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Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and More

Enlightenment debate on gender

Typified by Wollstonecraft’s challenge of Rousseau’s writings

Conducted with much passion because of

·  contradictions inherent in Enlightenment thinking about gender

·  many philosophes made claims for universalism but

·  many had difficulties in acknowledging the value of social groups that had previously been seen as outside the central social community

·  not just women, also included lower classes and other races

·  with the Enlightenment, new attempts to present social differences between the sexes as ‘natural’

·  such attempts put the place of women in public life in jeopardy

·  ambivalent attitudes of Enlightenment thinkers to women

·  women were human beings and, as such, could have rights BUT

·  should not be allowed to take part in politics because of their alleged irrationality and lack of autonomy



·  Swiss

·  left Geneva in 1728, thereafter led an itinerant life in France, Italy, England and Switzerland

·  persecuted by both the French and Swiss authorities

·  in 1762 published his Social Contract

·  a political statement of an ‘ideal state’ an explanation of how primitive society (made up of people in a natural state) changed into civil society

·   talks of the General Will - an ideal – a shared agreement by which society should be run

·  participatory citizenship - essential if the General Will is to flourish

·  women should participate as active citizens if the General Will is to be effective, otherwise the General Will would be particularly masculine

·  also in 1762 Emile (a study of education written in the form of a novel)

·  principal characters are Emile and Sophie (Emile’s future partner)

·  Rousseau - clear statement of biological and social differences between the sexes - the act of procreation itself demonstrates that men are strong and active while women are weak and passive

·  women’s right is not be free and equal but to win love and respect through obedience and fidelity

·  participatory citizenship to be a specifically male preserve

·  women’s involvement in politics was positively harmful

·  claims that individuals might be saved from corruption by the right sort of education BUT

·  women’s education intended to equip her for a very different role, that of wife and mother

·  she has rights only so that she might perform her duties better – set out in ch. 5

·  Rousseau’s arguments full of inconsistencies

·  wants equality and autonomy for male citizens

·  advises men to suppress their private interests in favour of the General Will but

·  argues for women’s restriction to domestic life

·  women are robbed of the credentials for citizenship because they lack the right sort of reason to consent to the General Will; their reason is of a practical nature; they cannot appreciate genius.

·  NB Emile - an immensely popular book in its time



·  British

·  came from a middling rank family that was down on its luck, largely through the financial mismanagement of her father so that

·  by 1783 Mary and her two sisters had to support themselves and try to help their father financially 

·  Mary became a governess with an aristocratic family in Ireland - not a happy time but stimulated to write Thoughts on the Education of Daughters

·  eventually managed to support herself as a writer in London, mixing with a group of intellectuals, some of whom were already interested in the situation of women

·   Barbara Taylor argues that if Wollstonecraft had been a man, she would, on the basis of her literary output and her place in the intellectual life of London, have been described as an English philosophe

·  first political work Vindication of the Rights of Men

·  one of the first replies to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which had started an important debate on the nature of revolution in France

·  Vindication of the Rights of Woman

·  Wollstonecraft brought together themes

·  her hostility to privilege and inequality

·  her sense of the corrupting effects of unequal education and expectations on women

·  her vision of the possibility of a new political and moral order in which women might be equal citizens  BUT

·  did not attempt to deny sexual difference – argued that it should no longer be used to justify patriarchy or class

·  DID NOT demand vote for women – pointed out GB franchise v. ltd for both sexes at this time

·  Wollstonecraft’s definition of female citizenship concerned with family and community

·  dedicated it to Abbe Tallyrand in the hope that he might be able to influence legislation on education in France

·  she identified with the optimism of many Enlightenment thinkers, with their belief in the use of reason, and their demands for education and the dissemination of knowledge

·  her concentration on ‘female manners’ was part of a more general debate taking place in Britain around the time of the French Revolution

·  in this debate, women recognised as central to the nation’s well-being – keepers of morality and spiritual values

·  a reformation of  female manners would help to transform the political and moral world for everyone, not just women

