The Education of Women

For years, Daniel Defoe’s essay, “The Education of Women” has been one of my favourite pieces on giving girls an education. Defoe wrote it in 1719 as a rebuke to a country and class that poured much into educating its men, but left the women out of the class room.

Why bother with this topic post-feminist revolution? After all, female college graduates increasingly outnumber their male counterparts, stay-at-home-dads are more common, and the world applauds women who break into traditionally “male” fields of learning and work, such as engineering, or haute cuisine. It advocates for educated women while disregarding Scripture’s pattern for women.

But in conservative branches of Christianity, there is often an over-reaction against this feminism. Russell Moore’s excellent article addresses the problem of women in general submitting to men in general. Applying the “to your own husbands” principle, Moore points out that Christian women have no business worrying about what men in general think of them, despite a culture that behaves as though women are sexually subject to men. This is also often true on the intellectual front in Christian communities, especially home schooling ones.

Christian men can behave as though a woman has no business voicing an opinion contrary to theirs. I have countered arguments from Christian men in public and been met with stares or dismissive comments. They seem to wonder why I’m not silent, or better yet, making sheet cake for the next fellowship meal. This sort of thinking goes hand-in-hand with not taking too much concern with educating wives or daughters.

But a well informed, biblically literate woman has every social and intellectual right to be involved in political, theological, or even football conversations in public with men, as long as she does so in submission to her own husband. Women as a class are not subject to men as a class on an intellectual or educational level.

Lots of women have bought into this themselves: “Oh, I don’t know anything about pre-Adamic hominids, I’m afraid. How many teeth does your baby have?” There are capable believing women out there who are living below their potential fruitfulness because they don’t think they need to think beyond the A Beka text book. And it impoverishes the entire church.

Defoe’s essay deals with both of these problems – the worldly one, and the “pregnant, bare-foot, and in the kitchen” one. Women need to be educated not to empower them, or boost their self esteem, or to enable a government take-over by an army of pencil skirts and pumps, but to equip them to be competent helpmeets, capable mothers, and able servants in the church. You do not need to go to college to be fruitful for the Kingdom, but you do need to use the mind God gave you. Whether you have a PhD or never finished highschool, you need to keep developing your mind.

An educated woman is a blessing to her husband. Matthew Henry says in his commentary on Genesis that God made woman out of man’s side to rule with him. If you are going to do that, you need to understand the world that your husband interacts with, as well as his particular job. Defoe would “have men take women for companions, and educate them to be fit for it.” It is a huge help for a husband to be able to debrief about his work, world events, etc. with his wife when he comes home at the end of a day, instead of only hearing about how many blow-out diapers there were.

An educated woman is a blessing to her children. In the home schooling world, I hear fathers explain why their girls aren’t going to college in pseudo-spiritual terms: “She knows God wants her to be a mommy.” If your daughter is going to be raising and educating the next generation of pastors, missionaries, etc., she needs all the education she can get. This might not always mean a university degree, but it does mean reading heaps, especially church history and theology so that you are able to shape these young souls for kingdom work and eternity. I know a woman with no degree but a solid knowledge of the world coupled with biblical literacy and theological understanding whose children were equipped to go out and win souls for Christ in a post-modern world. Her children have been immensely blessed by an educated mother.

Education is also a blessing for the woman herself, to “understand the world, and to be able to know and judge of things when [she] hear[s] of them”, says Defoe. Proverbs 19:8 tells us that “Whoever gets sense loves his own soul; he who keeps understanding will discover good.” A theologically educated woman will grow in holiness and wisdom much more quickly than an ignorant one. Defoe adds that an uneducated woman squanders God’s gift of mental ability: “If knowledge and understanding had been useless additions to the sex, God Almighty would never have given them capacities; for he made nothing needless.”

In all of these ways, an educated woman becomes a blessing to the church. Scripture and church history are peppered with examples of wise, (self)educated women who used their gifts and abilities to bless the church. They were not seeking to rule over man, but to rule beside their own husbands, as Matthew Henry describes. “A woman of sense and breeding,” says Defoe, “will scorn as much to encroach upon the prerogative of man, as a man of sense will scorn to oppress the weakness of the woman.”

Fear of feminism, disrespect or lack of submission should never keep a believing woman from using her mind. In fact, fear of not using the abilities that God has given should motivate Christian women to love Him with all of our hearts, with all of our souls, and all of our minds. (Matthew 22:37)