The Enlightenment and Early Feminist Thought
Feminism is the belief that men and women are equal, and due to this fact, they deserve the same rights and privileges. This essay points to the enlightenment thinkers that opened the doors to women’s movements that were to follow. Feminist movements came in what people refer to as the waves. The first wave of feminism was for suffrage ( or voting rights). The second wave was for reproductive rights, job opportunities, and a million other things. Finally, the third wave was for everyone who wasn’t cis, hetero, white, and middle class.
The Age of Enlightenment emerged in the late 17th century. It carried on through the 18th and 19th centuries. The Enlightenment was a point in history where people searched for answers outside of religious institutions. People asked questions about the sciences and did not always fear persecution for it. The Enlightenment brought a lot of change to western culture.
The Enlightenment challenged social structures, religion, and forms of government. It allowed people to use reason to come to conclusions about things in life. The writings of many enlightenment writers brought on many debates regarding women, slavery, and colonialism. Topics that are still discussed in feminist philosophy. Many women played active roles in the age of enlightenment, but it proved to be a patriarchal movement.
Although a few writers supported the rights of women, many of them did not. The biases of the Enlightenment thinkers placed women in traditional roles. They did not consider the prominent role that women played in their philosophical movement. This lack of consideration prompted women to start fighting for their own rights. A few of their male contemporaries eventually backed them.
Not everyone had a positive reaction to the things these strong, educated women were doing. Still, their hard work inspired other women who would be the leaders of Enlightenment age feminism. The enlightenment thinkers challenged the status quo. Their writings inspired revolutions that led to the development of quite a few democratic republics.
Immanuel Kant, a prolific German writer and philosopher, said that the enlightenment was a “daring to know.” It was a call for all people to learn and discover more. He said that this process began at home and should pose no threat to the governing powers. This advice came too late because many republics had changed due to the writings of people like John Locke and Jean Jacque Rousseau.
Examples of this were The Glorious Revolution in England, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution. All of these movements, particularly the Haitian Revolution, caused a chain reaction across the world.
The Biases of Enlightenment Thinkers
Although the Enlightenment brought many changes to Western culture, it also maintained the status quo in many ways. It portrayed women and any non-European culture in a negative light. Many of the most prominent male writers had terrible things to say about eastern cultures. They all had an opinion concerning women being educated and involved in government.
John Locke wrote in his treatise on education about Chinese people and the tradition of foot binding. He also noted that young boys and girls could not be educated in the same manner. He believed that child-rearing should not be left to mothers. A lot of writers were anti-absolutism and anti-clergy.
Enlightenment writers also proved to be pro-capitalism and pro-slavery. Other writers wrote different things about other cultures, women, and colonialism, such as Denis Diderot. It seemed that the consensus among Enlightenment writers was that their cultures were superior and that women should have little say in the business of men.
The role of Women
The role of women in this time varied. Women took on different positions depending on where they lived and what their class rank was. These things also determined the amount of formal education they received.
The rural women’s lives consisted of unceasing labor. From sunrise to sunset, she was responsible for the home, the needs of all members of the family, as well as whatever other forms of labor necessary to keep the family afloat economically. They didn’t worry much about education in these situations. If a rural woman could read, write and have basic arithmetic skills, she was considered lucky.
Urban women tended to have more education. The Upper and middle classes were expected to be able to read, write and have other skills that would make for a “good household.” Their roles in society were limited, but they were allowed to own land and businesses. They had a firm place in the economic system, making them needed.
Family units were essential, and women who didn’t marry were thought to be a drain. Families with a lot of daughters carried heavy burdens because of dowries that they had to provide. Women did not often hold positions of power, and they had very few rights.
Women in the Enlightenment
Women played a very significant role in the enlightenment. They were very involved in the movement’s longevity and often opened their homes and businesses to many writers. Women and women’s communities sponsored much of the activities in which the philosophers participated. They had an immense amount of influence over the currents and contents of the enlightenment movement.
