Exporting Feminism

By Elshtain, Jean Bethke | Journal of International Affairs, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Exporting Feminism


Elshtain, Jean Bethke, Journal of International Affairs


From its inception, feminism has been a universalist faith. Originating in the West with Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, feminism was tethered to the French Revolution's proclamation of the universal rights of man, itself a transcultural set of propositions and commitments. Deeded to humanity by "nature and nature's God," such rights were called upon to support demands for democratic self-government, social egalitarianism, and the breaking of all previous social and political arrangements which seemed, from this universalistic standpoint, illegitimate and insupportable. Wollstonecraft shared these lofty sentiments but argued that they were flawed in that they were not extended to women. The enactments of French revolutionaries who were devotees of civic republicanism as well as natural-rights universalism preached a political doctrine of martial fervor and stalwart manliness as necessary to sustain and defend la patrie. Women could be mobilized for the purposes of the revolutionary state, but they were not full-fledged citizens. Wollstonecraft lamented this emphasis on military virtues as a civic requirement even as she defended political and natural rights. She chastised her male comrades for their refusal to incorporate women into those rights as political guarantees.[1] Given her philosophical and political commitments, she coupled the faith of reason - as a gender-neutral human attribute - with a strong belief in historic progress. Sooner or later, she believed, rational beings would be compelled to admit the injustice and incoherence of proclaiming a universal doctrine while applying it in limited and prejudicial ways.

These early contests presage 19th century debates over suffrage and what increasingly came to be known as "women's rights" or "the woman question." They drew upon two strands of political theory: one that placed emphasis on a teleology of historic progress tied to presumptions of universal reason and rights and a second that was indebted to arguments of utility ("the greatest good for the greatest number"). John Stuart Mill offered the clearest definitive treatment of the dominant strand of Western feminism in The Subjection of Women.[2] Mill believed that granting women equality of citizenship and civil liberty in the public realm would help generate a deeper transformation in social relations between the sexes. To Mill, society's progress depended on the extent to which it could abandon instinct and embrace the faith of reason. For societies yet in their "nonage," including "barbarian" cultures, Western imperialism was, to Mill, justifiable. He explicitly linked the end of women's subjection to cultural modernization and progress under Western auspices, in and through the dominant political assumptions of liberal political theory.

It is easy enough to understand why liberalism has been attractive to feminist thinkers. The language of rights is a potent weapon against traditional obligations, particularly those of family duty or any social status declared natural on the basis of ascriptive characteristics. To be free and equal to men became a central aim of feminist reform. The political strategy that follows from this dominant feminism is one of inclusion: Women are considered rational beings. It follows that women, as well as men, are bearers of inalienable rights; hence, there are no valid grounds for discrimination against women. Leading proponents of women's suffrage in Britain and the United States underlined arguments which justified formal legalistic inequality on the basis of gender differences. They claimed that denying basic rights to a group based on a presumed difference could not be justified unless it was proven that the difference was relevant to the distinction being made. Whatever the differences between sexes, none, they declared, justified legal inequality and denial of the rights and privileges of citizenship.

Few early feminists pushed liberal universalism to its most radical conclusion by arguing that there are no justifiable grounds for exclusion of adult human beings from legal equality and citizenship. …

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