Notes on women and education

The seemingly noble label of the predominant education matrix of the western world, the liberal arts education, carries an unfortunate irony. The liberal arts education was available only to free (“liber“) people and not to slaves, who formed a primary segment of the population in the Greco-Roman era. Our current use of the word “liberal,” as in generous, plentiful, freely, could not be used as a descriptor of the original version of the curriculum. Education was not available to everyone.

The irony intensifies: in the ancient world, the liberal arts education was available to freeborn girls and women, however, as time progressed, girls and women were increasingly denied access to formal learning until, by the era of the Enlightenment (irony within irony), education for women was virtually forbidden. One of the (otherwise) great minds of the day, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), wrote in Emile, his 1762 treatise on education (layers of irony), that “the search for abstract and speculative truths, for principles and axioms in science, for all that tends to wide generalization, is beyond a woman’s grasp.” It gets worse. Rousseau continues, “a woman’s education must therefore be planned in relation to man. To be pleasing in his sight. . . to make his life pleasant and happy, these are the duties of woman for all time. . . .”

Almost a century later, in 1851, Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) wrote in his essay “Of Women“: “Neither for music, nor poetry, nor the plastic arts do they [women] possess any real feeling or receptivity. . . . Nor can one expect anything else from women if one considers that the most eminent heads of the entire sex have proved incapable of a truly great, genuine and original achievement in art, or indeed [have created] anything at all of lasting value . . . the reason being precisely that they lack all objectivity of mind. . . .”

Drawing closer to the 20th century, Guy de Maupassant summarized in his 1885 preface to the Abbé Prevost’s L’Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux et de Manon Lescaut: “The experience of centuries . . . has proved that woman is, without exception, incapable of any true artistic or scientific work. . . .”

In 2006, Eugene Gates pointed out in an article published in The Kapralova Society Journal that, in the late 19th and through the mid-20th century, women who, against formidable resistance (most often from the men in their own families), put before even a limited public products of their thinking or creativity came under harsh criticism for the amateur quality of such work, for the unforgivable lack of skill it demonstrated. Hmm. Women were shut out of the boys’ clubs of formal education; how could their attempts at serious musical composition, for example, be advanced and technically substantive? The composer’s tools, to continue with the music example, are not easily come by and typically require expert instruction added to years of study and formal training. I’ll borrow Jessica Duchen’s apt name for this situation: it’s a “double bind.” Women were barred from developing a particular skill and then pilloried for being unskilled. 

Relative to formal education in music, we might note at this juncture that when Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Universities–venerable bastions of American education–added music degrees to their curricula in the late 19th century, women were not allowed to enroll. As Gates reported in 2006, “the philosophy behind this discriminatory policy was stated as follows: ‘At its most glorious heights, music is a masculine art.’ “

If women were forbidden from formally studying music, what were their chances of pursuing formal education in the sciences, medicine, or law? A rhetorical question. The point is that, in the early 20th century, playing fields at our own institutions of higher education were far from level. Women, persons of color, persons with disabilities, and prospective students from economically disadvantaged families spent the century struggling to gain a metaphorical foothold, to stand firmly on the field in the field of their choice. 

Imagine the discoveries, solutions, ideas, and works of art that might have been had western society not regressed to a pre-Medieval stance on access to education. The loss is inconceivable.

While doors to education remain locked to so many people, by the end of the 20th century western women had broken through in many ways. I’ll adhere to my topic and not begin to  address here racism and other symptoms of discrimination.


Relative to women and education, a brilliant hypothesis was put forward by the late Leonard Shlain (1937-2009), a surgeon and intellect of the highest order–no hyperbole here. I got to meet Dr. Shlain; in 1998 I attended a lecture he gave at the Smithsonian in which he introduced a book he had just completed. I had poured over his previous book, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light, published in 1991, so a new book by him was a wonderful prospect by itself but the opportunity to hear him speak, shake his hand, and observe for an hour or two how a truly extraordinary mind is managed in a mortal frame–this was thrilling. I took pages of notes, and for several days following the lecture, I kept rearranging the contents of my brain in order to find a place for everything I learned. The book turned out to be perhaps the most remarkable and certainly among the most significant books I have ever read or known of. How is it that this book is not on every thinking person’s bookshelf with tattered edges and the fading yellow ink of an entire highlighter? The book is The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image and a click of the title will take you to a website devoted to the book. In 2006, Dr. Shlain gave a lecture on the book at Pepperdine University, a video of which is posted on YouTube here. (At the beginning of the video, a well-meant introduction of Dr. Shlain as the guest lecturer is a bit lengthy.)

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