·  she also shared Enlightenment view of the progress of European civilization, although argued that women had not yet received their share of its benefits (ch.1) 

·  bulk of the Vindication deals with the education of women explaining need to educate them (chs. 2, 3)

·  right type of education could transform women’s characters – a ‘revolution in female manners’

·  education based on the development of reason, as opposed to the acquisition of accomplishments

·  rational education would subdue their perceived tendency to irrational behaviour  (ch.4) 

·  Wollstonecraft attacks earlier English and French writers on women’s education, including Rousseau (ch.5)

·  She sets out a plan for a new system of national education - for rich and poor, male and female - educated together until the age of 9 (ch.12)

·  specifically addressed the Vindication to middling sort women because

·   ‘they appear to be in the most natural state’ rejecting the luxury or wealthy women and free from the drudgery of the poor. 

·  initially, the Vindication was well-received in England but 

·  paradoxically, despite targeting this apparently conservative section of society, Wollstonecraft’s name and this book were linked with sexual freedom and notoriety

·  her adoption of an unconventional life-style and the fact that she was an unmarried mother, who did not disguise the fact, did not endear her to English society which was becoming more conservative in its social and cultural values




·  like Wollstonecraft, More came from a downwardly-mobile family whose straightened circumstances forced More and her sisters into the world of work rather the polite, leisured world which they might have expected from their birth

·  in 1757, More and her sisters set up a successful school in Bristol

·  she eventually moved to London where she became a successful playwright and moved in the capital’s intellectual circles 

·  by the 1780s, however, she had become influenced by a strand of the Church of England called Evangelicalism

·  Evangelicals argued for reform of the Church of England from within

·  Evangelicals despised conventional Anglicanism with its emphasis on ritual and theology

·  they believed Christianity should be the daily rule of life; emphasis on self-reflection, scrutiny of one’s sins

·  in about 1787, More converted to Evangelicalism

·  her conversion set the  agenda for the rest of her life and work

·  above all, her arguments for the reform of manners

·  the importance of education

·  the place of women in these changes

·  women were, in More’s arguments, crucial in the reformation of society

·  used her literary skills

·  1788 Thoughts on the Importance of Manners....Society

More attacked the immorality and profligacy of the aristocracy

·  Cheap Repository Tracts

·  designed to appeal to the poor

·  used chapbooks (traditional, non-elite format) to spread a political and social message about the reforming of manners and morals to the labouring poor

·  intended as a counterblast to cheap radical leaflets then circulating

·  Repository Tractscontained some stories, a Bible story and illustrations - immensely successful - over 2 million were distributed in the first year

·  Coelebs in Search of a Wife

·   her most famous work, and her only novel, was; again, very successful - there were 30 editions in her own lifetime. 

·  in this, she presented a model of the ‘ideal woman ... devoted to domestic duties, religious, modest in dress, silent unless spoken to, deferential to men, devoted to good works’

·  More presented the ideal religious home whose family life was an example to others - centres on the Stanley family

·  the outside world was hostile, the home was loving and caring

·  within the home, there were male and female spheres but family prayers were a time when the family came together

·  women were expected to sustain and improve men’s moral qualities - this gave women an ‘area of importance’ but their one public arena was charity work/philanthropy Who was more radical - Wollstonecraft or More?

until  recently, More seen as conversative and anti-feminist which was the mainstream of women’s lot in the nineteenth century whereas, in the same context, Wollstonecraft was seen as radical and exceptional but

other women writers of the eighteenth century, both conservative and moderate, as well as radical, attacked the false values of a polite education for girls with its emphasis on superficial accomplishments to equip them for the marriage market and very little else.  Writers like More, Sarah Trimmer (conservatives), Mary Hays, Wollstonecraft, Catherine Macaulay (radicals), and Anna Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth (moderates) all criticised existing standards of female education and wanted its improvement so that women could be educated to become good citizens.  Both More and Wollstonecraft wanted a more respectable and powerful status for women.  Did More, with her particular agenda for women, possibly subvert the existing order as much as confirm it?