n January 3, 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft completed the first major work of feminist theory in history: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
. It was to dominate subsequent feminist thought. Four months previously, in September 1791, during the early phases of the French Revolution, Olympe de Gouges had issued a street pamphlet in Paris entitled Les Droits de la femme
(The Rights of Woman). She was later guillotined. The year before, in 1790, Judith Sargent Murray, an American, had published “On the Equality of the Sexes” in Massachusetts. And even earlier, in the midst of the American Revolution, Abigail Adams suggested to her husband, John, that women should have some “voice, or Representation,” in the “new Code of Laws” being drawn for the nation.1
These eighteenth-century feminists were responding to the tide of revolutionary fervor that was sweeping the Western world. Theories developed during the so-called Enlightenment or Age of Reason were being put into practice: the idea, for example, that people have certain inalienable or “natural” rights upon which governments may not intrude was at the philosophical heart of both the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). Feminists hoped to assure that women be considered entitled to the same natural rights as men. Indeed, Mary Wollstonecraft dedicated the Vindication
to French minister Talleyrand, urging him that if women were excluded from the new French constitution, France would remain a tyranny.2
But the male theorists who developed and enforced the natural rights doctrine unfortunately did not accept the feminist position. In order to understand
why this was and to specify the nature of Enlightenment feminist theory, it is necessary to study the theoretical origins of the natural rights doctrine and the intellectual world of Enlightenment liberalism in which it arose.
Thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment—a period which may be loosely defined as the late seventeenth through the late eighteenth centuries—were concerned to re-impose an order on a world which had philosophically “fallen apart” due to various scientific discoveries. The hierarchical “great chain of being” which ordered the medieval cosmos had been fatally challenged by such discoveries as Galileo’s of the movement of the earth, published in 1632, which disproved the geocentric basis of Ptolemaic astronomy, itself the backbone of the medieval cosmological system.
A new synthesis was developed by Sir Isaac Newton whose Principia Mathematica (1687) laid down the fundamental paradigm of the Enlightenment world view: that the entire cosmos is governed by a few simple, immutable mathematical laws. Indeed, these laws were themselves reducible to one fundamental theorem, the law of universal gravitation. The Newtonian paradigm—that the physical universe operates according to simple, rational laws—became the governing metaphor of the age. If the physical world were ordered by a few basic laws, knowable through human reason, so too must be the moral world, the political world, and the aesthetic world. Descartes, for example, in his Discourse on Method (1637) had determined that a few “clear and distinct ideas,” known through the “light of reason,” provide irrefutable principles of knowledge. In each area theorists ascertained the basic principles that describe or prescribe behavior.
Political philosophers developed the idea that certain natural rights or natural laws, known through the exercise of reason, exist a priori. They thus established one of the most important moral ideas of the modern world: that each individual has certain inherent or “natural” rights. This premise is stated most eloquently in the American Declaration of Independence:
Ernst Cassirer characterized the Enlightenment rationalist world view as neo-Stoic.4
As in the ancient Stoic view, the world was seen to work rationally, according to mathematical, “natural” laws. Each individual had access, autarchically, to these laws, because each individual had a God-given rational faculty. Each, independently, could extract from the particulars of the situation the fundamental general laws or principles held to exist a priori. All minds, therefore, while fundamentally isolated and independent, were presumed nevertheless to work in the same mechanical way. All could follow reason to the same conclusions.
The mechanical metaphor, which saw the world essentially as a great clock and God as the great clock-winder, was in many ways a deficient paradigm; for,
it left out—because it could not explain—basic areas of reality. It neglected, most importantly, what we might call the subjective world: the realm of the emotions and the nonrational to which were relegated questions of aesthetic and moral value. The Newtonian paradigm presumed that all which did not operate according to reason, according to mathematical principles of mechanism, was Other, that is, secondary, not significant, less than real, not nameable. Into this category fell women, according to the view of male liberal thinkers.
The Newtonian world view therefore postulated a fundamental dissociation or split between the public world and physical world of the cosmos, on the one hand, which were governed by reason, and on the other hand, the fringe marginal world to which were relegated such nonrational matters as emotional engagements, personal idiosyncrasies, questions of faith, questions of aesthetic and moral judgment, and women.
This neo-Stoical view also included the presumption that the rational world is superior to, and must control, the nonrational; that order must be imposed upon the non-ordered, the marginal, the Other world. Descartes, for example, wrote a treatise on the passions in which he argued that one must learn to master one’s emotions, to keep them subdued.5
The assertion of the primacy of human reason and of its right to rule all other aspects of reality led to a certain conceit or arrogance, indeed to a kind of “species,” or male, chauvinism. For, inherent in the vaunting of human (male) reason is the idea that rational beings are the lords of creation and have the right to impose their “reason” on all who lack it—women, nonhuman creatures, and the earth itself. The pernicious implications of this arrogation will be discussed below.
