Enlightenment versus Modern Feminism

I’ve recently read several early feminists. Mary WollstonecraftAlice BaconMargaret Fuller. I spent the most time on Mary Wollstonecraft and Alice Bacon. The first, because Vindication of the Rights of Woman is supposed to be a classic. And the second, because her work Japanese Girls and Women is an extraordinary discussion of the Japanese family and society.

A few notes on Wollstonecraft and Bacon. First, both assert repeatedly that they see Christianity as a liberating force, the liberating force behind feminism. If each human being has a soul that is of equal special value in the eyes of God, then so too does each human being have a kind of radical equality. This radical equality of all men, latent in Christian thought, was explicitly affirmed as a constant justification throughout peasant revolts in European history. It, too, forms the basis both for the radical assertion of human value in communist thinking–Camus and Sartre, and Zizek today assert this–as well as much of the rights-oriented political approach of the Enlightenment. If all human beings have the same intrinsic value, then all human beings have the same rights. Bacon asserts constantly, as well, that it is paganism, which asserts no God as judge, that allows for the radical inequality, the radical hierarchy of Japanese society–and that Christianity would be a redeeming force for women in Japan.

From the above, that feminism would be a natural outgrowth of Christianity should seem obvious. Even male supporters of the feminists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, held this perspective. Yet today, we constantly hear the opposite. We all know of the fundamentalist, misogynist politicians, who come from the right, who come from Christian backgrounds, who consistently oppose women’s rights. Joseph Campbell interprets Judaism as the most violent of anti-female religions. Where, he says, most societies’ religions begin with a female God (think Gaia the Earth goddess of the Greeks, or Amaterasu, the Sun goddess and goddess of the Universe to the Japanese), most of them also eventually supplant that female goddess with a male goddess. We may here invoke Bachofen’s thesis: that, where all societies were originally matriarchies, they all eventually became patriarchies, and their pantheon correspondingly transformed. With the Greeks, even while Hera is fairly commonly represented as conniving, manipulative, and violent in her opposition to Zeus, she is nonetheless roughly his equal. Presumably, this would mean that females would hold a similar role in Greek society. (I suppose we should put aside that, during the golden age of the Greeks, the age of Pericles, Socrates, and Aristophanes, females were confined, according to one perspective, to the household like prisoners. Was it the deceitful character of Hera that was emphasized, rather than her equality?) Not so with the Jews: for the Jews, the ancient goddess is totally obliterated from the scripture altogether. And since Judaism provides the groundwork for an understanding of Christianity, as the argument goes, then Christianity is itself a part to this complete suppression of the feminine–unlike the Greek or virtually all other religious perspectives, which do no such thing.

We also know today that Christianity is commonly invoked by anti-feminists, particularly on the Blogosphere, as the antidote to the dramatic forces that are tearing apart the family of post-1960s modernity. Where the usurpation of early childhood education by state authority and the demands of maximum economic productive capacity and consumption have violently reconstituted gender and made marriage and stable childhood upbringing an unprecedentedly precarious affair–Christianity provides the lock-and-key, the source of social order, ordained by God, that can resolve the contemporary problematic. All that is required is a submission to the order of God. But, given that the conception of Christianity, and its relation to feminism, has been radically altered, what indeed is the truth of the matter? What is the real relationship between Christianity and gender equality?

The most obvious answer, perhaps, is that Christianity–now demonized on an explicit level but maintained and subsumed implicitly by virtually all contemporary secular ethical and political discourse–is so openly unpopular that it must be reflexively demonized and lumped in with the forces of reaction. Meanwhile, being the major vessel of moral discourse prior to entrance into the system of modern liberal education, Christianity among the less educated (and less progressive) classes simply becomes co-opted as a vehicle of reaction.

The second note. Wollstonecraft’s and Fuller’s notion of gender equality seems radically alien to that of modern feminism–emphasizing not female marginalization, male privilege, or even female repression (as such), but rather the gap in rationality between men and women, a product of educational differences. Each of these emphasize education as the redeemer of gender disparity. Each assume the ethics of Greek thought: that knowledge changes behavior, and that virtue is the result of knowledge. Each ask not that women are given any particular respect–except inasmuch as women are demonstrably capable and a priori deserving of such respect in having a radically equal human soul. Rather, each ask that women receive the same opportunities that men receive, and women will thereby attain the heights of rational virtue that men are capable of attaining. This is in stark contrast to the contemporary notion that women should receive special treatment that rectifies historical or structural disadvantages. According to the Wollstonecraftian notion, sufficient education would create women as capable of men in the control of thought and emotion–as much as Frederick Douglass, though enduring a lifetime of prejudice and disadvantage, could claim equivalence with white men in both word and action.

