Bathsua Makin and the Education of Women

As the news challenge us to think biblically about the place of women in today’s world, it might be useful to remember there was a time when women were discouraged from reading, studying, and thinking independently. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to the translation of Scriptures in local languages was often reinforced by an apparently appalling thought, “Even women will read them!”

            The logic was simple. Women are generally ignorant, so if we give them Scriptures they will end up misinterpreting them. The answer: they should be content with what their priests, fathers, and husbands share with them. Some women recognized the fallacy of this reasoning. If the problem is ignorance, shouldn’t we correct that instead?

Bathsua’s Life

            One of these women was Bathsua Makin (born Reginald), born around the year 1600 in a district of London. Her father was a schoolmaster who gave Bathsua and her younger sister Ithamaria a good education (including a knowledge of Greek, Latin, French, and some Hebrew and Syriac).

            At 16, Bathsua collaborated with her father on two publications. The first one, Ad Annam … Reginam, was an instructional booklet on how to use an original shorthand system called radiography. The second one, Musa Virginea, was a collection of Bathsua’s poems in six languages, written in praise of King James I and members of his family. Apparently, this ambitious undertaking was not fully appreciated. When the volume was presented to the king as a rare sample from a woman who could read and write in several languages, he replied, “But can she spin?”[1]

            This was typical of King James who was also quoted as saying, “[Learning] hath like operation to make women learned as to make foxes tame, which only teaches them to steal more cunningly.”[2]

            Other people at court held Bathsua in greater esteem, including the king’s physician George Eglisham, who praised her abilities both in the medical and literary field. From ancient times, women had traditionally been family healers, passing on remedies from mother to daughter. Bathsua, however, went beyond this conventional role and studied the works of contemporary physicians. Some records show that she cured one of Charles I’s chaplains “of the palpitation of the heart.”

            In 1622, Bathsua married Richard Makin, who was about her age, and was in the service of the king. Together, they had eight children: Anna (1623), Richard (1626), Anna (1628), Bathsua (1629), Mary (1629), Richard (1630), John (1633), and Henry (1642). The first two died in infancy.

            In spite of her busy life as mother, in 1640 Bathsua accepted King Charles I's invitation to tutor his daughter Elizabeth in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Italian, Spanish, and mathematics. Later, she tutored other women, including Lucy Hastings, countess of Huntingdon, and her children.

            Bathsua was a follower of Czech educator John Amos Comenius, who promoted a natural and pleasant method of teaching from an early age (one of Comenius’s books, The School of Infancy, was a manual for mothers on early education), with an emphasis on learning Latin.

            Her educational pursuits culminated in the 1670’s when she opened a school for girls at Tottenham, a district of London. It was there that she wrote An Essay to Revive the Antient Education of Gentlewomen (1673), which includes a lively defense of women’s education. Her letters show that her mind stayed lucid until her death in 1675.

Bathsua’s Arguments

            Bathsua was not famous for her patience, and her arguments for the education of women are fiery. They make, however, some good points which – interestingly – are not completely outdated.

            To those who thought education would distract women from their main task of running a home, Bathsua’s first reply was simple: it could be the same for men. Anything can become a distraction. No one, however, denies the value of education for men. “Men are judged to be more capable of country business by liberal education. Most ingenious contrivances, even in husbandry trades, have been invented by scholars.”

            Likewise, married women, “by virtue of this education, may be very useful to their husbands in their trades … and to their children, by timely instructing them, before they are fit to be sent to school,” just as Eunice and her mother Lois instructed Timothy (2 Timothy 1:5).

            To those who pointed out that the wise woman’s list of tasks in Proverbs 31 doesn’t include reading, Bathsua suggested a more careful reading. “To buy wool and Flax, to die scarlet and purple, requires skill in natural philosophy. To consider a field, the quantity and quality, requires knowledge in geometry. To plant a vineyard, requires understanding in husbandry: She could not merchandize, without knowledge in arithmetic: She could not govern so great a family well, without knowledge in politics and economics…”

            And if it’s true, as some claimed, that many women, beginning with Eve, have misused their knowledge and brought trouble into the world, what is the logical solution? Deprive women of all knowledge, or give them greater knowledge, so they can discern truth from error? “I think the greater care ought to be taken of them,” Bathsua said.

            “[Learning] will be a hedge against heresies,” she wrote. “Women ought to be learned, that they may stop their ears against seducers.”

            She clarified her goals. “I do not intend to hinder good housewifery, neither have I called any from their necessary labour to their book,” she wrote. Likewise, she was not trying “to equalize women to men, much less to make them superior.” She only wanted to equip women to nurture their God-given intellectual faculties and then use them for God’s glory and the good of their families, the church, and others.


[1] William J. Thoms, ed., Anecdotes and Traditions: Illustrative of Early English History and Literature, London, Nichols and Sons, 1839, p. 125.

[2] Sir Miles Sandis, Prudence, The First of the Foure Cardinall Virtues, p. 128


Simonetta Carr