Through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—as before and since—the assumption that women belonged in the home as wives and mothers was nearly universal. By the middle and late eighteenth century, and particularly into the nineteenth century, historical circumstances, notably the industrial revolution, separated the work place from the home, isolating especially middle-class women in the domestic sphere. With mechanized factories and the decline of cottage industries the public world of work became split off from the private world of the home as never before. Such tendencies, too, reinforced the Enlightenment identification of rationalism with the public sphere, and the non-rational and the moral with the private sphere and with women.6
Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England
, which appeared first in 1765–69, codified the view that women had no legal, public existence. As Susan Moller Okin points out, “The exclusion of women, particularly after marriage, from legal personhood, had a firm foundation in the common law fiction of coverture.”7
This fiction was articulated by Blackstone as follows:
This meant in effect that married women had no property rights, no control over inheritance, no control over custody, and no right to bring civil suit. All these points became central issues in the nineteenth-century women’s rights movement.
The presumption that women belong in the family under the aegis of their husband was central to male liberal theorists, even those like John Locke who espoused, at least theoretically, natural rights for all people. Locke’s second Treatise of Government (1690) is considered the gospel of natural rights doctrine and is the main ideological source of the Declaration of Independence. In it he states unequivocally:
Unfortunately, Locke did not mean man in the generic sense, but in the specific sense of the male of the species. For, later in the Treatise he states quite specifically that husbands are to be allowed authority over their wives and children, and although this is not an absolute authority, he does not spell out its limits. “But the husband and wife . . . will unavoidably sometimes have different wills too. It being necessary that . . . the rule . . . be placed somewhere, it naturally falls to the man’s share as the abler and the stronger” (VII. 82, p. 435).
Several scholars have pointed out that Locke’s theory necessitates conjugal subordination of women because it is rooted in the concept of private property. Locke stressed the importance of private property as a central factor in self-determination, in part as a means of wresting power from the crown and of securing a place protected from monarchical intrusion. But central to the protection of private property was the right of (male) inheritance. For this reason monogamy and the control of one’s wife became of paramount importance, so that the property would remain within the family.10
Thus, the “individuals” who form a social contract for the protection of their lives, their fortunes, and their property are in Locke’s and subsequent liberal theorists’ view male heads of households.11
The “persons” mentioned in the United States Bill of Rights meant to the framers: “only the male heads of families, each of whom was understood to represent the interests of those who constituted his patriarchal entourage” (Okin, 249).
Moreover, Locke presumed a primary qualification for citizenship, the right to participate in public affairs, to be rationality. Only when (male) children had reached a level of adult rationality could they become citizens (VI. 55–63, pp. 425–7). Women were presupposed lacking in rationality, and were excluded from the role of citizens.
The supposition by male liberal theorists was that the persons who had natural rights were male property-owning heads of families. This proposition held in American jurisprudence until well into the twentieth century. Okin asserts, “the male-headed family has been regarded by both legislators and courts as the fundamental basis of U.S. society” (248). One of the reasons an Equal Rights Amendment was deemed necessary is that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to apply the strictest standards of scrutiny in considering women’s right to due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment, seeing by implication that there are aspects to being a female (usually her role within the family) which may properly intrude upon her natural rights as a person.12
Feminist theorists in the natural rights tradition sought to argue, however, that women were citizens, were “persons” entitled to the same basic rights as men. Because women were so rooted in the home, however, and subject to male authority therein, it was difficult for even liberal theorists to avoid a critique of the home that had more radical implications than a limited liberal position—that of simply granting women rights—might entail.
The most dramatic early attempt to apply the basic natural rights doctrine to women is the Declaration of Sentiments, drafted primarily by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and issued July 19–20, 1848, in Seneca Falls, New York. It was signed by 100 women and men. This document, rooted in natural rights theory, is modeled nearly word for word on the Declaration of Independence. And yet, as one historian noted, “it was . . . a decidedly radical document . . . [because] it made demands that could not be satisfied without profound changes in the social order.”13
The opening sentence includes an appeal to natural law:
Note the potentially radical implications of the idea that women deserve to assume “a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied.” Such assertions necessarily challenged the status quo of women belonging in the domestic sphere, and they help to explain why even a demand that today we consider innocuous, such as the right to vote, was seen by opponents as revolutionary.
The Declaration continues:
This nearly verbatim transcription of the Declaration of Independence takes on new meaning when applied to women, for women did not consent in their government. That they did not was held to constitute a violation of natural rights, which to be remedied would require that women have a voice in public affairs hitherto denied them: it implied the right to suffrage, the right to serve in government, and the right to proper training to enable such service.
The Declaration of Sentiments proceeds to assert the right to overthrow “absolute despotism,” as urged in the original document. The despot in the women’s document is not, however, “the present King of Great Britain,” but rather “man.” “The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.” Again, the implications of this statement go beyond simply granting rights to women, the traditional liberal feminist position. It suggests that the oppression of women as a class or group has been an historically pervasive, systematic subjugation by men. This idea, first clearly developed by Sarah Grimké (see below), approaches contemporary radical feminist theory that roots women’s oppression in patriarchal systems, an analogue to the “absolute tyranny” specified in the 1848 document.15
Following the preamble, the authors of the Declaration of Sentiments c...