In the early 18th century, women were regarded as intellectually, socially, and culturally inferior to men and as industrial economic activity continued to grow, social roles got even more strongly divided along gender lines. Commercial and political activities became the forte of men while household chores became that of women.
Revolutions in France and America, and the enlightenment in Europe fueled the growth of feminism.
The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg led to the spread of new ideas. It enabled more women to express themselves through writing. Some of the earliest feminist writings came from intellectuals like Margareta Momma and Hedvig Nordenflycht from Sweden. Sweden had a liberal outlook towards women’s legal rights compared to other countries at that time. This created an environment that was conducive for feminist perspectives to flourish.
By 1750, women in Britain and other European countries gathered in literary ‘salons’ and discussed literature, shared their ideas and supported women thinkers and writers.
Revolutions in France and America, and the enlightenment in Europe fueled the growth of feminism. Even though philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot challenged the existing hierarchy and argued for equality, liberty and ‘rights of man,’ they pretty much excluded women. However, women were actively involved in both the American and French revolutions. As the cries for the ‘rights of man’ were raised by philosophers, women began to demand for their own rights.
French revolution influenced a number of female writers of that period.
The last two decades of the 18th century was a period of revolutionary changes in the American society. Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, the second President of the United States, called on the founding fathers of the nation to “remember the ladies” while bringing changes in society.
In France, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, published by the playwright and activist Olympe de Gouges called for equal legal rights for men and women.
French revolution influenced a number of female writers of that period. One of them was the British writer Mary Wollstonecraft who published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in which she argued that domestic oppression was the main reason for the sufferings of women.
While many of the early advocates of feminism belonged to the privileged classes, by the early 19th century working class women from the United Kingdom and the United States became part of various labour movements.
During the shift of power from monarchy to constitutional monarchical system of government in Sweden, women were allowed some property rights and the right to divorce on the grounds of adultery. This period saw significant advancements in feminist thought.
Sophia Elisabet Brenner, a Swedish writer and an educated aristocrat, was one of the first women who declared publicly that women deserved the same rights as men. She published a poem titled The Justified Defence of the Female Sex in 1693 in which she argued that women are equal to men. She further cemented this idea in 1719 in a poem to Queen Ulrika Eleonora of Sweden. In that poem, she said that men and women are the same and the only difference between them was their physical appearance.
During 1738-39 period, journalist Margareta Momma came up with her book titled Conversation between the Shades of Argus and an Unknown Female in which she satirised men who believed that women lacked the skill to be involved in a debate. Momma was influenced by European Enlightenment. She stood for freedom of speech and religion and also promoted the use of Swedish language instead of French to allow more people to have access to new ideas as French was the language used by aristocrats at that time.
Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht was another prominent writer of that period. She published her first work titled The Lament of the Swedish Woman in 1742. It was an elegy written for the funeral of Queen Ulrika Eleonora. In this poem, she spoke about the rights of women.
When many of her contemporary writers, including Momma, published under a pseudonym, Nordenflycht published her works in her own name. In 1753, she became the only female member admitted to the Order of Thought Builders, a literary group based in Stockholm. She also hosted the group’s meetings at her home where some of the best writers of her time were invited to share their ideas.
In her poem, Nordenflycht defended the female intellect and exhorted women to use their wit. She argued that women have the right to be intellectually active. She criticised misogyny in her work Defence of Women, which was published in 1761.
Catharina Ahlgren, a friend of Nordenflycht, published her first poem in 1764. She was already well known in her circle as a translator of English, French and German works. Her greatest contribution came in the form of rhetorical letters published in popular Swedish. The work was published in two series. In this, Ahlgren called for social activism, democracy, gender equality, and criticised male dominance.
In her works, Ahlgren expressed her belief that true love was possible only when a woman and a man treated one another as equals. Friendship was the most dominant theme in Ahlgren’s poems, along with morality and advice to daughters.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
As a teacher, how would you describe the role of Enlightenment in the spread of feministic perspectives?
Can you think of the ways in which the invention of printing press influenced the growth of feminism?
Can you think of the ways in which the decision of Hedvig Charlotta Nordenflycht to write in her own name influenced female writers of that period?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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