Letters on Education with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“The great difference that is observable in the characters of the sexes . . . has given rise to much false speculation on the natural qualities of the female mind.”

Summary Overview

Letters on Education with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects, a late eighteenth-century work, engages with concurrent intellectual debates over gender, the nature of the sexes, and education. Written by a prolific eighteenth-century female author, Catharine Macaulay, the dialectic postulates that women’s intellectual capabilities are on par with men’s. Girls’ education, she asserts, inculcates them with inferior qualities and leaves them vulnerable to vanity. Her work seeks to address these deficiencies in girls’ education, as well as boys’ upbringing. While she pens her work primarily for women, she also directs her argument to legislators and other men of influence. To buttress her argument for equal education among the sexes, Macaulay examines several leading intellectual thinkers of the eighteenth century, helping to shape intellectual debate. Letters continued to influence other leading philosophers after Macaulay’s death in 1791. Mary Wollstonecraft, a women’s advocate and fervent supporter of Macaulay, applied or amended many of Macaulay’s arguments in her own key work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792).

Defining Moment

The early modern period experienced a flourishing of scientific inquiry, distinguishing itself remarkably from the religiosity that characterized the Middle Ages. Botanists, mathematicians, biologists, astronomers, physicists, and other scientists challenged traditionally held beliefs through experimentation, finding that their data pointed to different conclusions. They sought to observe and understand natural laws. Through observation, Copernicus refuted the geocentric formulation of the universe that located Earth as the center and supplanted it with a heliocentric model.

An emphasis on natural laws quickly dispersed to other arenas such as political theory, undergirding the Enlightenment. In his 1651 work Leviathan, English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that humans served their own interests and thus required a formidable leader to keep order. In response to absolutist kings, enlightened thinkers reassigned power, redirecting it from the monarch to the people. Philosopher John Locke’s call for a representative government derived from the people broke away from Hobbes’s earlier work and put forth a starkly different image of male rationality. French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu suggested a separation of powers in government to maintain balance, an idea seized by Americans when they drafted the US Constitution. Another French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, articulated that a government’s power derives from a social contract with the populace, and that the government reflects the will of the people. For the majority of thinkers, however, the category of “people” consisted exclusively of Caucasian, educated, and at least somewhat wealthy men.

Leading intellectual circles throughout Europe and across the Atlantic in America allocated little space for women to put forth their ideas regarding politics. In fact, prominent thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau crafted arguments that situated women firmly inside the home. His novel Émile (1762) emphasized the natural capacity of women’s bodies in their ability to give birth. Because of their productive capabilities, he argued, women are naturally disposed to be mothers and tend to children. The novel underscored women’s virtue as the quintessential factor necessary for the success of the home and the proper upbringing of succeeding generations.

Enlightened women found ways to navigate around Rousseau’s ideals of femininity. Middle-class women helped shape the Enlightenment movement through their hosting of salons, which brought together leading intellectual figures, such as philosophers, political theorists, and artists and encouraged the manifestation, debate, and spread of ideas. Macaulay was among the women who engaged firsthand in these debates, and she articulated her views on controversial topics outside of salons as well. During the American Revolution, for example, she argued that colonists had an innate right to request membership in Parliament. In Letters, she attempts to disprove arguments supporting female intellectual inferiority, suggesting that girls should receive the same level of education as boys. While not a feminist in the eventual sense of the term, Macaulay nevertheless helped inspire early feminists. It was in her contemporary sphere of booming intellectual exchange that Macaulay wrote her political, philosophical, and historical works.

Author Biography

Born on April 2, 1731, to John and Elizabeth Sawbridge in Kent, England, Catharine Macaulay was the last of four children her mother bore. Her mother had a sizeable inheritance and Macaulay grew up in a prominent household at Olantigh, an estate in Kent that her father purchased around 1720. Elizabeth Sawbridge died when Macaulay was a child, leaving her and her three siblings under the care of their father. Further information about Macaulay’s childhood remains largely unknown, however, due to a scarcity of sources. As a young girl, she most likely received private instruction from one or more tutors, though she remarked later in life that she also fed her academic curiosity by reading classic works from antiquity that could be found in the library at Olantigh. An education in the classics would have introduced Macaulay to ancient Roman history, as well as important doctrines about liberty and republicanism.

