Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, LaSalle University

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 8/12/16


Do modern women, confronted with multiple opportunities, fully appreciate the legacy of educational discrimination that has mauled their sex for thousands of years? Do they know that from the time of the Greeks to nearly the present, men generally have regarded women as genetically inferior to themselves and incapable of serious thought? When we look at “women’s place” in the educational scheme of things, we find most of history’s most famous men 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 these male attitudes toward the education of females. Male opinion is the focus 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, the attitudes of men with power and influence and you will discover the truth.

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.

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 widely regarded as potentially or even inherently vicious, irrational, and untrustworthy, it was commonly held that their education was unnecessary, 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 Romans

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, 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, 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 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 the only 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, 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 asserted itself. The church, overwhelmingly masculine in terms of its power structure, 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 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.”

Of course, the “reform” to restrict the monastic life had the effect of decimating female religious orders. In consequence the potentially literate nuns, cited as the exception to the rule by Phillippe of Navarre, were scarce. This, plus the negative attitude toward the education of laywomen, meant that educated women were rare.

It All Started With Eve

The growing distrust and hostility toward women paradoxically paralleled growth in the cult of the Virgin Mary. Her adoration was championed by influential figures such as Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 1153), and was a profoundly important part of the religious mysticism of the times. But initially it also was on the edge of heresy so far as conservative churchmen were concerned.

As the cult of Mary became more acceptable so did the notion that a woman’s worth hinged on her innocence. And 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 requires ignorance, the formal education of women threatened to eliminate the very quality that allegedly gave them worth.

One wonders about the seriousness of such male motives 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. Hence the denial of literacy to the vast majority of females had to do with it 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 he saw between femininity and sin. In De habitu muliebri he advised Christian women, “‘to act the part of a mourning and repentant Eve” in order to partially expiate the “ignominy” derived from being the “’cause and fall of the human race.” Lest he leave any doubt regarding woman’s sinful legacy Tertullion went on to say, “The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives on even in our times and so it is necessary that the guilt should live on also. You are the one is who opened the door to the Devil, you are the one who plucked the fruit of the forbidden tree, you are the one who persuaded him whom the Devil was not strong enough to attack. All too easily you destroyed the image of God, Man. Because of your desertion, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.”

Tertullian had great difficulty reconciling views such as these with the role of women in Christian life. Indeed, his concern with the place of females in the church and in a man’s life, bordered on an obsession. Tertullian’s fear of and loathing for women was not that unusual for his time. And by the late eleventh century such negativity was even more common. The Roman heritage of grudging respect for woman as mother and wife had been partially supplanted by the notion that all evil started with Eve.

In this period of the Middle Ages, women’s access to the monastic life was deliberately restricted. Because monasteries were a primary source of formal schooling, this had a devastating effect on the educational and spiritual aspirations of women, which the growing cult of the Virgin could not undo.


The system of chivalry was to secular life what monasticism was to the religious, Open to a select few, it represented the primary alternative view of women during the Middle Ages. Here females fared somewhat better as far as male attitudes were concerned. The knight’s duties were to his God, his lord and his lady. In fact, the tradition of courtly love, in which the knight served an unattainable, highborn mistress, mirrored the growing religious adoration of the Virgin. In this context, women of the nobility enjoyed an unprecedented degree of both courtesy and deference. But the noble female’s role was still essentially passive and decorative while women of lesser social status could wait a very long time indeed for their champion. As a consequence, chivalry offered women no significant educational opportunities.

The Renaissance and Reformation

Throughout the waning centuries of the Middle Ages there was more and more accommodation of secular knowledge, particularly logic, in schooling. By the time of the Renaissance, it was clear that intellectual life was to be less restricted, less formal and much more abundant. Schooling took on new vitality and great mendicant schoolmen like Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus enjoyed both notoriety and success. Women, however, remained largely outside the scope of these changes. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1647—1536), the most famous of all the leaders of the new learning, evidenced the still prevailing attitude perpetuating this exclusion when he noted in Colloquia, ”I do not know the reason, but just as a saddle is not suitable for an ox, so learning is unsuitable for a woman.”

Ultimately, the Renaissance did little to alter educational opportunities for women. This remained for the Protestant Reformation to accomplish. But make no mistake, Martin Luther (1463-1546) was no champion of women’s rights. Most of his attitudes simply echoed earlier prejudices. For example, in Table Talk he maintained that “[women] are chiefly created to bear children and be the pleasure, joy and solace of their husbands.” Citing anatomy, he even argued that women have broad hips, “‘to the end that they should remain at home, sit still, keep house and bear and bring up children.”

Despite his acceptance of these popular opinions, however, Luther articulated the revolutionary idea that the salvation of every human soul depended upon informed reading of the Holy Scriptures. This required the universal education of both sexes, and Luther’s advocacy of such a radical measure was ultimately communicated to the whole of the Reformation.

