European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History

By Karen Offen | Go to book overview

2
Reclaiming the Enlightenment for Feminism

The European Enlightenment, a time of "social and intellectual flowering," in Francis Steegmuller's felicitous phrase, 1 was a privileged time for debate on the "woman question," as the controversy over relations between the sexes became known. Enlightenment inquiry was "feminocentric" in the sense that male writers focused intensively on "woman" and "woman's nature," and subsequent interpretation has typically discussed the views expressed by its leading male figures--Montesquieu, Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Condorcet, and Kant. If one examines the broader spectrum of Enlightenment debate by decentering these leading male philosophes, however, it becomes evident that this time of "flowering" offered women and their male allies an arena to develop in print an impressive arsenal of concepts, vocabulary, and arguments capable of challenging what some feminist critics would denounce in 1789 as an "aristocracy of sex." 2


THE CRITIQUE THAT HAD NO NAME

Enlightenment debate can thus be seen as a spawning ground, not simply for positioning "woman," as some have complained, but for asserting women's equality to men, for criticizing male privilege and domination, for analyzing historically the causes and constructions of women's subordination, and for devising eloquent arguments for the emancipation of women from male control. These were all defining features of that critical tradition we now call feminism, but which at the time remained a critique that had no name.

Throughout the eighteenth century, women and men wrote tracts that spoke explicitly to the emancipation and equality of women; what is particularly interesting, however, is the extent to which these issues permeated works whose main subjects ostensibly concerned other topics. In debating the woman question, imaginative fiction, plays, and po

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