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Enlightenment Attitudes towards Women: Inconsistencies in the Notion of Universalism

Despite the widely espoused ideal of Enlightenment universalism — a notion that condemns social hierarchies and promoted equality among all peoples — among Enlightenment thinkers, there is a clear prevalence of opinion among philosophers of the age to relegate women to an unfair social hierarchy while proposing so-called egalitarianism among — in general — white men. On one hand, products of the Enlightenment foster notions that “anything which is a universal right must be…universally enjoyed” 1) and that “social distinctions may be based only upon general usefulness.” 2)

On the other hand, prominent Enlightenment thinkers simultaneously espouse a social and political system that relegate women to the domestic sphere on the basis of their inferiority to men in the aspects of reason, strength, and restraint — amongst other traditionally male-dominated gender issues. As Boucher d’Argis’ article “Woman (Jurisprudence)” in the Encyclopedia reads, a woman’s “mind is generally developed earlier than men…Either because of the fragility and delicate disposition of their sex [women] are excluded from several roles, and are incapable of certain commitments.” 3) Enlightenment philosophers have thus created a version of universalism that is inherently inconsistent with egalitarian principles, forcing women into subservient social roles.

As Barbara Taylor notes, “The Enlightenment world resisted feminist ideas as much as it encouraged their emergence…Enlightenment theorists were as likely to emphasize differences between the sexes as similarities, often garbing traditional prejudices in new theoretical dress.” 4) Enlightenment philosophers embrace traditional misogynistic beliefs that divide the genders based on perceived natural differences and use these arguments to justify the social hierarchy between the two while simultaneously claiming to condemn the very nature of social hierarchies among men.

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau writes in his 1762 work Emile, “The man should be strong and active; the woman should be weak and passive…When this principle is admitted, it follows that woman is specially made for man’s delight…It is the law of nature, which is older than love itself.” 5) The natural order for Rousseau prescribes a society in which women are made to be subservient and dependent on men to the point that women exist purely for the satisfaction of men. The notion that women’s social role is to be one of passivity and dominance by men was already the historical status quo for women, proving Taylor’s argument that Enlightenment theorists often guised traditional prejudices against women as new theoretical ideas.

Rousseau’s works, widely considered to be a critical piece of Enlightenment thought, are amongst the most harshly prescriptive of a subservient and preclusive social role for women. As Nicole Fermon points out, Rousseau promotes his severe confinement of women to the domestic sphere — to run the household and rear children without imposing on the public sphere — by emphasizing the importance of the mother-child bond and its supposed social benefits of reducing corruption: “Let mothers deign to nurse their children, morals will reform themselves…The attraction of domestic life is the best counterpoison to bad morals.” 6) For Rousseau, women could not easily be integrated into the public sphere and the prospect of such a social shift presented dire possibilities for states in his eyes. He believes, according to Fermon, that woman’s dangerous “anti-social proclivities” — for example, the social dangers of her sexual power over man — could only be averted by relegating women to the context of the household, marriage, and family.7)

Rousseau’s ideal society is thus in direct contrast with the notion of Enlightenment universalism in that he prescribes for society the very necessity of a gendered hierarchy. According to Lori J. Marso, Rousseau believes that “a too intimate commerce between the sexes is most dangerous because the sexes tend to take on the traits and morals of each other. Men become effeminate; women speak and command authority.” 8) Rousseau envisions a society in which the strict confinement of women to the domestic sphere would successfully keep them from intruding upon male-dominated spheres and thus keep women “at the mercy of man’s judgment,” as he indicates in Emile.9) It is clear that for Rousseau — as was the case for many Enlightenment thinkers — the tenets of universalism did not extend to women. Thus Rousseau serves as a prime example of the inconsistency with which Enlightenment thinkers viewed the idea of universalism and tensions over whether or not women were to be included in notions of universal rights and equality.

Barbara Taylor notes that Rousseau is by no means alone among Enlightenment contemporaries in his inconsistent view of universalism. She points out that Immanuel Kant, “despite his modernist liberal stance” adopts “a brutally negative position with regards to women’s rights.” 10) Like Rousseau, Kant believes women’s role in society to be one of subservience to men. According to Jean Bethke Elshtain’s analysis of Kant’s Groundwork of The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, Kant claims that “the woman who is subservient and servile in her relations with her husband commits a transgression of her moral duty to herself.” Kant indicates that the husband has a “right to possess her…He insists that the wife’s duty to obey her husband is a demand of natural law as well as a moral obligation.” 11)

Kant’s views on universal rights and the elimination of social hierarchies — like Rousseau — do not extend to women. Contrary to his claim in “What is Enlightenment?” that “the public use of one’s reason must always be free” 12) Kant projects on women the condition of social and financial dependence on their male counterparts. As such, according to Elshtain, women owe their “existence and support” “to the arbitrary will of another person” and are therefore not characterized by the conditions of “civil equality and independence” that Kant believes necessary to be a citizen — “a human being in his public aspect.” 13) Women’s condition of dependence — which is naturally perpetuated by their preclusion from public life, in addition to other gendered divisions — becomes Kant’s justification for a gendered hierarchy.

