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The Age of Enlightenment was a movement that emerged in the late 17th century and carried on through the 18th and 19th centuries. It was the beginning of a point in history where people searched for answers outside of religious institutions. It led people to ask questions about the sciences, and not always have to 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 gave opportunity for people to use reason to come to conclusions about things in life. The writings of many enlightenment writers brought on a lot of debates regarding women, slavery, and colonialism. Many women played active roles in the age of enlightenment but it proved to be a pro-male 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 and they did not take into consideration the large role that women played in their philosophical movement. This prompted women to start fighting for their rights and they we’re backed by several of their male contemporaries. Not everyone had a positive reaction to the things that these strong educated women were doing but their hard work inspired other women who would be the leaders of modern feminism.
The enlightenment thinkers challenged the status quo and their writings inspired the creation of many 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. The Glorious Revolution in England, the American Revolution and the French Revolution had all occurred at this point causing a chain reaction across the world.
The Biases of Enlightenment thinkers
Although the Enlightenment brought a lot of changes to Western culture it also portrayed women and other cultures in a negative light. Many of the most prominent male writers had bad things to say about eastern cultures and they all had an opinion concerning women being educated and involved in government. John Locke wrote in his treatise on education about the Chinese and their tradition of foot binding. He also wrote that young boys and girls are not to be educated in the same manner nor should child rearing be left to mothers alone. A lot of writers were anti-absolutism and anti-clergy. Although 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 little say in the business of men.
The role of Women
The role of women in this time varied. Women took on different roles depending on where they lived and what their rank was. These things also determined the amount of formal education they receive. 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 for education in these situations. If a rural woman could read, write and have basic arithmetic skills, she was considerably lucky. Urban women tended to have more education. The Upper and middle class 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 important and women who didn’t marry were viewed as 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 a few rights.
Women in the Enlightenment
Women played a very significant role in the enlightenment. They were very involved in the longevity of the movement and opened the homes and businesses to many writers. Much of the activity of the philosophes was sponsored by women and women’s communities. They had an immense amount of influence over the currents and contents of the enlightenment movement. The Salons that men would gather in (Particularly in France) were ran by women. 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 female philosopher who had heavy influence during the era of the Enlightenment. She and many other women wrote and published works that were read an applauded by men.
Although women had a heavy hand in the activities of the enlightenment, the movement did nothing in the favor of women. The position of women was significantly lowered during the Enlightenment. The rights 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. 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. Although the common man gained a lot from the Enlightenment women lost out. Women’s rights were few and far between and this sparked people to advocate for the rights of women.
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 man.” Although Locke doesn’t point in one direction or another for the way girls should be educated Rousseau does. He makes it clear that girls are not to learn the same things that boys do. His ideas, those that others agree with, lead to a serious backlash from educated women of that day. The idea that women could do anything that a man could was a very taboo one. Women who carried them selves 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 made it so that women didn’t have property and were barely educated. Many people stepped up and spoke out against the ideas that the enlightenment writers were giving people. 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 out spoken and made their voices heard on the issue of women being educated.
In the 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 shows the Diderot believed that the education of women was very important and that other societies produced intelligent women who did a variety of things. He was very outspoken about things regarding human rights in general. Diderot, in Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage, depicted the Tahitians and the way that women were placed on a high pedestal and their importance in society. Although they were praised because they could bare children but even that alone afforded them a high standing in society.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a woman ahead of her time. She was quite opinionated and walked I crowds of men. She was a well traveled woman; journeying to eastern countries such as Turkey. Her outspoken advocacy for women’s education brought a lot of animosity 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 makes that claim that women are not naturally inferior to men, but appear to be only 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 herself. 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 movement.
Feminism is based on the notion that men and women are equal and because of this they deserve the same rights and privileges. This essay points to enlightenment thinkers that opened the doors for women’s movements that were to follow. ( What people refer to as the waves ( 1st wave for suffrage, second wave for reproductive rights, job opportunities and a million other things, and the third wave for those who aren’t white and middle class).
- “From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step” or the very best bits from Denis Diderot (beinghuman.blogs.fi)
- Shamanism and gender variance: the eighteenth century – “torrid zones” (enfolding.org)