The Enlightenment and Fight for Equal Rights

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The Enlightenment may be termed both a period and a process. Periodically, it spanned the mid-seventeenth to early-nineteenth centuries and, simultaneously, it describes a process undergone by man to employ his own understanding. At the fount of Enlightenment thought was an emphasis on the independent use of reason. In line with the concept of a great Chain of Being, the prevailing view was that man had a capacity for rational thought and could exert moral autonomy, differentiating himself from the instinct and emotion-led level of the animal. Enlightenment ideals included reason, self-control, modesty and virtue. Regarded as divine attributes granted to ease man’s struggle to achieve perfection; one may ascertain that these values were intended for all people to appreciate. Attaining an enlightened state required freedom of thought and expression, as asserted by Kant “All that is needed is freedom”. However, the question remains of whether Enlightenment principles were freely available? This essay shall focus on the role played by gender in determining access to Enlightenment modes of thinking. The most established viewpoint throughout the Enlightenment era was that women were both physically and intellectually inferior to men. Whilst men endeavoured to deepen their powers of reason and judiciousness, women remained represented solely by feelings and assumptions. Two significant Enlightenment texts, Voltaire’s Candide and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, serve to emphasise the extent to which the characteristics of Enlightenment thought remained elusive for women.

The French Revolution initiated the formation of an eighteenth-century intelligentsia, who made the first attempts to understand and evaluate the relations between men and women. As a member of this group, Voltaire challenged the alleged superiority of the male sex, maintaining that there was little difference in mental ability between the sexes, “women are capable of all that (men) are”.[3] His novel Candide is well-known for its scathing satire of optimism, however it also offers a platform for Voltaire to proclaim his views on the conflict between Enlightenment ideals and gender. Subverting the popular idea that behavioural traits were founded upon biological sex; the text’s protagonists, Candide and Cunégonde, exhibit a wide range of male and female attributes. Candide is naïve and sincere, whilst Cunégonde is contrastingly assertive and aggressive. Indeed it is she who first seduces Candide, “Cunégonde dropped her handkerchief, Candide picked it up. Innocently she took his hand”.[4] As their story progresses, Voltaire highlights the uniformity of human nature by depicting a variety of characters- male and female, young and old- all of whom suffer together at the hands of fate.

Furthermore, Candide allows Voltaire to convey disgust toward the sexual and economic oppression of women.[5] This is most evident in the instance when Paquette bemoans the brutalities of prostitution, “Oh, sir if you could imagine what it’s like having to caress just anybody… to be exposed to all manner of insult and degradation…I am one of the unhappiest and most unfortunate creatures alive”.[6] She is defined as a sexual object, designed to satisfy male desires and her abilities to think in a reasonable manner or exert self-autonomy are non-existent. Through the exploitation of Paquette’s character, reduced to a sexualised and instinct-driven state, Voltaire underlines how Enlightenment values were inaccessible for women.

Throughout Candide, Voltaire suggests that men and women are equally dependent on one another for fulfilment, as shown by Candide’s persistent search for Cunégonde. The interdependence of the two genders challenges the view that women were heavily reliant on the superiority of men. This viewpoint is torn asunder in the final chapter, when Candide affirms that “We must cultivate our garden”.[7] In Candide’s cooperative community, the women become active participants, transcending their previous roles as objects of male lust and victims of rape.[8] Although they are engaged in domestic duties, their drudgery is no worse than that of their male counterparts, who labour also.[9] The transformation of Cunégonde’s character, from a woman of beauty to physical disfigurement, is significant in conveying Voltaire’s social message. In the end, the garden affords her the opportunity to become accepted, not because of charm or attraction, but due to her productivity and willingness to cooperate.[10] Both Cunégonde and the old women move from being viewed in sexual terms to individuals esteemed for the quality of their work.[11] Their partnership with Candide, no longer as subordinates but instead imbued with respect, accentuates Voltaire’s critique of the Enlightenment ideology that women should always be relegated to the level of pawn rather than partner.

The late 1750s to early 1800s bore witness to a shift in the intellectual advancement of women. In Britain, this tilting viewpoint was spurred on by the establishment of female literary circles, such as the Bluestockings, who offered women an opportunity to reconsider their gender in terms of a collective female identity. Although the Bluestockings were relatively conservative and not explicitly political, they galvanised the likes of Catherine Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft to initiate important debate on the availability of Enlightenment ideals for women. Both Macaulay’s Letters on Education and Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman make a strong case for the furtherance of female education. Macaulay broached the topic in connection with her ardent republicanism, joining the dots between gender-neutral education and how this could be used to benefit the public sphere. Wollstonecraft cared less about a political agenda and concentrated more on changing the opinions of men towards women. Therefore, this essay shall focus on the influence of Wollstonecraft’s Vindication on expanding the availability of Enlightenment ideals, whilst prompting women to recognise the ways in which they could come to appreciate Enlightenment modes of thought.

