This essay is a rewrite of an article that first appeared in Educational Horizons in Spring, 1986.

Male Attitudes Concerning Female Education: A Brief History
By Gary K. Clabaugh

"I do not know the reason, but just as a saddle is not suitable for an ox, so learning is unsuitable for a woman." -- Erasmus

edited 8/17/11

Modern women, confronted with impressive opportunities, often fail to fully appreciate the legacy of educational discrimination that long has haunted their sex. From the time of the Greeks, men generally have regarded women as genetically inferior to themselves and incapable of serious thought. In this historical review of "women's place" in the educational scheme of things, we find famous man after famous man dismissing woman's intellect and expressing the equivalent of the belief that educating females is just "feeding more poison to the frightful asp."

What follows is an examination of male attitudes toward the education of females. Male opinion is the focus of attention because, until very recent times at least, men have had the power and made the educational decisions for both men and women alike. What is more, the famous and highly accomplished men quoted played a prominent role in shaping and refining Western culture.

What is, or has been, the actual status of women in any place or time? Look at the schools, at the curriculum, and, most important, look at the attitudes of men with power and influence.

Classical Antiquity

The accomplishments of the Greeks, and Romans form the foundations of Western civilization. And their pedagogical practices established the foundations of contemporary schooling. Therefore, any history dealing with the education of women should begin with them.

Athenian 'Harmony'

The Athenians are famed for adhering to Plato's advice: "Follow the argument wherever it leads." They forsook the almost universal practice of subordinating individuality to the collective and honored the duty advised by Socrates "to know myself." Yet, they also regarded women as mutilated males, unworthy of formal education.

Athenian women lived highly circumscribed lives of a distinctly subordinate character, and male attitudes toward them reflected this. As early as 850 B.C. Hesiod, a Greek poet and early scientific farmer, gave vent to opinions that echoed and reechoed throughout the history of Greece. In Theogony he observed, "Zeus, who thunders on high, made women to be an evil to mortal men, with the nature to do evil." A hundred years later, the Greek elegiac poet and satirist Semonides of Amorgos also blamed it all on Zeus and women when, in his poetic essay Iambus on Women, he noted, ''the worst plague Zeus ever made-women."

It was not just the early poets and satirists who gave vent to such negativity. Even the sober astronomer and mathematician Pythagoras (c. 585 507 B.C.) is said by scholars to have observed, "There is a good principle which created order, light, and man, and an evil principle which created chaos, darkness, and woman."

Socrates (c. 470-399 B.C.) widely regarded as one of the wisest of men shared this vision of women. While he allowed that they could make a considerable contribution to society, and even advocated an expansion of feminine responsibilities, he still maintained in the Republic that, "All of the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women also, but in all of them a woman is inferior to a man."

Aristotle (c. 384-322 B.C.) who clearly intended no satire, went further in his proto-scientific treatise Generation o/ Animals, he declared that women were "mutilated males'' and argued that the female character was "…a sort of natural deficiency.''

It is little wonder that even the progressive Athenians, who developed the first educational system stressing the importance of human, or at least male, individuality, spent little effort in the formal education of females. As Plato put it in the Meno, a woman's virtue was "'to order her house, keep what is indoors, and obey her husband.'' Given such opinions, which were nearly universal in Athens, there was little perceived need for any but the most rudimentary education for women. What is more, because females were regarded widely as potentially or even inherently vicious, irrational, and untrustworthy, it was commonly held that their education was not only unnecessary, but imprudent, counterproductive, even dangerous. As Menander (c. 343 291 B.C.) the Greek dramatist observed, "He who teaches a woman letters feeds more poison to the frightful asp.'' (Fragments)

The Greeks pioneered the development of knowledge for its own sake. They are famous for adhering to Plato's advice: ''Follow the argument wherever it leads.'' They forsook the almost universal practice of subordinating individuality to the collective and honored the duty advised by Socrates ''to know thyself.'' Yet, they also regarded women as mutilated males, unworthy of formal education. We have, to some extent, carried this idea with us to the present day.

Roman Utility

It was the Greek genius to investigate the aims of life, and it was the Roman genius to govern and administer. The Greeks measured things in terms of harmony and proportion; the Romans measured things in terms of utility. Greek education favored the intellectual development of males; Roman education stressed male rights, duties, and obligations, particularly of the father. He ruled the family with absolute authority.

Roman women were generally more highly regarded in their role of wife and mother than their Greek counterparts. However, they were not permitted to be citizens of Rome and male attitudes toward them were basically similar to those of the Greeks. Titus Livy (c. 59 B.C. 17 AD.) the eminent Roman historian, exemplified this condescending when he observed in History, ''A woman's mind is influenced by little things.'' The Roman writer Publilius Syrus also expressed characteristic Roman sentiments when in Sententiae he stated, ''A woman who meditates alone, meditates evil.'' Lucius Anaeus Seneca (c. 4 B.C.- 65 AD.), philosopher, dramatist, essayist and tutor of Nero, expressed a similar though more comprehensive claim in Hippolyttus: ''When a woman thinks ...hellip; she thinks evil.''

The Roman male's attitude toward women's education was modestly more charitable than that of the Greeks. The great importance of family life and the enormous authority of the Roman father, which included even the power of life and death over both wife and children, led a woman's education to be largely a function of her home life. The mother personally reared and educated the younger children. Later in life, however, boys became the father's responsibility.

