Barbara Burns interviews Joanna Barker, whose book The Pen and the Needle: Rousseau & the Enlightenment Debate on Women’s Education is published in the MHRA Critical Texts series.

Joanna Barker
Joanna Barker

BB. You’ve had a very different career path from most of our MHRA authors. How did you find your way to a research project on Enlightenment debates about women’s education?

JB. I took a degree in French at Durham University and followed a career in investment, but then wanted to do something entirely different. I was conscious of how important education had been to me, and started to read about the challenges over the centuries that faced women who wished to get the same kind of education available to men, and to play a part in public life. I gradually focussed my interest on the ‘long eighteenth century’, a time when all sorts of opportunities became available to women, sometimes in the teeth of determined opposition.

BB. The title of your book features the famous name of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Why was he such an influential figure, and what was it that made his text Emile, or Education so controversial?

JB. My background in French literature means I was aware of the enormous influence Rousseau had on the way people thought about society and personal relations. In my research, I was struck by the number of times not only French but also English-speaking people quoted him, and how strongly they reacted to his ideas, whether positively or negatively. It was also interesting to see how subsequent commentators have characterised Emile as progressive in its ideas about education, without observing how highly restrictive his proposals were regarding women, who were in his words only ‘made for man’s delight’, and whose education should be entirely devoted to their relationship with their husbands.

Mary Wollstonecraft  Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft (left), in John Opie's respectful 1797 portrait, a bold and Romantic icon; Maria Edgeworth (right), as painted by John Downman in 1807, comes across more as a writer of improving tales for nice young girls. Both painters were major portraitists of the age, and both, of course, were men. The Royal Academy accepted its first woman student in 1860, elected its first woman RA in 1922, its first woman professor in 2011, and its first woman President in 2019.

BB. Your volume includes thirteen extracts from books written on the subject of women’s education. Are some of them from books now out of print or difficult to access?

JB. Most of the extracts in The Pen and the Needle, with the notable exception of Mary Wollstonecraft, come from books that are not available in modern editions, so I wanted to introduce them to an audience who would be unlikely to have come across them. I had to access the original editions either as leather-bound books or, if they had been digitised, via online facsimiles or print-on-demand versions. I give the links in the bibliography, for the benefit of readers who may be inspired to look into them at greater length.

BB. Which criteria did these texts have to meet for you to include them? Were you aiming for balance, or to air little-known elements of this debate?

JB. In choosing the extracts I tried to achieve a balance between male and female writers, and those who supported or opposed wider female education. I also included two other French writers who were well known to the English society of their day. In introducing each one, I put it in its historical context, and suggest how the personal circumstances of each writer may have influenced their views. It was interesting to see how many of the commentators were clergymen, and how unanimous they were in recommending that young women should adopt a role of passivity and seclusion. We can of course guess from the urgency of their admonitions that many contemporary women were not acting like this at all. The women who opposed them, like Mary Hays and Maria Edgeworth, often used mockery and satire to portray the folly of such views.

Afghan senior school girls in 2009
The 2009 end-of-year exams for graduating girls in Charikar (photo: Mohammed Zarif Daraie): today, girls over 11 are forbidden to go to school in Afghanistan. This is an extreme case, but women's education remains unequal in many countries. In Saudi Arabia women can view university lectures by men only remotely (via television or Internet) and can only ask questions by phone.

BB. This topic is not simply of historical significance, but has enduring resonance today, for example in relation to women’s education in Afghanistan, or indeed in other places closer to home. Was this broader relevance a motivating factor for you?

JB. The debate over women’s education is not over. Even in our own society there are recurring arguments about whether men are better suited to studying the sciences, or if the benefit of education should be reductively measured in lifetime career earnings. In other countries, notably Afghanistan, girls are denied even the most basic kind of education that might enable them to spend their lives in anything other than domestic tasks, by rulers whose aim is to impose the most rigid control over their society. We should never allow ourselves to forget that women’s rights are human rights.

BB. I believe your next project draws on your experience of the commercial world as well as your research expertise. What can you tell us about it?

JB. My latest research project is about women in business in the eighteenth century, with a particular focus on Elizabeth Montagu, who developed and managed her husband’s agricultural estates and coal interests, and ultimately became the sole owner of a major enterprise. This brings together my experience of business and my interest in women who were neither passive nor secluded, but pushed against the boundaries set by the writers of the conduct books quoted in The Pen and the Needle.

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