Because religion permeated the Protestant schools that evolved from Luther’s teaching, many believe that his reforms were strictly sacerdotal in intent, and that he would not have advocated literacy for women had it not been for the need to help them save their souls. The evidence, however, does not support such a view. Luther himself observed, “Were there neither soul, heaven, nor hell, it would still he necessary to have schools here below. The world has need of educated men AND WOMEN [emphasis mine], to the end that they may govern the country properly, and that the women may properly bring up their children, care for their domestics, and direct the affairs of their households.”

These remarks reflected the needs of the new social order that trade, commerce, and urbanization were bringing to European life. Luther understood his efforts to be for religious reform, but he was unwittingly helping to reform society as well.

Luther still relegated women to the kitchen and the nursery, but his remarkable call for universal literacy, to be accomplished by state compulsion if necessary, was direct and unapologetic. The educational genie was finally out of the bottle so far as women, and the common man, were concerned. And although change would be halting and fitful, there would be no going back.

The Modern Period

The early modern period saw little apparent change in the general status of women or in male attitudes toward them. This surface inaction concealed a quiet but profound social revolution set in motion fundamental changes, such as urbanization and industrialization in the socioeconomic foundations of European and American life. These changes would ultimately affect the opportunities not only of women but the great mass of humanity.

As noted earlier, the educational demands of the Protestant reformers fit the emerging needs of the new society. The chief practical result of the Reformation, so far as education was concerned, was the establishment of state sponsored schools motivated by the belief that it was the duty of the family, church, and state to provide every child, male and female, with an education. Admittedly, boys were usually first into such schools, but girls ultimately followed. For example, the Elector of Saxony established compulsory elementary schools for boys in 1580. Fully 144 years later, girls were permitted to attend.

By the mid-eighteenth century the basic education of females was becoming well established in more progressive countries. For example, Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786), surnamed The Great, implemented school reforms that included compulsory education for boys and girls age six to fourteen. Similarly, Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780), a formidable female in her own right, inaugurated a system of popular public schools “‘to make both sexes good Christians, and industrious, intelligent and obedient subjects in the different orders of society.” Similar developments were also to be found in America.

Male attitudes proved to be an unusually durable obstruction and snare to women’s education, despite the above-cited developments and the more fundamental revolutionary fervor that was beginning to challenge the existing social order. For instance, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Germany’s greatest philosopher, was a lover of freedom and profoundly interested in moral questions. Nevertheless, his attitudes toward women were little different from those of classical antiquity’. In his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, Kant revealed his understanding of woman as an incomplete person when he declared, “‘man should become more perfect as a man, and the woman as a wife.”

His views regarding the education of women were typical of his age: “[Women] need to know nothing more of the cosmos than is necessary to make the appearance of the heavens on a beautiful evening a stimulating sight to them.” He also commented, “Even if a woman excels in arduous learning and painstaking thinking, they will exterminate the merits of her sex.”

Silver Dishes, Golden Apples

The belief that scholarship was deleterious to femininity was nearly universal in this age, despite the fact that women were sometimes being accepted into the lower levels of schooling. Even the poet Goethe (1749-1832), a man of nearly universal genius and exquisite sensitivity, was unable to transcend this limited view of women. Eckerman, in Conversations with Goethe, reveals this when he quotes the great man as saying, “We love things other than the intellect in a young woman. We love what is beautiful, confiding, teasing, youthful in her; her character, her faults, her whims, and God knows what other indefinable things, but we do not love her intellect.”

This view had its origin in the fact that Goethe, and the vast majority of other men of this age, regarded women as essentially passive. They were, as Goethe put it to Eckerman, “silver dishes into which we put our golden apples.”

Goethe’s curious metaphor reflected a fundamental male attitude toward women that was nearly universal at this time. It was most succinctly expressed by the dialectical philosopher Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762 1814) in The Science of Rights, Fichte observed, ” [A woman’s] dignity requires that she should give herself entirely as she is [to her husband] and utterly lose herself in him. The least consequence is that she should renounce to him all her property and her rights. Henceforth, she has life and activity only under his eyes and in his business. She has ceased live the life of an individual; her life has become a part of the life of her lover.

In the same work, Fichte asserted that, ”Woman . . . is especially practical, and not at all speculative in her womanly nature. She can not and shall not go beyond the limits of her feeling.” It is the ”shall not” phrase in that quote that is particularly instructive, for by this time some women were beginning to demand a life of their own, and even daring to express ideas as well as children. This new development was to provoke a reaction from many men that has lasted to the present. As women asserted themselves and sought broader horizons, it was education beyond their place or capacity that many men perceived to be the problem. In their view, more poison was being fed to the frightful asp.