The final note. Wollstonecraft repeatedly asserts that it is not men, but women, who control the relationship between men and women. It was simply that such control over the hearts of men–which was achieved through coquetry, beauty, and the pretense of weakness–was shameful and wrong: it was not in accordance with reason, honesty, or any of the other virtues. Not only was there a misapprehension of the real quality of the female soul (on par with that of a man’s), but this very misapprehension distorted communication and produced an irrational rule of women over men through artifice and deceit.

In conclusion, it’s clear that the original feminist formulation is perhaps not only different than the contemporary one, but completely opposite. Whereas the struggle for modern gender equality has sought to achieve its aims by advocating the rapprochement of male and human sensibilities, into an ever-increasing androgyny–the feminization of men and the masculization of women–and has thought of this as the sine qua non of gender equality, the absolute opposite was the case for Wollstonecraft. It was not a question of gender for Wollstonecraft, but of virtue. And men, having access to knowledge and the expectation to use it for rational purposes, had access to virtue, where women did not.

The task of feminism, a Christian task, was to bring virtue to women by educating them. Today, rather, it seems that neither men nor women are expected to have virtue in the Greek sense, but rather quite the opposite: men take on the qualities of women that Wollstonecraft denounced as crippling, i.e. an overemphasized sentimentality, and women take on the distasteful excesses of men (denounced in men today as machismo but celebrated in women as empowerment).

(Some  academics, e.g. Virginia Sapiro, claim that the inflamed rhetoric was supposed to maintain an implicit argument for the fusion of female and male sensibilities (since, as the argument goes, women are more emotional than men, and hence their equality will nonetheless retain this vestige of their nature), this claim assumes for women a nature that Wollstonecraft consistently and repeatedly argues against as a very central claim throughout the work.  Such a claim that the rhetoric of the text argues for something that doesn’t openly contradict the goals of modern feminism–even as the text itself is quite clear–is disingenuous at best and in fact simply ahistorical: the style of Wollstonecraft’s text closely matches, with minor individual exceptions, the style of the typical pamphleteer during the highly inflamed pamphlet war in the wake of the Revolution.)

Today, female empowerment is seen, at its zenith, as the expression and appearance of authority and status in females. Simply having a large number of females in the Senate (or any major seat of power, e.g. science, finance, etc.), for instance, is heralded as a major achievement–their personal achievements as Congresswomen being left an apparently largely incidental issue. As Hillary Clinton and other women before her showed, women can lead excellently, but making the fact that they do lead at all a cause for celebration would at odds with the original feminist principles. The point of virtue in the sense of Wollstonecraft was not position or status, but doing things well, in the right way, according to reason, and freely. That sexual liberation, the fulfillment of bodily desire, is seen as perhaps the cornerstone of feminism exemplifies this basic shift from Wollstonecraft to the second and third waves of today. That feminism has become equated to “unlocking one’s latent potential” without any particular justification, rather than actualizing potentials to any particular goal or outcome (e.g. virtue in the classical sense), is what marks the shift from Enlightenment to modern feminism.

A responsible scholar, Barbara Taylor, has said the following:

Describing [Wollstonecraft’s philosophy] as feminist is problematic, and I do it only after much consideration. The label is of course anachronistic . . . Treating Wollstonecraft’s thought as an anticipation of nineteenth and twentieth-century feminist argument has meant sacrificing or distorting some of its key elements. Leading examples of this . . . have been the widespread neglect of her religious beliefs, and the misrepresentation of her as a bourgeois liberal, which together have resulted in the displacement of a religiously inspired utopian radicalism by a secular, class-partisan reformism as alien to Wollstonecraft’s political project as her dream of a divinely promised age of universal happiness is to our own. Even more important however has been the imposition on Wollstonecraft of a heroic-individualist brand of politics utterly at odds with her own ethically driven case for women’s emancipation. Wollstonecraft’s leading ambition for women was that they should attain virtue, and it was to this end that she sought their liberation.

May we here not invoke Bachelard’s concept of discontinuity (or Kuhn’s concept of paradigm shift, which comes from the same place)?  May we not say, in the same way that Foucault did to the history of sciences in On the Order of Things–that Enlightenment feminism is about as similar to modern feminism as a yogurt bacterium is to a human being?

That the two advocate for the equality of women with men, their object, their concerns, what they consider as being unequal in a way entirely different and indeed contradictory from the other–does this not lead to the conclusion that the object of feminism, namely women and their rights, is an unstable one, constructed by a value system rather than actually inhering in reality itself?  And would this not lead to the conclusion that the development of women’s rights has been a historically contingent affair, rather than the inevitable progress of an ethical system that would in fact have been repugnant to the leading female Enlightenment thinkers?  That Wollstonecraft, the proclaimed progenitor of feminism, might better be classed as an antifeminist?

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3 thoughts on “Enlightenment versus Modern Feminism

  1. Lane

    I’m sorry, but I was just wondering where you got that quote by Barbara Taylor? Do you think you could give me the citation for it? Thanks.

    Reply

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