La Roche), legislative plans (Charles Maurice Talleyrand, Marie Jean Condorcet), petitions (women educationists before the French Assembly), treatises (Mary Wollstonecraft, Theodor von Hippel, Amalia Holst), curricular plans (Betty Gleim), and fictional letters (Catharine Macaulay). Works representing opposed ideologies deploy surprisingly similar rhetoric. Thus education offers liberation from the enslavement wrought by ignorance, a cure to contagious infections of vice and corruption, equality across gender and class, and rational virtue. A feminist reading of this paradoxical kinship among opponents points toward a more complex definition of Romanticism than hitherto accepted. ^ This feminist reading also reinterprets contradictions among narratives or between voice and thesis in several of these texts. While many pedagogic texts transmitted the dominant ideology, they also embedded colloquies, conversations, exchanges of letters, and narratives. The program for a girl's education can itself be understood as an implied narrative that links these pedagogical texts to the emergence of the female Bildungsroman. The narratives, dialogues, metaphors, and imagery found in pedagogical texts revise our understanding of “nonfiction” and “fiction” in an era when aesthetic categories had not been formalized. The ideological contradictions underpinning the debate over women's education find expression in narratives of maternity that are surprisingly diverse in their depictions of the education needed for a woman to become a “good mother.” Surprising, too, are the “feminist” rationales for women educated to take an active role in the public sphere: while some draw on a gender-neutral model for support, others turn to essentialist justifications for women's assumption of a public role. ^