A New Wind Blows

Regardless, there was a new wind blowing. To be sure, Fichte’s views were repeated in a thousand variations by some of the most famous men of modern history. Schopenhauer, Napoleon, Hegel, Ibsen, Nietzsche, Rousseau, Wagner, Proudhon, Spengler, Tolstoy, D. H. Lawrence, Freud, Jung, Kierkegaard, Hemingway, Marx, Heine and many, many other accomplished men publicly argued or privately expressed the view that women had limited capacity, suffered from incompleteness and general defects or that she wits uneducable or at lead incapable of genius. But every now and then a new masculine point of view was beginning to assert itself. For example, the great poet, novelist, and scholar Friedrich von Schlegel (1771-1829) sympathetically observed in his Athenaeum Fragments, “Women are treated as unjustly in poetry as in life. If they are feminine, they are not ideal, and if ideal, not feminine.”

By the mid-nineteenth century these once scarce masculine sentiments had become more widespread. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American clergyman, essayist and philosopher, mirrored this transformation in his own life. As a young man he confided in his Journal, “Women should not be expected to write or fight or build or compose scores; she does all by inspiring men to do all. She is the requiring genius.” Years later Emerson came to appreciate a very different reality. In fact, he was moved by what he regarded as the unfairness of man’s limitations of women that he angrily declared in that same Journal, ”If women feel wronged, they are wronged.”

A more measured and erudite denunciation of traditional male attitudes toward women could be found in the work of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). Mill, an English philosopher of great accomplishment, anticipated much of what was to come with his measured denunciations of male excesses. In his famous work The Subjection of Women he argued that, “The social subordination of women stands out an isolated fact in modern social institutions; a solitary breach of what has become their fundamental law: a relic of an old world of thought and practice exploded everywhere else.”

Mill saw male attitudes toward the education of women as disingenuous. He believed that they were simply dishonest apologies for what amounted to slavery. In The Subjection of Women he states, “All men . . . desire to have, in the woman most nearly connected to them, not a forced slave, but a willing one, not a slave merely, but a favorite. They have therefore put everything in practice to enslave their minds. The masters of all other slaves rely, to maintain obedience, on fear, either fear of themselves or religious fears. The masters of women wanted more than simple obedience, and they turned the whole force of education to effect their purposes.”

By the late nineteenth century the flood of social change was beginning to run in a direction congenial to a more charitable view of women and this was producing educational reform. Already male radicals, such as the French painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), had abandoned measured criticism such as Mill’s for vitriolic denunciations of those who opposed a broader, empathic understanding of woman’s role. As Gauguin put it in The Writing of a Savage, “Woman, who is after all our mother, our daughter, our sister, has the right to earn her living. Has the right to love whomever she chooses. Has the right to dispose of her body, of her beauty. Has the right to give birth to a child and to bring him up without having to go through a priest or notary public. Has the right to be respected just as much as the woman who sells herself in wedlock (as commanded by the church) and consequently has the right to spit in the face of anyone who oppresses her.”

The Twentieth Century

By the onset of the twentieth century women were, in the more industrialized parts of the Western world at least, universally enrolled in basic education and even making inroads into those last bastions of male elitism- higher education. The first coeds had come upon the scene some 60 years before with dire predictions of disaster. Despite feelings that the higher education of ladies was a creature of “wild fanaticism,” in 1841, Oberlin College graduated Mary Kellogg, the first American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree by completing identical requirements to those of the men. Since then, many women have followed and the Republic has survived.

By the l920s it was not only reform minded males who had been won to woman’s cause. Even curmudgeonly critics such as H. L. Mencken had joined them. While Mencken remained convinced that ”woman is at once the serpent, the apple and the bellyache,” he was equally certain that the men who would limit them were insufferable numbskulls. As Mencken put it in In Defense of Women, “That it should be necessary, at this late stage in the senility of the human race to argue that women have a fine and fluent intelligence is surely eloquent proof of the defective observation, incurable prejudice, and general imbecility of their lords and masters.”

The strident cried of male reformers were one thing, but the derisive sneers of men like Mencken were quite another. They reflected a growing consensus that women were intellectually capable and quite able to master even the highest of higher education.

Reluctantly, the more virulent reactionaries began to pull in their horns. Meanwhile, spurred by the explosive growth of the public schools and the need for inexpensive and relatively docile teachers, the trickle of women into higher education turned into a flood. Like their ancient Roman forebears, opportunity came in terms of nurturance in the form of an extension of the role of mother; but it came nonetheless.

Of course, some men would cling to the bitter end to arguments based on gender. But the facts were that the dire predictions of males like Professor Charles Davis of the U.S. Military Academy that the higher education of women would ‘ ‘ . . . introduce a vast social evil . . . a monster of social deformity ” had been proven dead wrong.

The last word on this subject should come from a woman. Perhaps thinking of the sort of comments recorded in this essay, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the battle hardened campaigner for woman’s suffrage cogently remarked, “Man has quite enough in this life to find out his own individual calling, without being forced to decide where every woman belongs.” If the history of woman tells us anything, it is that Stanton was dead right.


The author wishes to extend special thanks to Leonid Rudnyztky, Professor Emeritus of Foreign Languages and Literature at La Salle University. He and the author collected thousands of quotations, many used in this essay, from famous men who struggled, unsuccessfully, over the centuries to define woman.


This essay is a rewrite of an article that first appeared in educational Horizons