Macaulay’s foray into intellectual circles began in her late twenties and early thirties. Her marriage to Scottish physician George Macaulay in 1760 and his support of her public endeavors gave her the flexibility she needed to publish her first major work, The History of England. Well received by the public, the 1763 work inspired several additional volumes, the last being published in 1783. In this work, Macaulay admonishes the absolutist aims of the Stuarts and recognizes John Locke’s argument that the government derived its strength through a contract with the people. This contract, she asserts, ensured man’s elemental rights, such as freedom.

Despite her hectic roles as mother, wife, and, in 1766, a widow, she persisted in formulating intellectual rebuttals and commenting upon the social ills of the eighteenth century. She critiqued the writings of Thomas Hobbes, a late seventeenth-century philosopher, and responded to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. She condemned monarchs who derived strength from the aristocracy and even proposed a model of government that included a bicameral configuration. Macaulay’s renown extended beyond England. She traveled to Paris in the 1770s, meeting American patriot Benjamin Franklin in the process. Years after marrying William Graham in 1778, a man considerably younger than herself, she traveled with Graham to America. A staunch supporter of the American cause during the American Revolution, Macaulay enjoyed access to elite American intellectual circles and stayed with George Washington for a short period of time during her visit. She maintained contact with several prominent intellectuals after her departure, penning missives to future US president John Adams and political writer Mercy Otis Warren.

Macaulay wrote assiduously during the last decade of her life. In addition to finishing The History of England in 1783, she wrote Treatise on the Immutability of Moral Truth (1783), Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, on the Revolution in France (1790), and the work examined in this article, Letters on Education with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Studies (1790). During her lifetime, she enjoyed fame but was also censured for her political views. Nevertheless, she inspired subsequent female historians and philosophers. She died on June 22, 1791.

Document Analysis

Published in 1790, Letters on Education redefines how the populace characterized women by analyzing women’s natural qualities. Written in the epistolary style that continued in popularity into the late eighteenth century, the work presents itself as private correspondence between Macaulay and Hortensia, a Roman woman who spoke against taxation before the Second Triumvirate in 42 BCE. The style of Macaulay’s work, namely her disguising of public critiques under a mask of private correspondence, reveals her awareness of the general populace’s disapproval of women’s interference in public affairs. Concurrently, the mask also enables Macaulay to share her treatise with a wider audience, appealing to mothers as well as fathers and lawmakers. In this selection, Macaulay identifies roadblocks preventing a paradigm shift in conceptions of gender and counters opposing philosophical tracts dealing with the characteristics of the sexes. This impasse, she illustrates, derives from socially procured gender qualities. In order to correct these flaws, Macaulay asserts that children’s education requires immediate alterations. Only by providing boys and girls with an identical and rational education can the natural state of society, and thus a more perfect political order, emerge.

Popular and Intellectual Understandings of Gender

Despite an Enlightenment-inspired emphasis on liberty and equality, gender inequality persisted on both sides of the Atlantic in the eighteenth century. Women held no political rights and lost their legal identities and properties to their husbands upon marriage under the practice of coverture. Most girls received a nominal education, with families placing more emphasis on domestic skills than on reading, writing, or arithmetic. Girls from prominent or wealthy families, if permitted, could receive instruction from private tutors. Others received a minimal education. At the time, many people believed that girls and women lacked the aptitude for a rigorous education and had a limited capacity for learning. Philosophers likewise discredited female abilities unless they were related to appearance, childbearing, or life in the home. Macaulay’s attack on these ideologies lays the foundation for the rest of her argument for equal education.

