Strauss Documents Struggle for Women's Education

In a recently published book, author Carol Strauss Sotiropolous (Modern Languages and Literatures) explores how European reformists creatively and subversively used Romantic prose and fictional narratives to promote advanced education for women. Its title is Early Feminists and the Education Debates: England, France, Germany, 1760-1810.


In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, girls’ education was limited to the training required to fulfill their domestic role. Strauss illustrates the dominant mentality of the era by quoting Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Woman is made specially to please man … and to be subjugated.” The challenge reformists faced was how to argue for broadening girls’ education in a way that would gain a responsive audience, not to mention private and state support.


To prevent alienating the men in power – ranging from government officials to doctors to professors – feminist writers used a variety of genres to advance their argument. These included an educational ladies’ periodical, fictional letters, petitions requesting support for start-up schools and plans for national education that subversively countered the dominant mentality about women’s abilities and role.


“The egalitarians worked to discredit theories about the alleged differences between male and female brains, which contended that women could not reason the same as men,” Strauss said. “Many invoked the idea of the ‘maternal educator’ to make their views more palatable and gain approval. For example, they would state that mothers needed to be educated so that they could teach their sons to be good citizens. Or they might lobby for mothers to chaperone their children to school as a guise for getting women into the classroom. They adapted and reshaped the strategies being used by their opposition.”


Theodor von Hippel, a Prussian politican and novelist, called for women’s admission into universities and equal entry into every profession. Strauss calls him the “most astounding radical feminist” of the time. Her book resurrects his writings and those of 10 women whose voices surfaced in the struggle for advanced education.


“Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, is the name recognized by many readers. The Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792 was a manifesto-like treatise that called for the overhaul of women’s education in Britain. Despite its historical context, it has become a landmark work that has been referenced by women in succeeding generations.”


Strauss said she entered the women’s studies arena through the back door and relatively late in life. In her mid-40s, she was pursuing a doctorate in comparative literary and cultural studies at the University of Connecticut. A professor invited her to co-author a book chapter on nonfictional romantic prose by women. This spawned the idea for Early Feminists and the Education Debates.


“I wanted to make the documents accessible to a wider audience. Most of the German and French works cited in the book were never translated into English. There were some interesting surprises I encountered along the way. I would now like to extend my study to focus on the path of the debates in the American context during the early Republic.”


When asked what she hopes readers will gain from her volume, Strauss said, “First, I hope it helps broaden their knowledge about educational reformists who have been forgotten over time—the 'great-grandmothers' and 'great-grandfathers' of the women’s movement. Second, the book informs about the ways political events can impact education policies. Finally, a feature relevant to all is the book’s examination of subversive expression: how we use language strategically to assist us in getting our ideas accepted when we address—whether in writing or in speech— potentially hostile audiences that wield power."


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Updated: October 17, 2007

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