Wollstonecraft and Dickens: Fight For Educational Reform

Although they wanted it in different ways, Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Dickens both argued for educational reform. Unhappy with the current state of women, Mary Wollstonecraft, in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, demanded equal access to equal education for women. Her main tactic was to persuade people that educating women would not only improve society as a whole but society would not advance until it happened. Unlike Wollstonecraft, Charles Dickens expressed a desire for a complete overhaul of the educational system in his book, Hard Times. Dickens believed that the current utilitarian based educational system lacked humanity (something greatly needed for a complete education); he showed this, not by outright stating it, but by giving an illustration of the system (both in the classroom and at home) and then showing the outcome of the methods used.

Women’s education as we know it today was non-existent. The education that women received was laughable, at the very least, when compared to the education of men. According to our textbook, the education of women consisted of "basic literacy, embroidery, singing, playing a piano or harpsichord, dancing, sketching, [and] conversational French or Italian." It is not hard to see that it just didn’t compare to the education of men. Women weren’t just uneducated; they weren’t respected by men or even themselves. They also had very little freedom. Everything they owned upon marriage was forfeited to their husbands. This is why some women opted to remain single, but their lives weren’t any better than those married. Wollstonecraft knew as well as anyone that she was born into a man’s world. She and her sister’s worked various jobs trying to earn a living, but it wasn’t until she educated herself, with something like a man’s education, that she gained freedom and self-respect. This is what she wanted most for her fellow females. She believed that women deserved equality with men. For this to happen she thought that women would have to be equal to men in their intelligence, and the only way for this to happen would be for them to be educated. Wollstonecraft knew that this was the problem and for there to be any start in improving women’s position they would have to be educated more like men. Wardle stated, in his book titled Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography, that, "She was attacking the attitude which most men of the time showed toward her sex, and she traced it to the inadequate education of women." He goes on further to give a quote from Mrs. Beard stating; "The objects if her special aspersions were customs and opinions, not specific provisions of law affecting women, married and single." That is why she offered "no program of legislation guaranteed to bring about [women’s] ‘emancipation."

Wollstonecraft believed that a good lasting marriage needed partnership between both the husband and the wife. In order to make the thought of women’s education more appealing to men she proposed that women be educated in order to make them better mother’s (because they could better teach their children) and wives if they married (because they would be better companions) and if they remained single to earn a respectable living. Women, if educated, could also be useful to their husbands after they had lost both their beauty and their function (raising children) because they could also be companions. To aid her argument even further, Wollstonecraft brilliantly brought together women and soldiers for comparison. Both women and solders received education that was both deficient and harmful. Because of this similarity in education, there were also similarities in characteristics (like concern with fine dress and other frivolities). Both are taught total subordination (to obey without understanding why). They both "acquire manners before morals" and are sent out into the world prematurely. This comparison greatly helps her argument. The profession of women was to be mistresses so they, like soldiers, only fulfilled their function for a small period of time. This was such a great argument because it compares the most "masculine" group of men with the most "feminine’ group of women. "Where is the sexual difference, when the education has been the same?" Wollstonecraft states at the end of this argument.

Most of all, Wollstonecraft makes clear that until woman and man