Women’s perceived inferiority, Macaulay postulates, stems from Western civilization’s continued acceptance of traditions that locate women outside of the political and intellectual realms. Because such ideologies have been in place for a long time, she explains, they are popular with the majority of her contemporaries. An enlightened populace embraces debate, she asserts, only until the idea postulated “tends to the overthrow of some fond prejudice.” At this point, she remarks, they “sound a retreat” or effectively “silence” the dissenting voice. Cerebral qualities and femininity remained so disparate in the cultural expectations of the time that when women exhibited signs of intellectuality, men characterized them as “masculine.” In describing to Hortensia the way women are viewed by men, Macaulay quotes the poet Alexander Pope, who articulated that “a perfect woman’s but a softer man.” For a woman to retain her feminine qualities in the eyes of the world, therefore, she had to at least appear to lack intelligence.

Macaulay next refutes the basis of sexual difference as promoted by Rousseau. In his novel Émile, Rousseau articulated his designs for educating youth. Women’s natural role, he argued, involved a subservient position to their male protectors and situated them as ornaments of the home. Rousseau even believed that the differences between the sexes determined the degree of morality each sex could obtain. Because of these innate differences, Rousseau suggested different curriculum requirements for the education of boys and girls. Though he did not discourage women from additional academic pursuits, he maintained that a woman’s primary role was to remain pleasing to her husband and raise her children virtuously. He believed that women’s grace and beauty would calm the tyrannical instincts of their men, thus helping nature find balance.

Macaulay discusses Rousseau’s paradoxical argument outlined above, finding fault with his stipulations about women’s subservience and passivity. Nature, she explains, “recede[d] from her purpose” in giving women the task of controlling men’s barbarity. Moreover, she jettisons Rousseau’s idea of sexual difference and its relation to morality. Humans, she suggests, could learn the foundations of rationality and thus become familiar with moral principles, or universal axioms. She infers that only through a process of deduction, rather than an observation of women set against the backdrop of men, can a cogent argument about sexual difference crystallize. Macaulay asserts that an identical education for boys and girls could dispel misconceptions about sexual differences.

Visible Gender Characteristics versus Natural Qualities of the Sexes

In Letters on Education, Macaulay outlines the characteristics of each sex as she sees them. This act deviates from normal practices of the eighteenth century, which favored male observations of male and female behavior and their subsequent articulations of their subjects’ worthiness. Her sketch of the male vacillates between favorable and barbaric qualities. She criticizes women as well, acerbically censuring them for their vanity. In writing to Hortensia, Macaulay laments that “[t]he great difference that is observable in the characters of the sexes . . . has given rise to much false speculation on the natural qualities of the female mind.”

In observing the general character of men as she sees them, Macaulay notes that men’s virtue and other good qualities seem to have proven more constant and “excellent” than women’s over the course of history. She concedes that male bodies encompass greater degrees of “corporal strength,” which has enabled them to circumscribe women’s natural freedoms. Failing to identify a specific time in history when this power relationship between the sexes was first established, she leaves Hortensia with an ambiguous frame of reference, the “barbarous ages of mankind.” The relative continuation of the savage practices “reduce[d women] to a state of abject slavery.”

Macaulay’s use of the term “slavery” to describe women’s position in society mirrors several eighteenth-century treatises on liberty and republicanism. Several colonial writers and thinkers invoked the image of slavery, a practice rampant in British North America (later, the United States), French Saint Domingue, and the British West Indies, as a means to underscore unconscionable aims of their imperial oppressors. Such an argument also drew on racial undertones. By 1791, racial ideologies had emerged on both sides of the Atlantic that opined an inferior status for non-Caucasians. By enslaving white women intellectually, white men placed women on equal footing with anyone they perceived as their racial inferiors. Because of millennia of this type of subjugation under men’s rule, Macaulay writes to Hortensia, women have lost their “natural rights.”

Women’s visible social characteristics, Macaulay notes, seem to have contributed to their lesser status; according to her observations, many women seem to revel in their roles as subservient and vain. Vanity and a fondness for “trifles” have distracted women from feeling remorse about their diminished state. Raised to adore and replicate beauty at every turn, women “heartily join in the sentence of their degradation.” Macaulay notes that a concentration on corporeal beauty has fed their “meaner passions” but left them without substance. An education crafted to teach women to feign delicacy or physical weakness has likewise blunted “their system of nerves.” Her argument suggests that an upbringing built on these principles reflects social performative standards rather than natural abilities. Thus, she recognizes the difference between social expectations for women and women’s natural state.

