Pushing but not Bursting the Spheres

What I found most interesting about Martineau’s piece “On Female Education” is just how aware she is of her audience and the context she is writing within. She approaches the topic of women’s education in a manner that would likely make modern feminists cringe, but in her social context gave her room to speak.

It is clear that Martineau writes with an acute awareness of the separate spheres dictated by Victorian society, arguing each of her points artfully as ideas that begin to push against the traditional views of women’s education, without entirely alienating her audience by rejecting all strictures. As in her other pieces, it is clear that Martineau writes with rhetorical finesse—aware of her audience and their limits and writing accordingly.

It is difficult to see here how far beyond her time Martineau was in terms of women’s roles in society. Even as I would argue that she carefully places her argument within a palatable context for her nineteenth century readers, using the accepted language etc., she may have agreed with more of the traditional roles than we’d like to think. She emphasizes quite often that woman is intended to be a companion to man and that “her proper sphere is home” (81 emphasis Martineau’s). Indeed, she uses much of the language of the helpmeet. And yet, we cannot neglect the impressive statements that she makes regarding women’s education. She is clearly advocating for a drastic change in mentality as well as practice.

In particular, I thought her response to the third objection—that “proficiency in knowledge” might inflate “the vanity so universally ascribed to the sex”—quite clever. Martineau writes: “if the taste for knowledge were more generally infused, and if proficiency in the attainments I have mentioned were more common, there would be much less pedantry than there is at present; for when acquirements of this kind are no longer remarkable, they cease to afford a subject for pride” (80). I cannot help but read a certain level of snarkiness into Martineau’s words, as she writes that limiting knowledge in fact promotes vanity. She flips a likely prevalent concern about educating women into a clever argument for encouraging widespread education.

Thus, while I am still left with questions as to how to understand this treatise of Martineau’s on female education, one idea that I think we can walk away with is that in her precarious position as a female writer (though I’m not sure if this piece was anonymous), she understood the rhetorical situation and social context she was writing into and that ought to influence how we view her arguments.

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