Amidst the ruckus created by the revolutions across both sides of the Atlantic, key writers ensured that discussions around women’s rights were still heard.
The Declaration of Man and the Citizen, a civil rights document from the French Revolution in 1789, asserted the rights and liberty of all men. However, the revolutionaries failed to include the rights of women. As a response to this, Olympe de Gouges, playwright and activist, wrote her pamphlet, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen (1791), asserting equal rights for women. In her works, she put forward the values of Enlightenment and explained how they could change women’s lives.
Judith Sargent Murray, American playwright and essayist, published her landmark essay titled On the Equality of Sexes, challenging the widespread notion that women are inferior to men. In that essay, she argued that women would rival men’s accomplishments only if they were afforded similar levels of education.
In Britain, Mary Wollstonecraft came up with her magnum opus, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in 1792. In this work, she stressed the importance of education. Mary Wollstonecraft believed that girls were usually taught to subordinate themselves to men because of the widespread notion that they were naturally inferior to men. She challenged this notion throughout her life.
Mary Wollstonecraft demanded that men and women be educated equally, thereby suggesting a coeducational system.
Wollstonecraft argued that women were treated as “toys and playthings” in the domestic sphere and said that this was the main reason why women stayed inferior to men. Society had taught women that physical looks, male opinion and marriage were the most important things in their lives rather than intellectual and personal growth and fulfilment. It was not unusual for mothers to reinforce such gender stereotypes that girls should exploit their looks in order to find a man to support and protect them. Wollstonecraft was the first feminist to describe “marriage for support” as an act of prostitution. This comparison was shocking at that time.
Women did not have access to any means to lead independent lives. This compelled many women to marry simply to survive, effectively becoming slaves to men. Wollstonecraft also believed that leading such lives of servitude could also have a negative impact on women’s emotional and mental wellbeing.
Mary Wollstonecraft demanded that men and women be educated equally, thereby suggesting a coeducational system. She believed that women should not be confined to domestic spheres; instead, they should be trained to work outside from home such as in fields like medicine, midwifery and business. She demanded an end to discrimination based on gender and called for equal rights. She wanted woman to take control of their own lives.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was well-received in the intellectual circles of the time. However, a hostile Press described Wollstonecraft as a “hyena in petticoats” for both her book and her unorthodox lifestyle. The book was not reprinted until the 19th century when it caught the attention of famous figures such as the British suffragist Millicent Fawcett and the American activist Lucretia Mott.
The influence of Wollstoencraft’s ideas can still be seen in the works of feminists from Barbara Bodichon to Simone de Beauvoir.
Debates and writings about gender equality that began during the Enlightenment period remain fundamental to modern feminism.
Though there were calls for equality throughout the period of the revolutions, not much changed in the daily lives of women. Taking on male roles during the war did not result in any changes in the way women were treated. In France, Olympe de Gouges, Madame Roland, and Charlotte Corday (who had assassinated the Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat) were executed. This temporarily restrained French women from expressing their political views.
However, the movements started during this period helped women gain momentum in their fight for equal rights. Debates and writings about gender equality that began during the Enlightenment period remain fundamental to modern feminism.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
How do you describe the contributions of Mary Wollstonecraft in the growth of feminism?
How influential do you think was Wollstonecraft's book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?
Can you think of some reasons why the popular press of the time was hostile towards Wollstonecraft's ideas?
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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