A woman’s education in the eighteenth century emphasized correct gender performance. Girls learned from a variety of sources. Mothers proffered instructions on proper household management. Religious authorities accentuated female submissiveness in their interpretation and teaching of scripture. Novels and guides further outlined correct female behavior, promoted beauty, and fostered female affection for material trivialities. However, rather than inspiring admiration and devotion from male observers, Macaulay believes that women are ridiculed by men for their “vices and foibles.” Moreover, women’s preference for aesthetic cultivation over intellectual grooming has become a central argument against their participation in the public sphere. Macaulay quotes her contemporary, British statesman Philip Stanhope (also known as Lord Chesterfield) to buttress her point. He equated women to “children” who have “entertaining tattle” but lack “solid reasoning, and good sense.” He went on to suggest that a right-minded man “neither consults them, nor trusts them in serious matters.”

Macaulay asserts that the natural capacity of the female intellect differs sharply from the performative qualities set forth by society and the likes of Pope, Rousseau, or Stanhope. However, in order to gain a clear understanding of any differences between the sexes, an environment with a controlled setting, or equal access to education, must first be created. Only an “accurate way of reasoning” through scientific observation can identify innate sexual differences. Nature, she argues, “has been just in equal distribution of her favours.” Holding to this view reveals Macaulay’s deviation from many leading intellectuals of the 1790s. She believes that the best way to test differences between genders was to expose children to similar circumstances and education. Ultimately, she argues, social and political perfection could occur only through the recognition and exercise of the natural abilities of men and women.

Deficiencies in Women’s Education and Macaulay’s Solution

Macaulay argues that women’s unthinking acquiescence to the performative standards of society has resulted in their diminished moral character. Social structures formulated mainly by men have bolstered women’s adherence to gender performance. Macaulay’s argument transcends commentary limited solely to women; she extends her argument to include equal educational opportunities to individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds. She posits that an education grounded in reason could improve the morality of the individual and by extension, the nation.

Women’s education of the time lacked in-depth instruction in morality or critical thought. Rather than inculcating girls with tools for reasoning, educators highlighted the importance of maintaining an attractive appearance and coquettish demeanor in order to secure a husband and male protector. As Macaulay sees it, men have furnished this artificial aspect of women’s character by favoring beauty over cerebral and moral qualities. She observes that the “admiration of the other sex is held out to women as the highest honour they can attain.” As one of the few women of her day who were celebrated throughout the Atlantic world for intellect rather than beauty, Macaulay knew that alternative avenues of social participation and respectability were available to women if given a proper education. She argues that the visibility of women’s “foibles” in public affairs results more from a lack of instruction than inherent gender traits. Until corrected, she warns in Letters, women will remain ornaments of the home rather than autonomous beings.

A cure to women’s character flaws required an amendment to boys’ and girls’ education. By placing both sexes in a similar environment and educating them simultaneously, Macaulay argues, antiquated notions about gender difference will dissipate. She hopes that childhood interaction and the free exchange of ideas among nascent minds will engender friendship between men and women as they progress into adulthood. To Hortensia, she offers a pragmatic outline of children’s education. A child’s earliest stages of learning should focus on dancing and reading, understanding that both activities result from privilege. She admonishes punishments as being cruel and having the potential to create timid individuals. In the years leading up to adolescence, she believes, teachers should instruct children in math, geography, Latin, and writing. Later, they should master Greek and Roman classics like Plato’s Republic. Her curriculum stretches into an individual’s early twenties. Through continual intellectual nourishment, she believes that boys and girls can be taught rationality and morality.

As expressed in Letters, Macaulay’s design for education and her refutation of the intellectual differences of the sexes has political and social aims. A universal recognition of women’s natural abilities could further their position in intellectual realms and lend credence to their position in the public sphere. Socially, universal access to education could help to erase social inequalities through the spread of rationality and morality. She recognizes that in order to engage both male and female readers, she needs to systematically identify and disprove previous arguments concerning women’s education and their innate proclivity toward frivolities. Highlighting the paradoxes in Rousseau’s work on gender allows Macaulay to effectively undermine his argument. From there, an analysis of gender performance juxtaposed with women’s natural dispositions readies her to propose a reformulation of the education system. Although she admits that infusing girls’ education with a more diverse curriculum will not excite change quickly, she believes that teaching girls and boys about their intellectual equality will result in political and social change.

