Daniel Defoe was an unlikely literary celebrity. As the son of a butcher in 17th-century England, he grew up without the advantages of wealth and education that other writers enjoyed. Even after completing novels, Defoe was regarded with suspicion by some higher-class authors. Perhaps because he suffered from prejudice himself, Defoe dedicated an essay, “Academy for Women,” to promoting educational equality.
Defoe uses religious references to establish his own credibility and moral high ground. He states that God made women capable of learning and that none of God’s creation is unnecessary. He goes on to write that women are a gift from God and therefore denying them education is an act of almost blasphemous ingratitude. Defoe’s argument is not formally theological; it invokes religion for rhetorical flair. By presenting himself as advocating God’s will rather than his own, Defoe raises the stakes of the issue in the minds of his Christian readership. It also humbles him. If you’re going “to make such a bold assertion, That all the world are mistaken…,” you need some incontestable authority backing you up.
Defoe never argues against religion overall, but he does pointedly object to the plan laid out by his contemporary, Mary Astell, who envisioned women’s education taking place in seminaries. Defoe mentions women’s souls as evidence of their fundamental equality to men before God — not as items requiring improvement. He recognizes there is a concern that women out and about in the world put their personal safety and virtue at risk, but he deems a school modeled on a nunnery to be oppressive. Defoe relies on the literal, physical structure of his hypothetical academy to guard its inhabitants from unwanted attention. Forcing entry ought to be a felony, he argues, but students themselves may come and go as they please.
Defoe anticipates 19th-century pro-feminist arguments by the likes of John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor when he points out that sexist stereotypes act as self-fulfilling prophecies. He proposes that the justification for denying women education — their supposed intellectual inferiority — is actually a result of denying women education. In fact, he remarks, some of his contemporaries are women lucky enough to have received high-quality educations, and their excellent writing proves that women have as much potential as men. In one of the essay’s most progressive moments, Defoe supposes men exile women from school because they are afraid of being surpassed.
The essay, while impressively forward-thinking, contains elements that are sexist by today’s standards. Defoe appeals to men’s self-interest as frequently, if not more frequently, as he does to their moral and ethical obligations. Some details are relatively harmless, such as Defoe’s reasoning that educated women will be more charming, interesting conversationalists. Others are more cringe-worthy, such as Defoe’s advice to improve women so that they are fit for men’s use just as men would rear horses. The essay shows its age most as it concludes, reassuring readers that educated women will know better than to interfere in government and other male arenas.