Kant shows further contradictions in his reasoning as a proponent of Enlightenment universalism in his general attacks on the notion of servility while simultaneously deeming women as appropriately servile to men. In The Metaphysical Elements of Justice Kant “exalts the person as a being above any price, a being who possesses dignity…Kant attacks servility insofar as it involves the deliberate setting aside of one’s own moral worth in order to gain some instrumental end.” 14) He claims that people in general — not only men — and their dignity are above any manner of servility. Thus Kant directly contradicts his argument that a wife’s servility to her husband is her moral duty, attempting to claim that the notions of proprietary rights over another person and expectations of women’s subservience to men are still congruent with the freedom and equality of all people. It is clear upon analysis of Kant’s stance towards gender that his attitudes towards social and political equality do not leave room for women.

Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des métiers et des arts — a vast Enlightenment project to spread knowledge and reason — also sheds light on Enlightenment attitudes towards women’s place in universalism and egalitarianism. In Joseph-François-Édouard de Corsembleu Desmahis’ Encyclopédie article “Woman (Ethics)” he offers readers a traditional description of women as weak, timid, shrewd, vicious, vindictive, superficial, and deceitful — among other negative gender characteristics — which he describes are partly a result of natural disposition and partly a result of social customs.15)

The article goes on, similar to the arguments of Rousseau and Kant, to speak of a woman suitable for society — a woman Desmahis claims to be “more securely happy” — who limits herself to the domestic sphere:

“Contained within her duties as wife and mother, she dedicates her days to the practice of obscure virtues. Occupied with governing her family, she reigns over her husband with kindness, over her children with gentleness, and over her servants with goodness.” 16)

Occupied by a life of intended obscurity and confined by domestic duties as a wife and a mother, Desmahis illustrates Enlightenment attitudes of women clearly as inferior to and existing to serve their male counterparts, adding to the inconsistency of Enlightenment attitudes towards social equality regarding the status of women.

The writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Enlightenment feminist and author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, also highlight the tensions in Enlightenment thought on gender issues. Barbara Taylor notes that Wollstonecraft — far from promoting the sort of unilateral Enlightenment ideal of inconsistent universalism of many of her contemporaries — mounts in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman a “systematic assault” on contemporary writings on women that to her painted women subordinate to other human beings.17)

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman accuses not only some of Wollstonecraft’s contemporaries but virtually all Enlightenment thinkers collectively:

“I firmly believe…that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. [John] Gregory, have contributed to…degrade one half of the human species, and render women pleasing at the expense of the every solid virtue.” 18)

Wollstonecraft’s attack on the proposed gender hierarchies of her contemporaries serves as proof of the inconsistent views of universalism and equality — those which precluded women from them — that were held by Enlightenment thinkers.

There of course exist other various strands of Enlightenment thought that espouse feminist initiatives. Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet — a staunch Enlightenment feminist — advocates in his essay “On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship” woman’s full entrance to the public sphere, including their suffrage, ability to hold office, and ability to participate in the formation of laws.

In response to prevalent contemporary arguments that their participation in public affairs will limit their capacity to perform their natural duties, Condorcet states that “women will no more be torn from their homes than agricultural labourers from their ploughs, or artisans from their workshops.” 19) He refutes Enlightenment arguments akin to that of Rousseau which warn of the potential negative influences exercised by women over men, claiming that the danger of women’s influence is greater under the condition of female subjugation in society.20)

Olympe de Gouges, another prominent Enlightenment feminist, attempted to refute commonly accepted Enlightenment notions of a justified gender hierarchy within a supposedly universalist and egalitarian system. According to her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen — a direct adaptation of Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, an Enlightenment call for the universal rights and equality of men — male domination is the sole source of inhibition of women’s natural rights: “Liberty and justice consist of restoring all that belongs to others; thus, the only limits on the exercise of the natural rights of woman are perpetual male tyranny; these limits are to be reformed by the laws of nature and reason.” 21) De Gouges refutes contemporary views of any natural justification of women’s subjugation — such as Rousseau’s argument of a natural order based on male strength and activity versus female weakness and passivity, or Kant’s claim of a natural female dependency on men — claiming that if not for male domination of women and the forcing of an entire gender into subservience, women would be perfectly equal to men.

