1.5.1 A reaction to texts written by men

After having explained the Enlightenment, I consider important going through several ‘important writings’, obviously written by men, which are essential to understand  Mary Wollstonecraft’s reaction seen in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

It is important to mention that during the 18th century, ‘nature’ was an important aspect of the world which had been discovered through scientific exploration, something which had its predictable laws, and something which was not yet mastered. Women were considered the repository of  ‘natural laws’ and ‘natural morality’ and also emotional and passionate- consequently, they had to be constrained within social boundaries. This traditional view maintained that women were closer to nature than men, because of their physiological role in sex and in motherhood.

The opposed categories of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, then, originated as part of an ideological debate which concluded that women were natural (‘superior’) but instruments of a society of men (‘subordinate’).

-The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) thought that all individuals were born with natural rights, but fear of each other’s violence led them to surrender their rights and submit to the absolute authority of the king. To escape the ‘state of nature’ to find better living circumstances, a social contract is necessary, a contract which is based on the rational of people governed. Hobbes’s notion of sovereignty involves, at the time of the social contract, women’s inferior position and men’s role as masters and representatives of families. In Leviathan (1651), Leviathan acts as a protector, a father figure that should rule over the whole family (being the central authority in the state and in the family).


John Locke, builds upon Hobbe’s empiricism, though with some significant differences. Locke defended the ideal of a ‘state of nature’ and men are by nature free. Locke gives women the right to own property but by 17th century standards this meant very little because upon marriage the wife became a possession of the husband. He was not a feminist but he believed in individual rights and his society also included women as essential in his project of political society. Nevertheless, there is a foundation in nature for women’s subordinate place: males are ‘abler and stronger’ (a traditional argument going back to the Bible: women’s subordinate position is a punishment upon Eve). So, for Locke, the right place for women is the family, the private sphere.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) , probably the most influential philosopher across Europe, contributed to the Encyclopédie (1751-1772) movement and to the French Revolution. He reflected on the idea of nature as a guide and teacher for reformed society, and on the association of nature with women’s emotions and domesticity. Rousseau’s argument to justify the 18th century notion of women’s subordination is that it is ‘natural’, and for him, nature never lies.

Women were socially defined as passive, dependent and politically inferior to men. This subordination is not imposed on her by social, economic, cultural institutions, but as a reflection of the characteristics  (passivity, chastity, dependency, etc.) nature has bestowed on women.

In the ‘state of nature’ Rousseau envisages that there is a rough equality of the sexes. The real change in the relationship between women and men is brought about by the introduction of property. There is then a complete division of labour: women attend to the home and children become sedentary; men are hunters and gatherers.  According to Rousseau, women have these qualities: shame, modesty, love of embellishment, desire to please and to be polite to others.ant

But the most important innovative contribution from him is in education, or at least as far as I am concerned in this paper; because he ascribes differences between women and men in his theories about education. It can be seen in his influential Émile (1762) where he expresses his belief in a fundamental difference between women and men:

‘In the union of the sexes, each alike contributes to the common end but not in the same way. From this diversity springs the first difference which may be observed in the moral relations between the one and the other. The one should be active and strong, the other passive and weak. It is necessary that the one have the power and the will; it is enough that the other should offer little resistance.

Once this principle is established it follows that woman is specially made to please man. If man ought to please her in turn, the necessity is less urgent. His merit is in his power; he pleases because he is strong. This is not the law of love, I admit, but it is the law of nature, which is older than love itself.

If woman is made to please and to be subjected, she ought to make herself pleasing to man instead of provoking him. Her strength is in her charms; by their means she should compel him to discover his strength and to use it. The surest way of arousing this strength is to make it necessary by resistance. Then amour-propre joins with desire, and the one triumphs from a victory that the other made him win. This is the origin of attack and defense, of the boldness of one sex and the timidity of the other, and even of the shame and modesty with which  nature has armed the weak for the conquest of the strong.

 Émile, ou l’éducation (1762)

According to Rousseau, education for men is a way for them to reach their full potentialities as human beings; for women, education is dictated by their natural and subservient functions:

‘The entire education of women must be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them, to be loved, and honored by them, or read them when they are young, to care for them when they are grown up, to counsel and console, to make their lives pleasant and charming, these are the duties of women at all times, and they should be taught them in their childhood. To the extent that we refuse to go back to this principle, we will stray from our goal, and all the precepts women are given will not result in their happiness or our own.’

Émile, ou l’éducation (1762)

So, as we can see, Rousseau’s message is a clear expression of women’s subordinated position. Their place is at home, and domestic life is their destiny. The revolutionary values of freedom and equality are only relevant for men, because women can not act as citizens in society. Men are public, while women are private.

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