role of women's education - Shaw vs Wollstonecraft

Seminar Paper, 2003

15 Pages, Grade: 2,5 (B)




Main Part

The story of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and its plot

“Pygmalion” and the way of education

Shaw’s attitude towards women, female education and social problems

Education in Great Britain in the 19th century

Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”

Wollstonecraft’s attitude towards women’s problems and the aspect of education in the “Vindication”


Comparitive evaluation between “Pygmalion” and

“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”



Even a hundred years ago, the word “education” would have been rarely mentioned in connection with “women”. Heated discussions addressed questions such as how far women should be educated, and what education would mean for them. Women’s traditional and conventional tasks were generally seen in housekeeping, giving birth to many children[1], and to cater for the sexual needs of their husbands. This role model was based on the concept of the so-called one-sex model[2], in which the female sex did not exist at all, as people only thought of one human sex, the male sex. In contrast to modernity's formulation that men and women are "opposites", Thomas Laqueur proposed an early one-sex model in which women were seen as fundamentally the same, yet imperfect or failed, versions of men[3]. They were said to be inferior, weaker, and more passive than their male counterparts. The status of the female sex could be compared to that of a slave[4], because women were totally – economically and physically – dependent on their fathers, and, later on, their husbands. Men saw the progressive development of women, and the female self-esteem, as a major risk for their own status and the system of patriarchy, which had been established by men throughout the past centuries. “[…] They were afraid that their wives might, if their value were recognized, become unruly and claim to be the heads of the household […].”[5] Partly due to the fact that “by law everything a woman possessed became the property of her husband when she married, [which had] the effect [that women had] to hand over [their] property to some person or persons [even] yet unborn before her marriage”[6], this system forced women to be subjected not only to their husbands, but to all male family members. However, beginning with the period of Enlightenment in the late 18th century, the attitude towards the one-sex model gradually changed. More and more, people tried to distinguish between man and woman by referring to anatomic differences. The two-sex model started to emerge and claim a firm place in people’s minds, and the one-sex model was finally viewed as overcome. Yet, the declared differences between the two sexes did not manifest successfully. Hence, the one-sex model remained like a shadow looming over the gender issues. Nevertheless, the female sex gained power, and women began to claim their rights. One of the female defenders of women’s rights in the late 18th century was Mary Wollstonecraft, whose work and views will be discussed here, as well.

Economic problems changed people’s views about the female sex and, further more, about female education. This change occurred mainly in the middle class, in which people were dependent on an income of every individual family member[7]. However, women needed more and better education to be competitive with men and, most of all, to execute skilled labour.

“Pygmalion”, a drama written by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), which published in 1912[8], picks out such problems as a central theme focusing on women’s education, their status in labour and in society. Although Shaw cannot be seen as an outright fighter for female rights, he tried to encourage people to change their archaic social and economic values. Education seemed to be a vital aspect for him to induce such changes. The story of “Pygmalion”, thus, creates imaginations in the reader’s mind about “what education really means”[9] and, first and foremost, what it meant in the times of George Bernard Shaw.

In comparison to Shaw’s approach, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) established in her “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, published in 1792, comparable views on female education, but at the same time developed different ways to it and, in general, to womanhood. Moreover, Wollstonecraft elaborated on the general situation of women in her time in far more detail. She also emphasised, in addition to the educational problem, her opinion about the values of motherhood, sexuality, and marriage.

It is, thus, important to clearly work out the difference between both authors, who did not only deviate in regard to their sex, and the time they lived in, but also had significantly different attitudes towards womanhood and the living standards of the various classes and their development.

Main Part

The story of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and its plot:

“Shaw’s drama is based on a Greek myth about Pygmalion, a sculptor and ruler of Cyprus.”[10] He is disgusted by the decadent and shameful lives of the women of his era, and decides to live alone and unmarried. Yet, he sculpts a perfect woman in ivory, only for himself alone. The more he looks upon her, the more deeply he falls in love with her, until he wishes that she were more than a statue, which he named Galatea. Lovesick, Pygmalion visits the temple of the goddess Venus and prays to her to grant him a lover like his statue. Venus is touched by his love and brings Galatea to life. When Pygmalion returns from Venus' temple and kisses his statue, he is delighted to find that she is alive. He, then, marries his ideal woman[11]. However, this woman obeys him and has no own free will, because she is his own creation.

Shaw uses this Pygmalion myth to create a female character, named Eliza Doolittle, and a male character, called Professor Higgins. Eliza represents Galatea in such a way that she is a young girl with no further experience in life except that of the streets, where she lived and worked in. Moreover, she is a member of the low working class with no money and no education, who becomes apparently dependent on the Professor. He, representing Pygmalion, turns her, a “draggletailed guttersnipe”[12] who “utters disgusting sounds”[13], into a lady who is able to speak proper English. Higgins, a teacher of phonetics, is tempted to teach Eliza, and places a bet with Colonel Pickering, a gentleman from India, that he could pass her off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party within three months. It is obvious that such an education, such a change in Eliza’s life, cannot be achieved without difficulties. Although “Pygmalion” resembles the “story [of] Cinderella in which a poor, dirty, badly treated, but beautiful girl is turned into a princess and is rewarded with the love of a prince”[14], Shaw “gives the legend a twist”[15]. Professor Higgins does not fall in love with Eliza candidly, so that the reader has to imagine the emotions behind Higgins’ and Eliza’s behaviour. Furthermore, Shaw did not let the story finish with a happy ending, but gave the hint that Eliza might not stay with the Professor but with Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a young man from the upper class, who had fallen in love with her instead. Accordingly, Eliza is not as dependent on Higgins as Galatea is on Pygmalion. Of course, Higgins enables her to blossom out into a beautiful, intelligent woman, who becomes more or less his creation, but Eliza is able to use her improvement in her own way and for herself. However, she is not sure herself “what is to become of her when [Professor Higgins has] finished [his] teaching”[16], and even Mrs. Pearce, Higgins’ housekeeper, is doubtful whether Eliza stays on legal terms in Higgins’ house. These questions occupied the society in those days depending on class restrictions and firm role models. Thus, Shaw’s intention in “Pygmalion” was that his readers should realise that education can help to lead an independent, successful, and respected life far from being humiliated or disadvantaged by the upper class.


[1] Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide... 196

[2] Soble, Laqueur: Sexual Anatomy, 1.

[3] Laqueur, 98

[4] Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide..., xx

[5] Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide..., 197

[6] Shaw, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide..., 197

[7] Lawson & Silver, 341

[8] Ziegésar, 5

[9] Ziegésar, 59

[10] Ziegésar, 59

[11] Shaw, Pygmalion, 171

[12] Shaw, Pygmalion, 49

[13] Shaw, Pygmalion, 31

[14] Ziegésar, 60

[15] Ziegésar, 59

[16] Shaw, Pygmalion, 54

Excerpt out of 15 pages


role of women's education - Shaw vs Wollstonecraft
University of Applied Sciences Bingen  (English Philology)
PS II Literature: The (R)Evolution of Feminist Writing
2,5 (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
549 KB
Shaw, Wollstonecraft, Literature, Feminist, Writing
Quote paper
Nadja Winter (Author), 2003, role of women's education - Shaw vs Wollstonecraft, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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