Modern Feminism

A recent discussion brought to my attention the curious but apparently widely held belief that feminism was a 20th-century invention. I won’t go into how feminist ideas play into ancient Greek works by Sappho and Aristophanes and Euripides, but I will argue that modern feminism begins circa 1792.

My venerable readers might grant me the premise that the modern democratic state emerged during the Enlightenment, with Tom Paine and others building on John Locke. They might know Paine’s “Rights of Man” (1792), which made the rational case for individual rights and representative government against monarchy and patrilineage. Two years earlier, Mary Wollstonecraft had written “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” (1790), with a thesis much like Paine’s. (Both of these were at least partly in response to the great conservative Edmund Burke’s defense of monarchy and tradition in the wake of the French Revolution.) Wollstonecraft then added “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”(1792), extending the same views specifically to women and on the same rational basis. Women have the same capacities as men, and should have all the same rights and opportunities. Reason tells us this. If it were not for the old irrational customs of a patrilineal society, and the caprices of education, all men and women could (and should) live equal lives integrated together in public and private spheres. That is Wollstonecraft. That, for me, begins modern feminism.

For contrast, we can look to a feminist of the late 1600s, Mary Astell, whose tracts suggest that the constant in modern and pre-modern feminism is the idea that women and men have equal capacities. But other variables show Astell to be what I’d call “pre-modern.” She believes in the conservative hierarchies of the landed social order – without hierarchy is chaos. Patrilineal ranking is natural, that men rule in the public sphere is fine. Her solution is to create separatist enclaves – kind of like secular nunneries –for women who want to advance their education and weigh in on philosophy, etc. But she is fine with segregation of the public sphere by rank and gender, and by no means a democratic thinker. Indeed, she specifically says that the old order of King Charles II is more favorable for women than the emerging, quasi-democratic order of the bourgeois moneyed people.

The literature of the period might support Astell’s alignment of feminism with aristocratic rather than democratic political structures.  Charles II invited female actresses and playwrights to the stage in the 1660s, much to the horror of the more puritanical bourgeoisie. Female characters were strong, witty, and sexually liberated in the theatre of his reign. Then came the 1700s and the bourgeois novels glorifying quiet, virginal women who were removed from the public sphere. One could at least argue (as did other feminists of the time like Mary Manley and Lady Wortley Montagu) that Astell was right in thinking that a conservative ideology of class suited feminism best. Until Mary Wollstonecraft. Then everything changes into its modern form.

(For my take on post-1960s feminism, see Female Chauvinist Pigs; for what’s at stake in the 2012 political arena, see Is There Really a Republican War on Women and Contraception Flap.)

3 thoughts on “Modern Feminism

  1. Great post. I hadn’t ever heard of any of the writers you listed here, so I need to try and check them out. I generally think of feminism in terms of the 20th century partially because of the two big movements for equality in my mind, the push for the vote and the right to workplace equality. I don’t think it helps that it wasn’t really covered at all as a political movement or political change when I was in school if you can believe that. I also feel like there is a bit of a negative connotation now to feminism, which is a shame. I hear so many women talking like it doesn’t matter that they have equal rights as men and acting like it doesn’t matter. I worry that female rights as much an issue today as they were when we didn’t have them, especially with all of the reproduction foolishnes the politicians are talking about now. Love reading these, Gary!


    • Thanks, Sarah. Some of these feminists of old have fallen into obscurity, but you should definitely read Wollstonecraft. (Prompt me: I may have an extra copy I can send you.) I agree with you that many women – especially those young enough to take their fragile equality for granted – have become complacent. This has resulted in the “other side” (largely through the voice of the Republican Party) getting more and more aggressive about rolling back the clock on reproductive rights, on equal pay for equal work, on women’s health services, and even on definitions of rape. With the recent flood of Republican-sponsored state laws that chip away at women’s rights, I’m surprised that women haven’t mobilized more generally for this election.


  2. Pingback: How the Left Ceded the Moral High Ground | shakemyheadhollow

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