The 18th Century Clamor for Gender Equality:In 1700 Mary Astell penned the poignant question: “If all Men are born Free, how is it that all Women are born slaves?”1 An emboldened set of 18th century thinkers replied with one-hundred-years of feminist disquiet, eventually birthing the first authentic women’s movement in the 19th century. Astell, a devout Christian and one of the first-ever feminist writers, launched the philosophical assault on gender inequality by explaining that man’s intellectually superiority over woman was a result of his superior education; consequently, she called for equal access to quality education. She also compared the domestic despotism women faced in the home to the political despotism men rebelled against in society, insisting that there must be reform of the marriage institution.
Forefathers and Foremothers of Contemporary Feminism
Forefathers and Foremothers of Contemporary Feminism
Following her lead, women like Lady Chudleigh2 and Mary Collier3 authored poems critical of woman’s subjugated state. Even men such as Francis Hutcheson called for more equality in marriage and more rights for women in his posthumously published works.4 And Helvetius’ book, De l’esprit (On Mind), which was condemned by Pope Clement XIII one year after its 1758 publication, argued that the differences between men and women are vastly due to a difference in education.5 In the middle of the century, English women used journals to address issues of concern to their sex. When Mme. De Beaumer took over Journal des Dames in 1761, just one year before Rousseau published his infamously misogynistic work, Emile, she used the publication to call attention to the plight of womankind as well as to highlight their achievements.6 Around the same time the Bluestockings, a woman’s literary club, began to flourish. The group of upper-middle class women dismissed the trivial appetites and occupations of women of their day, embracing intellectual pursuits instead.
Eventually a French philosophe rose up to dramatically atone for the sins of Enlightenment thinkers who, while shouting tirelessly for free-thought and liberty, had vastly disregarded and at times actively sought to suppress women’s rights: in 1787, Antoine Nicolas de Condorcet wrote a letter making the revolutionary call for woman’s completepolitical and social equality. Later, in his seminal work, The Progress of the Human Mind, Condorcet demanded an end to “prejudices that have brought about an inequality of rights between the sexes.”7 Condorcet seems to have even anticipated the pro-choice and birth control movement. Those free of superstition, he explains, will realize that when the world is overpopulated, the duty to the unborn is the duty “not to give them existence but to give them happiness; their aim should be to promote the general welfare of the human race or of the society in which they live or of the family to which they belong, rather than foolishly to encumber the world with useless and wretched beings.”8Condorcet’s focus on the kind of life (their “happiness”) rather than on simply the birth of life leads one to believe that Condorcet’s appeal is about more than just population control; he believes the interests of the born should take precedence over the unborn. Overpopulating the world at the expense of “those creatures who have been given life,” he writes, is “contrary to nature and to social prosperity.”9
Impregnated with the longing for liberty and the spirit of rebellion that led to the French Revolution, feminist authors, just ten years shy of the close of the century, began tearing down the edifice of patriarchal dominion, publishing a torrent of brazen calls for equality and independence: Condorcet published “On Giving Women the Right of Citizenship,” an expanded version of his earlier call for complete equality; Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay wrote “Letters on Education,” which asserted that prejudice, not truth, is the principal reason inequality of the sexes is accepted, and that the “foibles and vices” of women “originate in situation and education only.”10 That same year, Constantia (Judith Sargent Stevens Murray) published “On the Equality of the Sexes,” which complained that the only reason women are intellectually inferior to men is because “the sister must be wholly domesticated, while the brother is led by the hand through all the flowery paths of science.”11 And in 1791, Olympe de Gouges wrote the unapologetic “Declaration of Rights of Women,” which commanded an absolute equal distribution of rights and duties to both men and women; asserting that women “must have the same shares in the distribution of positions, employment, offices, honors, and jobs.”12 One year later, Mary Wollstonecraft authored A Vindication of the Rights of Women.
1 Astell, “Some Reflections Upon Marriage,” Enlightenment Reader, ed. Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 563.
2 Chudleigh, a pious Anglican, penned the poem as a critical response to a 1699 wedding sermon which called on women to totally surrender themselves to their husband. Mary Lee, Lady Chudleigh (1656 - 1710), The Ladies Defence: or the Bride-Woman's Counsellor answered: A Poem. In a Dialogue Between Sir John Brute, Sir William Loveall, Melissa, and a Parson.
3 In 1739 Mary Collier pens The Woman's Labour. The poem describes the burdensome and incessant toil saddled on women laborers. “We must make haste, for when we home are come,/ We find again our Work has just begun;/ So many Things for our Attendance call,/ Had we ten hands, we could employ them all.…/And from the time that Harvest doth begin,/ Until the Corn be cut and carry'd in,/ Our Toil and Labour's daily so extreme,/ That we have hardly ever Time to Dream.”
4 These issues were taken on in Hutcheson’s posthumous two-volume work, System of Moral Philosophy, published in 1755.
5 Nina Rattner Gelbart, “Female Journalists,” A History of Women: Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993), 338-339.
6 Ibid., 429. Mme. De Beaumer was eventually forced to flea to Holland.
7 Condorcet, The Progress of the Human Mind, in Classics of Western Thought: The Modern World, edited by Edgar E. Knoebel (United States: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 1988) 199.
8 Ibid., 196.
10 Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay, “Women’s Education” (from Letters on Education), Enlightenment Reader, ed. Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 593
11 Constantia, “On the Equality of the Sexes,” Enlightenment Reader, ed. Isaac Kramnick (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 603.