As Rome developed into an empire, Roman education increasingly resembled that of the Greeks from whom they borrowed extensively. But until the fall of Rome, it never lost its predisposition for practicality and its reliance on the home; but in the end, the Roman family, debased by urban idleness and vulgar amusements, was no longer capable of doing that job.

In early Roman history, the woman's only education was for her future role as wife and mother; but as the power and wealth of Rome grew, so did the boredom, leisure, affluence and formal education of many Roman women. By the second century B.C. it was possible for a woman like Cornelia, a celebrated Roman matron and mother of the great liberal tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Grachus, to have acquired a wide and detailed education that she utilized in teaching her 12 children — achieving remarkable results. Her fame, which derived primarily from the accomplishments of her offspring, did much to legitimize the formal education of wealthy Roman women.

Such a pedagogical metamorphosis was not popular with many Roman men. Decimus Junius Juvenal (c. 60 A.D.-140 A.D), Roman poet and satirist of consummate skill, appealed to this resentment when he reserved some of his sharpest barbs for educated women. For example, in his sixth satire he depicted the pedantic female thus:

"But of all the plagues, the greatest is untold;

The book-learned wide, in Greek and Latin bold;

The critic-dame, who at her table sits,

Homer and Virgil quotes, and weighs their wits,

And pities Dido's agonizing fits."


Like many Roman men, however, Plutarch acknowledged in Moralia that the formal education of women had some value. He wrote, "A woman who is studying geometry will be ashamed to go dancing and one who is charmed by the words of Plato or Xenophen is not going to pay attention to magic incantations." But then he hastened to add that they must "'develop this education in company of their husbands."

Perhaps Roman men were moved to accept the formal education of women in the hope that it would reinforce the rapidly weakening pedagogical role of Roman mothers. But the time when most upper class mothers played a key role in their children's education was already past. In his Dialogue, Tacitus (c. 55 A.D. -118 A.D.) noted its passing when he lamented the disappearance of the age when: "Every citizen's son'was from the beginning reared, not in the chamber of a purchased nurse, but in that mother's bosom and embrace, and it was her special glory to study her home and devote herself to her children."

The fact that in later Roman history more and more women became educated must also be balanced against the reality that more and more Roman men were also being schooled. In fact, in terms of literacy, there is a reason to believe that the proportion of literate women compared with literate men actually declined as Rome aged. Hence, it could well be that women were little better off educationally at the time of the fall of Rome than they were centuries before.

In any case, we know that ancient Greece and Rome were crucibles in which Western civilization was forged. The Greeks, though they had their goddesses and heroines and idealized certain aspects of femininity, defined woman's role simply as wife and mother and gave little emphasis to her education. The Romans, probably because of their veneration of the family, had a higher regard for women, but still were grudging in their education; they viewed it either as a means of achieving a more effective mothering or as a relatively harmless diversion from licentious idleness. This is Western woman's educational heritage.

The Middle Ages

The slow decay and final collapse of the Roman Empire saw Christianity emerge triumphant over its rivals. By 392 A.D. it was only the lawful religion of the empire. This triumph was very significant for women. Mithraism, the most vital of Christianity's early rivals, totally excluded women from worship while Christianity did not. This meant that despite Paul's admonition to Corinthians that women should "'keep silent in churches," early Christianity enjoyed their active participation. It also came to mean that with the cautious encouragement of leaders such as Gregory I (c. 540-604), the early medieval church benefited from the accomplishments of educated women such as Hild of Whitby, Leoba, Hildegard of Bingen, and Roswitha of Gandersheim.

As the initial revolutionary fervor of Christianity waned, however, a more reactionary attitude toward women began to assert itself. The church, overwhelmingly masculine in terms of its power structure and the dominant social institution of the times, became more and more cautious about women in general and their education in particular. As a result, the public activity of women declined, their place in the church receded, and their education became more and more problematic.

The Gregorian reform movement of the eleventh century severely discouraged women's religious monastic orders. Phillippe of Navarre (1301-1343) voiced the male attitude that likely spawned this "reformation" when he observed in Les quarter temps de l'homme, "One should not teach woman letters or writing unless she is a nun, because a woman's reading and writing leads to great evil." Ironically, the movement to restrict the monastic life had the effect of decimating female religious orders; consequently, the potentially literate nuns, cited as the exception to the rule by Phillippe of Navarre, were scarce. Moreover, because the negative attitude toward the education of laywomen was common, educated women were not.

The Cult of the Virgin

The growing distrust and hostility toward ordinary women paralleled growth in the cult of the Virgin Mary's adoration, championed by influential figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 1153), was a profoundly important part of the religious mysticism of these times-a movement which was on the edge of heresy so far as the church was concerned.

It was claimed that confining women to the home was a way of shielding them from the avarice and corruption of the outside world and of preserving their precious purity. Because innocence required ignorance, the formal education of women threatened to eliminate the very quality that gave them worth.

One wonders about the seriousness of such claims even then. Perhaps it makes more sense to claim that, at bottom, the relegation of females, save the mystically virginal, to the periphery of the medieval church had to do with a fundamental distrust of women as women. And that the denial of literacy to the vast majority of females had to do with its being unwise to empower those you distrust. It most assuredly had to do with the ascendency of male attitudes and values that might best he labeled Tertullianism.

Tertullian (c. 150- c. 230), a Roman Church Father of the time of persecution, regarded all women with hostility and suspicion, largely because of the connection