Adam Smith on Women's and Mothers' Roles

love family mothers women's education women

Chris Loukas for AdamSmithWorks

During Women’s History month is a great time to see what Adam Smith thought about women and their role in the family. Although mostly remembered for his work as an economist one can find insights scattered through his works on gender roles.
During Women’s History month is a great time to see what Adam Smith thought about women and their role in the family. Although mostly remembered for his work as an economist one can find insights scattered through his works on gender roles.
First, we shall consider Smith's view of romantic love, in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS):
The passion appears to every body, but the man who feels it, entirely disproportionate to the value of the object; and love, though it is pardoned in a certain age because we know it is natural, is always laughed at, because we cannot enter into it. All serious and strong expressions of it appear ridiculous to a third person; and though a lover may be good company to his mistress, he is so to nobody else.

However, Smith didn’t believe that relationships inside the family should be created on hegemonic principles where one party (the father) suppresses the will of another party (the wife and the kids), far from it. When love took a more subtle form he regarded it as something very important that was beneficial to third parties as well and could, in a way, “radiate” them with joy:

The sentiment of love is, in itself, agreeable to the person who feels it. It soothes and composes the breast, seems to favor the vital motions, and to promote the healthful state of human constitution; and it is rendered still more delightful by the consciousness of the gratitude and satisfaction which it must excite in him who is object of it. Their mutual regard renders them happy in one another, and sympathy with this mutual regard, makes them agreeable to every other person. 

Mutual love is also necessary to promote the harmonious functioning of the family and the proper raising of kids:

With what pleasure do we look upon a family, through the whole of which reign mutual love and esteem, where the parents and children are companions for one other, without any other difference than what is made by respectful affection on one side, and kind indulgence on the other; where freedom and fondness, [...] and where everything presents us with the idea of peace, cheerfulness, harmony, and contentment?
One may consider a question now. What happens when there are problems between family members? For example, if a wife feels neglected by her husband, in the marriage or leave? 
A wife [...] may sometimes not feel that tender regard for her husband which is suitable to the relation that subsists between them. If she has been virtuously educated, however, she will endeavour to act as if she felt it, to be careful, officious, faithful, and sincere, and to be deficient in none of those attentions which the sentiment of conjugal affection could have prompted her to perform.
To quote from an exceptional 2011npaper, “Adam Smith and the Family” by Sebastiano Nerozzi and Pierluigi Nuti in The History of Economic Ideas: “When proper sentiments are lacking, a sense of duty and proper education can resemble, though imperfectly, proper family affections.” 
Given that Smith mentions the role of education in shaping a person’s sentiments it is necessary to review his opinion on education. In general, Smith was very disappointed by universities believing that they offered little of use to the students. In the Wealth of Nations, he argues that they make the student “more conceited, more unprincipled, more dissipated, and more incapable of any serious application either to study or to business.” However, he praises institutions that focus on the education of women:
There are no public institutions for the education of women, and there is accordingly nothing useless, absurd, or fantastical in the common course of their education. They are taught what their parents or guardians judge is necessary or useful for them to learn; and they are taught nothing else. ...In every part of her life a woman feels some convenience or advantage from every part of her education.

The aim of female education is clear, the creation of good housewives and mistresses. Smith’s views on women, although conservative for our standards, are by no means sexist in his time. There are speculations about why Smith thought the way he did about women. Sarah Skwire sums up the problem in her Speaking of Smith article, “Nothing Useless, Absurd, or Fantastical: Adam Smith on Women's Education”: 

His world--as a bachelor academic--was one that was primarily involved with the minds and the education of men. He simply didn’t think all that much about women. He had little interaction with them in the general run of his life.

The relationship with his mother, who he whole-heartedly loved, surely played a very important role in shaping his mind. In a letter to William Strahan, June 10th 1784, Smith says of his mother: 

I had just come from performing the last duty to my poor old Mother; and tho' t death of a person in the ninetieth year of age was no doubt an event most agree to the course of nature; and, therefore, to be foreseen and prepared for; yet I must say to you, what I have said to other people, that the final separation from a person who certainly loved me more than any other person ever did or ever will love me; and whom I certainly loved and respected more than I ever shall love or respect any other person, I cannot help feeling, even at this hour, as a very heavy stroke upon me. 

His desire to have strong family bonds based on reciprocal feelings of affection can be considered, to a large extent, a bi-product of his relationship with his mother. His poor treatment of sex and romantic love in contrast to his praise of family life could be traced back to him and his mother spending their time together in Kirkcaldy. 

In discussing Adam Smith’s opinion of women we do not determine whether or not he is misogynistic in order to decide if we should keep reading him. He was a brilliant mind. The point is to get some insights into his character and how those views developed.

Want to Read More?
Adam Smith on the ridiculousness of romantic love (1759) | Online Library of Liberty (
Shannon Chamberlain's Adam Smith Suggests You Read a Romance Novel (And Have a Laugh At Yourself) | Adam Smith Works
Edward Harpham's A Mother’s Suffering through the Eyes of Adam Smith | Adam Smith Works
Sarah Skwire, Nothing Useless, Absurd, or Fantastical: Adam Smith on Women's Education
Peter Brown

The quote mentioned above regarding dissipated students does not refer to university education but to the European tour.

“In England it becomes every day more and more the custom to send young people to travel in foreign countries immediately upon their leaving school, and without sending them to any university. Our young people, it is said, generally return home much improved by their travels. A young man who goes abroad at seventeen or eighteen, and returns home at one and twenty, returns three or four years older than he was when he went abroad; and at that age it is very difficult not to improve a good deal in three or four years. In the course of his travels he generally acquires some knowledge of one or two foreign languages; a knowledge, however, which is seldom sufficient to enable him either to speak or write them with propriety. In other respects he commonly returns home more conceited, more unprincipled, more dissipated, and more incapable of any serious application either to study or to business than he could well have become in so short a time had he lived at home. By travelling so very young, by spending in the most frivolous dissipation the most precious years of his life, at a distance from the inspection and control of his parents and relations, every useful habit which the earlier parts of his education might have had some tendency to form in him, instead of being riveted and confirmed, is almost necessarily either weakened or effaced. Nothing but the discredit into which the universities are allowing themselves to fall could ever have brought into repute so very absurd a practice as that of travelling at this early period of life. By sending his son abroad, a father delivers himself at least for some time, from so disagreeable an object as that of a son unemployed, neglected, and going to ruin before his eyes."

I don’t think he’s against university education; however he is realistic as to the employment prospects afterwards

"Put your son apprentice to a shoemaker, there is little doubt of his learning to make a pair of shoes; but send him to study the law, it is at least twenty to one if ever he makes such proficiency as will enable him to live by the business."