However, despite attempts by Enlightenment feminists to bridge the often perceived natural and moral divide between men and women, it is clear upon analysis of the works of prominent Enlightenment thinkers that the Enlightenment project of universalism and egalitarianism often left women behind. The supposed victory of freedom, equality, and reason over prejudice and social hierarchy meant something very different for women than it did for their male counterparts. While men of the Enlightenment were privileged with “free and equal rights” and the “enjoyment of the natural rights of every man,” 22) women in the eyes of many Enlightenment philosophers were still doomed to a role of subservience and servility to men, revealing stark inconsistencies in the age’s conception of universalism.

References

  1. d’Argis, Boucher. “Woman (Jurisprudence).” Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des métiers et des arts.
  2. Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat. On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship. Trans. Alice Drysdale Vickery. Letchworth: Garden City Press Ltd, 1798.
  3. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, as quoted in Kramnick, Isaac. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  4. Desmahis, Joseph-François-Édouard de Corsembleu. “Woman (Ethics).” Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des métiers et des arts.
  5. Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Kant, Politics, & Persons: The Implications of his Moral Philosophy.” Polity 14.2 (1981): 205-221.
  6. Fermon, Nicole. “Domesticating Women, Civilizing Men: Rousseau’s Political Program.” The Sociological Quarterly 35.3 (1994): 431-442.
  7. De Gouges, Olympe, Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen, as quoted in Kramnick, Isaac. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  8. De Jaucourt, Louis. “Natural Equality.” Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des métiers et des arts.
  9. Kant, Immanuel, Groundwork of the Metaphysical Elements of Justice, as quoted in Elshtain, Jean Bethke. “Kant, Politics, & Persons: The Implications of his Moral Philosophy.” Polity 14.2 (1981): 205-221.
  10. Kant, Immanuel, “What is Enlightenment?” as quoted in Kramnick, Isaac. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  11. Marso, Lori. J. “The Stories of Citizens: Rousseau, Montesquieu, and de Stael Challenge Enlightenment Reason.” Polity 30.3 (1998): 435-463.
  12. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Emile, as quoted in Kramnick, Isaac. The Portable Enlightenment Reader. New York: Penguin, 1995.
  13. Taylor, Barbara. “Feminism and the Enlightenment 1650-1850.” History Workshop Journal 47 (1999): 261-272.
  14. Taylor, Barbara. “Feminists versus Gallants: Manners and Morals in Enlightenment Britain,” Representations 87 (2004): 125-148.
  15. Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as quoted in Taylor, Barbara. “Feminists versus Gallants: Manners and Morals in Enlightenment Britain,” Representations 87 (2004): 125-148.
1) Louis de Jaucourt, “Natural Equality,” Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des métiers et des arts.
2) The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, as quoted in Isaac Kramnick, The Portable Enlightenment Reader (New York: 1995): 467.
3) Boucher d’Argis, “Woman (Jurisprudence),” Encyclopédie.
4) Barbara Taylor, “Feminism and the Enlightenment 1650-1850,” History Workshop Journal 47 (1999): 264-266.
5) , 9) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, as quoted in Kramnick 569.
6) Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, as quoted in Nicole Fermon, “Domesticating Women, Civilizing Men: Rousseau’s Political Program,” The Sociological Quarterly 35.3 (1994): 433.
7) Fermon 439.
8) Lori. J. Marso, “The Stories of Citizens: Rousseau, Montesquieu, and de Stael Challenge Enlightenment Reason,” Polity 30.3 (1998): 451.
10) Barbara Taylor, “Feminism and the Enlightenment,” 264.
11) Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Kant, Politics, & Persons: The Implications of his Moral Philosophy,” Polity 14.2 (1981): 213.
12) Immanuel Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” as quoted in Kramnick 3.
13) Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysical Elements of Justice, as quoted in Elshtain 217.
14) Elshtain 214.
15) Joseph-François-Édouard de Corsembleu Desmahis, “Woman (Ethics),” Encyclopédie.
16) Desmahis, “Woman (Ethics)”
17) Barbara Taylor, “Feminists versus Gallants: Manners and Morals in Enlightenment Britain,” Representations 87 (2004): 125-126.
18) Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, as quoted in Taylor, “Feminists versus Gallants,” 126.
19) Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, On the Admission of Women to the Rights of Citizenship, trans. Alice Drysdale Vickery (Letchworth: Garden City Press Ltd, 1798): 10.
20) Condorcet 9.
21) Olympe de Gouges, Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen, as quoted in Kramnick 612.
22) The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, as quoted in Kramnick 467.

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