The late 17th century, also known as the enlightenment era, was the gateway for new ideas and the advancement of society as a whole. Within those ideas was that of women’s rights along with their role in society. A role that remained the same for decades, in which women were nothing more than caretakers and babymakers, that they did not present an active role in the management and advancement of society. The idea that women were inferior and could never imagine sharing the same role as men until certain women and enlightenment philosophers, such as Voltaire and Rousseau changed that narrative through their writing. Along with never giving up the fight and pushing for their rights and for their voices to be heard, despite how unorthodox it may have been for them. They created opinions that would be shared by women and men who would be inspired to change the way society views women and their rights as humans.
In a world run by men, women have never had a fair opportunity to execute the rights bestowed upon them as human beings. The same rights that men held and they spent years denying them. Implanting and subjecting women to the idea that they are inferior to men, both physically and mentally and trapping them within a dome of domesticity. In which women were nothing more than caretakers, producers of babies and even a source of entertainment.
Men believed that they held power over all women, excluding those who held titles or belonged to another man and took advantage of them. It is for that reason that women in society could never stand up for themselves as they feared the consequence of going against a man and the embarrassment that would come along with it. It was not until the late 17th century, the height of the enlightenment, that women would be brave enough to chase the idea of women’s rights, that they are entitled to everything a man is. With prominent figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe de Gouges leading the charge. Wollstonecraft would be known for advocating the academic advancement of women through her written work ‘Vindication’ and de Gouges’ plays would reach a national audience and would best be known for her work ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Woman.’ Their cause would also be assisted by men, philosophers who spoke of equality between all humans despite factors such as gender and race. Their names were Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, major players of the enlightenment who would change the perspective of society with their words.
There was a french man by the name of Antoine-Leonard Thomas who wrote about the rights of women and their role within society. Alongside him was a woman by the name of Mme d’Épinay who debated the opinions of Thomas. In which she argues against Thomas’s opinion that ‘women [are] ill-equipped for politics, … they have qualities useful in social life, because of the effort they put into understanding their fellows.'(Peruga; Dousa 188) In which Thomas admits that he believes each gender is born to do certain tasks, this is where gender roles came into place, and the justification of gender roles by men like Thomas would be because women were born to do the things men could not. They were born to be compassionate and social beings, a weakness for most men during the time, along with being loyal towards men and subservient.
Thomas respects the current role of women in society, something that many men of the era could never admit to or fight for, but despite such an argument only does so because his argument is that women are only one thing and are not capable of following the example of men. While d’Epinay stands by her argument that women are capable of accomplishing the same tasks as men, not wanting to remain as society wants her or other women to act. Women are capable of learning and that there are many examples of women who have risen above men, becoming leaders and inspiration to those who would come after them. In the end, Thomas and d’Epinays arguments would be some of the greatest examples of the changing role of women despite the will of society in the entirety of the enlightenment era.
Another source for explicating the role of women is Voltaire, who was an enlightenment philosopher that wrote satirically, denouncing the dominant powers within society and who popularized the revolutionary goals of the enlightenment. In his work titled “Candide”, Voltaire wrote about many horrors in a way that held humor for the reader. In which, it allowed him to expose those reading his story to horrors and rising philosophical ideas such as the rights of men and women. Within “Candide”, Voltaire includes numerous women, but they never have a huge influence or impact on the story alone. Take, for example, Cunegonde, she is the main character’s lover and that is as far as her character develops. She is unable to do anything alone, unlike Candide, after the fall of her home and is raped, a prominent theme for women in Voltaire’s work.
As no women in the work has not been raped at one point in their life, and the point that Voltaire attempts to make from this common theme is that women are weak, both physically and mentally and that they are incapable of exerting their free will effectively. His story portrayed women the exact same way that society perceives them, but as he is known for his satire it is easy to say that he wrote them this way to expose a truth of sorts. Those women in his society were easily exploited and devoid of the rights they were born with. That they were pushed around easily by men and could do little about it, and he writes little about their resistance to such advances. Such as when Cunegonde, to keep from being raped constantly, played the hearts of the men who wanted her to stall for time until someone could rescue her. In which Voltaire places Cunegonde in the role of the damsel in distress, the interpretation of a weak and reliant woman that society relates to all women. By the end of his story, Cunegonde, who was always described as beautiful and the desire of all men, becomes the epitome of ugliness.
Keep in mind this is how Voltaire described her physically and it was how her worth as a woman was measured, he set up a scale for women which can basically be read as, if you are a beautiful woman you will be desired by all, but if you become or are ugly you are worth nothing. Voltaire used the women in his story to expose to society the plights that women face, in a way that holds the attention of his audience and would eventually inspire women of the enlightenment.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an enlightenment philosopher with radical ideas of human nature that disrupted the era. One of the main focuses of his philosophy was equality among men, in which it could be interpreted as general equality. Yet, Rousseau’s idea of equality was seen and is still seen as contradictory as his view of women was the same as most of society, that they are weak and dependent upon men for mostly anything. One of his main arguments being that men may desire women but they do not need them to survive while women are the exact opposite. His work titled ‘Émile’ detailed his view of the difference in education that is required of men and women and acts as evidence that he believes women should be subservient to men, an opinion shared by most men prior to the enlightenment. This would inspire a woman by the name of Mary Wollstonecraft who could be best described as ‘far from fitting Rousseau’s ideal of a submissive, unintelligent, modest, flirtatious, virtuous woman trying to be pretty.'(Griffiths 341) She would carry on an alternative view of Rousseau’s philosophical idea of education between both genders. In which she shared many similarities with Rousseau, other than the fact that women were weak and submissive. She went on to write ‘Vindication’ which was seen as a response to Rousseau’s supposed view of women. As ‘Her proposals form an implicit critique of many of Rousseau’s basic assumptions in Émile as well as constructing an alternative approach.'(Griffiths 342) In which women are capable of pursuing higher education and of being described as intellectual, and that idea would be the one to shape the future.
As Wollstonecraft did share the same idea as Rousseau in that ‘each considers the implications of the education of both boys and girls for the future shape of society,'(Griffiths 343) and both share the idea of an equal and just society that is not plagued by corruption or the division of social classes. It is an example of how even philosophers that had no reason or desire to push for women’s rights could inspire those that do and change everything.
The Enlightenment was the end of society’s view of women, as great philosophers broke the mold of what it truly means to have equality within society. Writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau were great advocates of the natural rights of women as they shared the same ideas as woman who advocated for themselves indirectly through their philosophical ideas and literature. Ideas that inspired women to fight for themselves and become more than what society defined them to be. They would no longer settle for being a simple uneducated caretaker that would be dependent upon a man, ftom then on they would work tirelessly to earn the same rights as men. As even in modern society women continue their work for equal rights and breaking the dome of domesticity that encapsulated their selves for centuries.
- Griffiths, Morwenna. “Educational Relationships: Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and Social Justice.” Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 48, no. 2, May 2014, pp. 339–354. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/1467-9752.12068.
- Bolufer Peruga, Mónica, and Isabel Morant Deusa. “On Women’s Reason, Education and Love: Women and Men of the Enlightenment in Spain and France.” Gender & History, vol. 10, no. 2, July 1998, p. 183. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/1468-0424.00097.