“Is Not Woman a Human Being?”

Discourses on Education in the Early National Period
  • Margaret A. Nash


“Let me ask this plain and rational question,” wrote the British essayist Anne Randall in 1799, “is not woman a human being?” Her plaintive query reflected Enlightenment thought and sought support for female education based on a belief in women as sharing the essential human quality of rational thought. Central to Enlightenment conceptions was the assertion that the capacity to think rationally set humans apart from animals. In this view, women, as human beings, were capable of abstract reasoning and therefore would benefit from exposure to the arts and sciences. If Nature bequeathed this capacity to women, some argued, it was cruel not to allow them to use it. Randall compared women being denied the opportunity to exercise their intellect to the fate of Tantalus, the character from Greek mythology who had been condemned to stand hungry underneath a tree laden with fruit that would remain forever out of his reach. Woman, wrote Randall, was “like Tantalus, placed in a situation where the intellectual blessing she sighs for is within her view; but she is not permitted to attain it.”1


Social Utility Advanced Education Female Education Intellectual Capacity Greek Mythology 
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© Margaret A. Nash 2005

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  • Margaret A. Nash

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