But Seriously, ‘Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?'

In 1859, The Atlantic published an essay asking a simple—and very, very complicated—question.

Here is an abbreviated list of the people and works cited in The Atlantic’s 1859 essay “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?”: Socrates, Joan of Arc, Moliere, Ovid, Sappho, Charlemagne, Mohammed, Boaz, the Amazons, the Encyclopedie, Penelope, Lucretia, Madame Gacon Dufour, Mary Wollstonecraft, Francis Bacon, Saint Brigitta, Archimedia, Samuel Coleridge, Baron Alderson, the “Hindoo dramas,” the “Gentoo code,” Suleiman Bey, Luduvico Domenichi, Margaret Boufflet, Cornelius Agrippa, Louis Aggasiz, Voltaire, Richelieu, Moses, St. Augustine, Minerva, Neptune, Varro, Aristotle, Acidalius, Foissart, Theophilus Parsons, Barthold Niebuhr, Dr. Maginn, Propezia de Rossi, Xenophon, Madame Lagrange, Florence Nightingale, the Sisters of Charity, Charles Lamb, Catherine the Great, el Cid, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Margaret Fuller, John Quincy Adams, John Smith, Pythagoras, Confucius, God, Mammon, Adam, Eve, Cinderella.

I mean. Granted, any old hack can toss around historical references for the sake of authorial aggrandizement—“I not only use all the brains that I have,” Woodrow Wilson once remarked, “but all that I can borrow”—but the sweeping stuff on display in “Ought Women” offers no evidence of the smug or the smarmy or the general gilding of lilies. Instead, this glorious goulash of intellectual history is summoned in the service of an important, and for 1859 an extremely prescient, argument: that women have been limited in their achievements not because they are innately inferior to men, but because economic and cultural conditions, complex and basic at the same time, have kept them from realizing their intellectual potential.

One of those conditions: women being prevented, in most cases, from knowing the alphabet.

The essay’s title, to be clear, is not an earnest one. Arguments, their purpose notwithstanding, confer a kind of concession to a premise, and “ought women to learn the alphabet?” is not, here, being granted the dignity of debate. Instead, the question—posed explicitly by the French satirist Sylvain Maréchal in 1801, but implicitly by the nameless cadre of people and circumstances we tend to group together as “the status quo”—is being mocked. “Should the ladyfolk learn to read and write,” even back in 1859, was not an interesting thing to consider; what was interesting, though—and what remains relevant more than 150 years later—are the circumstances that led to such a question being asked in the first place. “Ought Women” is a reflection on what the alphabet means when a great swath of humanity has been prevented from enjoying it. It is a meditation on the idea that education is empowerment. It marshals history to preemptively silence its own defectors.

As in, for example:

We venture to assert, then, that woman's social inferiority, in the past, has been, to a great extent, a legitimate thing. To all appearance, history would have been impossible without it, just as it would have been impossible without an epoch of war and slavery. It is simply a matter of social progress, a part of the succession of civilizations. The past has been, and inevitably, a period of ignorance, of engrossing physical necessities, and of brute force,—not of freedom, of philanthropy, and of culture. During that lower epoch, woman was necessarily an inferior,—degraded by abject labor, even in time of peace,—degraded uniformly by war, chivalry to the contrary notwithstanding. Behind all the courtesies of Amadis and the Cid lay the stern fact,—woman a child or a toy. The flattering troubadours chanted her into a poet's paradise; but, alas! That kingdom of heaven suffered violence, and the violent took it by force. The truth simply was, that her time had not come.

And now, the essay declares, her time has.

The argument against each new emancipation of woman is precisely that always made against the liberation of serfs and the enfranchisement of plebeians,—that the new position will take them from their legitimate business. "How can he [or she] get wisdom that holdeth the plough, [or the broom,]—whose talk is of bullocks [or of babies]?" Yet the American farmer has already emancipated himself from these fancied incompatibilities, and so will the farmer's wife.

The broad axis of this argument—nature versus nurture, privilege and the lack of it, the coming of women, if not the end of men—feels, today, frustrating in its freshness. But "Ought Women" also gives us denizens of 2015 a good reason for optimism. The essay’s author, listed as “Anonymous” in its first publication in The Atlantic, was later revealed to be Thomas Wentworth Higgins (who was, among many other things, Emily Dickinson’s mentor). Higgins would go on to reprint the piece in his 1881 collection Women and the Alphabet. In the introduction to that book, he describes the impact that "Ought Women" had in its time. He notes, among other things, "a report that it was the perusal of this essay which led the late Miss Sophia Smith to the founding of the women’s college bearing her name at Northampton, Massachusetts.”

An essay that begins with the question of women learning the alphabet and ends with the founding of a college for women. It's hard to imagine a better testament—to a sweeping knowledge of history, to being on the right side of that history, and to the power of an idea whose time has come.