Essential Themes

Macaulay published Letters on Education shortly before her death in June 1791. Although she enjoyed immense success as a historian and social and political commentator, her works quickly faded from public view by the turn of the century. Nevertheless, later generations of female intellectuals on both shores of the Atlantic drew inspiration from Macaulay’s work. Though not considered a feminist according to the twentieth-century model, Macaulay’s active participation in intellectual debates laid the groundwork for later precursors to feminist thought. For example, Mary Wollstonecraft, a British political theorist, examined how sexual difference became inscribed in political rhetoric. A fervent supporter of Macaulay during her lifetime, Wollstonecraft lauded her accomplishments and identified Macaulay’s work as one of the main influences of her own writings. Like her predecessor, she explored the works of Hume, Locke, and Burke and articulated responses to each in various works. Her most important treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, continued to explore the themes presented in Macaulay’s Letters. She argued that for women to fulfill their roles as companions as well as educators, they required access to education. Drawing on similar imagery to Macaulay’s in her identification of men as tyrants, Wollstonecraft questioned the rationality behind subjugating women and excluding them from political participation. A proponent of equal education for boys and girls, she stressed that social transformation was necessary.

The radicalism of the French Revolution sparked conservative backlash from rulers clinging to vestiges of patriarchy; this effectively stunted women’s presence in political affairs in the United States during the late eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century, women’s identities continued to disappear through coverture, a legal status in which a married woman was legally subject to the authority of her husband. The 1805 court case of Martin v. Massachusetts confirmed that married women held no public life. Under coverture, she owed absolute obedience to her husband. Paternalism likewise reigned in the South, locating the male as the head of household as well as master over his slaves. Female slaves, forbidden to marry, remained vulnerable to male advances. Women made some political gains in western territories where the division of labor required women to transcend their traditional gender performance. A Constitutional amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote would not appear until 1920, however.

Nevertheless, dramatic changes did begin to appear in the home throughout America, particularly for the middle and upper classes. Whereas eighteenth-century women gave birth approximately once every two years, many women in later generations had longer periods of time between births. Men and women increasingly married for love rather than economic necessity alone. Family dynamics shifted to favor affectionate relationships between parent and child. Historians have noted these changes through an analysis of demographics, personal correspondence, portraiture, and economics.

  • Bell, Susan Groag, and Karen M. Offen, eds. Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents. Vol. 1: 1750–1880. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1983. Print.
  • Gardner, Catharine. “Catharine Macaulay’s Letters on Education: Odd but Equal.” Hypatia 13.1 (1998): 118–37. Print.
  • Gunther-Canada, Wendy. “Teaching Mary Wollstonecraft: Women and the Canonical Conversation of Political Thought.” Feminist Teacher 11.1 (1997): 20–29. Print.
  • Titone, Connie. Gender Equality in the Philosophy of Education: Catharine Macaulay’s Forgotten Contribution. New York: Lang, 2004. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Brown, Kathleen. “‘Changed . . . into the Fashion of Man’: The Politics of Sexual Difference in a Seventeenth Century Anglo-American Settlement.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 6.2 (1995): 171–93. Print.
  • Kerber, Linda. “The Paradox of Women’s Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Case of Martin vs. Massachusetts, 1805.” AHR 97.2 (1992): 349–78. Print.
  • Klepp, Susan E. Revolutionary Conceptions: Women, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, 1760–1820. Chapel Hill: U North Carolina P, 2009. Print.
  • Kolp, John G., and Terri Snyder. “Women and the Political Culture of Eighteenth-Century Virginia: Gender, Property Law, and Voting Rights.” The Many Legalities of Early America. Ed. Christopher L. Tomlins and Bruce H. Mann. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2001. Print.

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