Women in the late eighteenth century were confined in a realm all their own; an alternative world known as the domestic sphere. Wealthy and poor women alike were encouraged to reform the manners and morals of the country within this domestic space to create a more prosperous nation. Wealthy women were urged to use their economic resources to help the deprived as well as reform “polite society.” The poor, on the other hand, were asked to reform their morals by attending Sunday schools and reading materials that promoted good religious and moral behavior. To ensure the success of this initiative, Hannah More created a series of stories known as The Cheap Repository Tracts that offered readers religious and moral examples. Since moral deterioration was present in all socio-economic classes women like Hannah More had a unique challenge: how could they appeal to all classes in order to promote reform? More discovered that she had to create different strategies for each individual class. Anne Stott explains that though “…she could nag or bribe the poor into good behavior and ‘vital’ Christianity, her behavior to her social superiors had to be more subtle and accommodating, and she ran the risk of resorting to the flattery of her accusers were quick to detect her” (Stott 159). More had to walk a fine line between teaching the truth and maintaining relations with other “social superiors.” This task was not easy and thus throughout her life (and long after) she faced criticism from multiple directions – a fact that has greatly contributed to her critical neglect.
During the late eighteenth century women and men of the middle and upper class were expected to perform specific roles. Women were required to remain in the private and domestic sphere where they, or their servants, would maintain the house and raise children. Women were also expected to keep their husbands content and satisfied. Men, on the other hand, had the opportunity to move between the public and private spheres, though politics and public engagement were reserved for males. Men were also required to work and were expected to receive some kind of education; whether it was vocational or a traditional classical education (Burton 7). This notion of separate spheres originated along with the belief that men and women are not only physically different, but also mentally.
Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah More, and Sarah Trimmer believed that the way to reform the nation was by changing the way women and children were taught. Instead of being educated to attract men, they wanted to educate them to be responsible wives and mothers. These women understood that wives had utter control of the household and, since this was true, women had to teach children life lessons as well as educate them. The problem women like More and Wollstonecraft faced was that, if women were supposed to teach children but never received an education themselves, how could they properly instruct their family? To combat this lack of knowledge, reformers sought to establish schools where women, children, and the poor could attend.
The concept of formalized education for both rich and poor was radical for the times since men believed that women did not need to learn practical skills, but instead needed to focus on external beauty. Wollstonecraft explains that this type of education is ultimately self-defeating:
“…the instruction which women have hitherto received has only tended, with the constitution of civil society, to render them insignificant objects of desire –mere propagators of fools! –If it can be proved that in aiming to accomplish them, without cultivating their understandings, they are taken out of their sphere of duties, and made ridiculous and useless when their short-lived bloom of beauty is over…” (Wollstonecraft 35-36).
If women do not receive a proper education, then once they are out of their “prime,” they will have nothing to offer the nation and