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.)