Women ran the Salons that men would gather in (particularly in France). These environments, Salons, Masonries, and Coffee Houses, became used because there wasn’t as much hierarchical structure, and all kinds of people could learn from these writers. The women opening up these locations also made it so that the writers had a safe place to bounce their ideas off of each other.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a philosopher who had heavy influence during the era of the Enlightenment. She and many other women wrote and published works that were read and applauded by men. Although women had a heavy hand in the enlightenment activities, the movement did nothing to favor women.
Women’s social positions were significantly lowered during the Enlightenment. The rights afforded upper-class women were being stripped away from them in favor of men. Women in London owned and managed businesses, but following Enlightenment reforms, they lost that right. Even their education lowered in quality.
Enlightenment thinkers believed that education made for a good society, but the sciences were not for women. Women were offered training in music, drawing, singing, painting, and other fine arts. They believed that knowledge of these things would make for a better wife. The men without property or power gained a lot from the Enlightenment. Women, on the other hand, lost out. Women’s rights were few and far between, which sparked people to advocate for women’s rights.
Champions of Early Feminism
Writers like Rousseau did not believe women should be educated in the same fashion as men. Rousseau states that women should be “passive and weak,” “put up little resistance,” and are “made specially to please a man.” Locke doesn’t point in one direction or another for the way girls should be educated, but Rousseau does. He makes it clear that girls are not to learn the same things that boys do. His ideas, which others agreed with, lead to a severe backlash from educated women of that day. The idea that “women could do anything that men could” was a taboo idea.
Women who carried themselves as men did were frowned upon. A woman could not speak her opinion in public or even in a private gathering of men. Enlightenment writers’ beliefs translated into legislation that created a society where women didn’t have any property and were barely educated. However, many people stepped up and spoke out against the ideas that people were getting from various enlightenment writers.
Among those people stood Denis Diderot, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Mary Astell, Madame du Chatelet, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Marquis de Condorcet, and Madame Condorcet. All of these people were champions of women’s rights and for women’s education. They were outspoken and made their voices heard on the issue of women’s education.
Diderot’s Encyclopedia has several articles regarding women. In his anthropology of Women he wrote:
“We have so severely neglected the education of women among all of the refined peoples, that it is surprising that we can identify so many whose erudition and written works have made them renowned. M. Chrétien Wolf has provided a catalog of celebrated women, followed by fragments of classic Greek prose texts. He has elsewhere published the fragmentary poems of Sappho, and the elegies that she received. The Romans, the Jews and all of the literate peoples of Europe have had brilliant women.”
This quote shows the Diderot believed that women’s education was crucial and that other societies produced intelligent women who did a number of important things. He was very outspoken about things regarding human rights in general. In Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, Diderot depicted the Tahitians and how women were placed on a high pedestal and their importance in society.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a woman ahead of her time. She was pretty opinionated, and she often walked with crowds of men. Montagu was a well-traveled woman, and she would take journeys to eastern countries such as Turkey. Her outspoken advocacy for women’s education brought a lot of animosities her way.
The Condorcets were very involved in the creation of schools for women. Madame Condorcet made it her life’s work following the French Revolution.
Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In the book, she claims that women are not naturally inferior to men but only appear to be inferior because they lack education. She suggests that both men and women should be treated as rational beings and imagines a social order founded on reason. Tragically, Wollstonecraft died at a young age.
There were many more that adopted the cause of these women and fought for women’s rights. Mary Astell was another feminist writer from that era. Although she was critical of the Whigs and their secularist ideals, she engaged in quite a bit of philosophical writing. Her two most well-known books are A Serious Proposal to the Ladies for the Advancement of Their True and Greatest Interest and A Serious Proposal, Part II. These books outline Astell’s ideas for providing women with both religious and secular education. She died of breast cancer but left behind a great legacy.
The writings of female philosophers are considered to be part of the early women’s rights movement. These writings led to the rise of other women; rights movements as feminism continues to evolve. While developed nations are fighting for equal pay, in developing nations women are still fighting for education, to end child marriage and for basic period care. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.