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has been labelled “A founding manifesto in Western feminist theory”. Within it, Wollstonecraft strives to show that Enlightenment values were free for all to appreciate and describes the manner in which these ideals should become available to women. At the heart of her argument is the belief that men and women were born with an innate capacity to reason and that this rational ability was granted by God, in order for human beings to perfect themselves. Wollstonecraft’s stance is founded upon the Lockean tenet of the “tabula rasa”- that social and environmental influences, rather than defects based on biological sex, moulded women into subordinate creatures.[16] In her eyes, the notion of a just God who would create woman and, thereafter, deny her the capacity to acquire reason, a trait which allows the attainment of virtue, is an inconceivable one. She asserts that woman stand alongside man, ranked above the level of the beast, as decided by God alone. Wollstonecraft decries man for his natural superiority, questioning “Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?”. Affirming that Enlightenment ideals should be made available to all, regardless of gender, she emphasises the non-distinction between the rational capacities of men and women.

Wollstonecraft’s Vindication offers a launch pad from which to attack Enlightenment thinkers who promoted female inferiority. Her focus rests mainly on refuting Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s contention that a woman’s value was measured in terms of sexual allure; a viewpoint which led women to believe that they were incapable of reasonable thought. Wollstonecraft lambasts this, “All the writers that have written on the subject of female education and manners…have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters than they would otherwise have been”. In a direct address to leading male philosophers, Wollstonecraft asserts that the continuous confinement of women to the private sphere, hidden from politics or participation in public discourse, inevitably renders them slaves to male desire. Women cannot recognise their intrinsic abilities to indulge in Enlightenment ideals, simply because they are destined to be “the galling yoke of sovereign man”.

The argument that Enlightenment ideals should be free for all to appreciate is further strengthened by Wollstonecraft’s conviction that domestic duties, motherhood and reason are not mutually exclusive. She emphasises that, to be good mothers, women must exert independent thought, “Reason is absolutely necessary to enable a woman to perform any duty properly”. Dismissing that marriage is the sole factor necessary for female fulfilment, Wollstonecraft argues that women should be viewed as marital partners rather than puppets: Nay, marriage will never be sacred till women, by being brought up with men, are prepared to be their companions rather than their mistresses…virtue will never prevail in society till the virtues of both sexes are founded on reason.

Her viewpoint aligns with the picture Voltaire paints of men and women working together for the common good. Each sex is dependent on the other, underlining that virtue is bereft of sexual character- it is a human attribute, a divine gift used in the struggle for advancement and the attainment of perfection. Wollstonecraft emphasises that, for the Enlightenment to succeed in catalysing social progress, it is necessary for women to abandon “false femininity” in favour of rationality and self-dependence.

Having communicated that Enlightenment principles must be free for all to appreciate, Wollstonecraft continues her Vindication by demonstrating how these ideals may be made available through gender-neutral education. The crux of her argument is that women do not lack reason – they simply have not been afforded the opportunity of a rational education and the lessons of virtue ensured by this. Wollstonecraft stresses the importance of education, attesting that the woman who employs her own intellect assumes the power of self-governance, “I do not wish them to have power over men but over themselves”. Education offer a route for women to acquire mental strength, transforming them from silently sexualised objects to speaking subjects, unafraid to lend their views to political and social commentary. By remaining sheltered from the realities of life and saturated in romantic illusions, Wollstonecraft claims that women become ignorant and vulnerable. The frailty and wavering opinions carefully nurtured within them by a patriarchal society act as barriers to their understanding of Enlightenment ideals. She drives home her opinion that both sexes ought to be co-educated, in efforts to “shut out gallantry and coquetry.”[27] Although critical of women for their indulgence in frivolity, Wollstonecraft insists that the female penchant for “coquetry” arises solely from lack of access to a well-rounded education.

Although it may be argued that women were permitted a degree of independent thought in certain cases, e.g. in the salon culture of post-Revolution France; one must bear in mind that such societies welcomed women merely as “civilisers”, intended to soften the passions of over-excitable men. This essay has striven to show that Enlightenment ideals were intended for all to appreciate, yet they remained unattainable for members of the female sex. Voltaire’s Candide and Wollstonecraft’s Vindication each offer “a bold response to the profound exclusion of women from both the discourse and practice of Enlightenment philosophy”. The texts emphasise the manner in which social distinctions rendered women creatures of cunning rather than rational beings. At the heart of both is the conviction that, without an acknowledgement of female rationality, the journey towards a wholly enlightened society is hindered by oppression and power-mongering.

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