Early Childhood Education

Wollstonecraft, Mary (1759-1797)

 

An early modern philosophical “mother” of English feminism and coeducation, Mary Wollstonecraft survived her alcoholic father’s violence and resisted his opposition to girls’ education by educating herself from an early age. She developed her own remarkable way with children, evident throughout her life and written work. Her thought about children’s education critically engaged both taken-for- granted popular assumptions about gender and others’ writings on education, extending concern to girls’ preparation for moral life, to mothers’ preparation for intelligent child-rearing, and to the character of ideal educational partnerships.

As eldest daughter, Wollstonecraft helped her battered mother raise her five younger siblings. A marriage resister among religious Dissenters in the 1780s, she taught young children in a school she established with her two sisters and beloved friend Fanny Blood, and also worked as a governess for Irish aristocrats. Becoming a single mother during the French Revolution, she traveled unescorted with her infant daughter throughout Scandinavia and survived two suicide attempts. Resettling in England, where single mothers and fatherless children were outlaws, she befriended, loved, and married political philosopher William Godwin. He adopted her first daughter, fathered her second daughter (Mary Shelley), and wrote after her death in childbed, “No one was ever better formed for the business of education.”

Wollstonecraft’s earliest and latest writings most closely detail the maternal educational practices her husband had witnessed. Her Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) asserted the educational value of the nursery that avoids what she regarded as needless restraint and silly affected speech, provides rationally consistent discipline, exemplifies good manners, and fosters strong morals. Her Original Stories from Real Life (1788) presented a conversational, narrative approach to children’s moral education, selling so well that William Blake illustrated a later edition (1796). Godwin posthumously published her Lessons (1798), fragments narrating her affectionate teaching of a toddler daughter—to talk, to befriend animals, to love a newborn brother, to take safety precautions with dangerous household objects. These early and late works also reflect John Locke’s emphasis upon “laying the foundation of a good constitution” in young children, but correct his general neglect of girls’ education.

Wollstonecraft wanted mothers educated about human anatomy and health care, and counseled them to breast-feed their own children. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1791-1792) reiterated those child care concerns while also advocating children’s (especially girls’) freedom to “run wild” as integral to their education in reason. Explicitly critiquing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile while commending Catherine Macaulay’s Letters on Education, this feminist classic also proposed a revolutionary national scheme of coeducational secular day schooling in which girls and boys, both rich and poor, learn to befriend one another from early childhood onward, simultaneously educated in loving homes by parents who are mutual friends. No less than men, argued Wollstonecraft, women might thus develop physical, mental, and moral strength needed to claim eternal life for their God-loving souls, in this life becoming independent, productive citizens and intelligent, virtuous mothers who comprehend their child-rearing duties’ patriotic significance for a republic free from slavery and other monarchist tyrannies. See also Gender and Gender Stereotyping in Early Childhood Education; Parents and Parent Involvement.

Further Readings: Gordon, Lyndall (2005). Vindication: A life of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: HarperCollins; Jump, Harriet Devine (1994). Mary Wollstonecraft: Writer. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf. Martin, Jane Roland (1985); Wollstonecraft’s daughters. In Reclaiming a conversation: The ideal of the educated woman. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 70-102; Todd, Janet (2000). Mary Wollstonecraft: A revolutionary life. New York: Columbia University Press; Todd, Janet, ed. (2003). The collected letters of Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Columbia University Press; Todd, Janet, and Marilyn Butler, eds. (1989). The works of Mary Wollstonecraft. 7 vols. New York: New York University Press.

Susan Laird