DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 04, 2022, from

3. Claims of right

As early as 1673, Poulain de la Barre argued that women and men possess an equal right to knowledge, conferred on them by nature. All humans pursue happiness; no one can achieve happiness without knowledge; so everyone needs knowledge. To ensure that people are able to pursue their proper end, nature has supplied the necessary means in the form of a right. We find here the beginnings of an appeal to rights which became progressively more central until, a century or so later, it dominated debate. In the immediate wake of the French Revolution, Olymphe de Gouges presented the French Assembly with a Declaration of the Rights of Women (which it declined to ratify). Women, she argued, should have rights to employment, legal rights within the family, a right to free speech and a separate assembly in which they could represent themselves. The same theme was taken up in England by Mary Wollstonecraft, who in 1792 published A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Challenging Rousseau, Wollstonecraft argued that the education and emancipation of women are conditions of a truly civilized society. God has endowed all humans with reason so that they can use it to govern their passions and attain knowledge and virtue. To deprive women of the opportunity to perfect their nature and increase their capacity for happiness is to treat them as less than human and render them ‘gentle, domestic brutes’. It is to trample on their rights and keep them in a state of subjection which damages both them and their male captors.

Far from being natural, Wollstonecraft explains echoing the arguments of Mary Astell, the presumed inferiority of women stems primarily from their lack of education. Cut off from learning and encouraged to care only for love and fashion, they are unable to cultivate any solid virtues, and do indeed display the flightiness and stupidity for which they are criticized. However, as well as damaging themselves, women in this condition diminish others. First, they damage men. To treat a fellow human despotically shows a lack of virtue, and just as kings are corrupted by their excessive power, so men are corrupted by the tyranny they exercise over their sisters, daughters and wives. Second, ignorant and powerless women are unfitted to instil virtue into their children. ‘To be a good mother – a woman must have sense and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands’ (Wollstonecraft [1792] 1995: 243).

Although Wollstonecraft’s argument hinges on her claim that women are as rational as men, she has no sympathy for what she calls ‘masculine women’. The aim of educating women is, in her view, to make them into virtuous wives and mothers who, by fulfilling these natural duties, will become useful members of society. Freed from male subjection, educated women would not usurp the roles of men but would freely and virtuously pursue their domestic lives to the benefit of society as a whole. The claim that men and women are intellectual equals is here allied to the view that there are natural differences between them which fit them for distinct ways of life: rational women will see that their place is in the home.

This easy division of labour was put under increasing pressure during the nineteenth century, as feminist thinking became less concerned with women’s overarching moral right to liberty and focused instead on particular legal entitlements such as the right to own property, to enter the professions, and above all to vote. Nevertheless, arguments which appeal simultaneously to the equality and difference of the sexes, and sustain the view that women excel in certain domestic virtues, remained common. The US suffragist, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, demanded the vote for women from the New York legislature during the 1850s on the grounds that ‘the rights of every human being are the same and identical’. But she also argued that, if women were able to represent themselves by voting, they would make a distinctive contribution which would balance that of men.

The wish to reconcile the demands of equality and difference is also evident in John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869). Mill argues that women are entitled to the same rights as men and should be able to hold public office, to work, to own property and to vote. He also argues that married women should not be required to obey their husbands and should have custody over their children. His primary ground for these conclusions is that women and men are equal, but he supplements this argument with further claims about the benefits that the freedom of women would bring. Like Wollstonecraft, he claims that the power of men over women ‘perverts the whole manner of existence of the man, both as an individual and a social being’, and reiterates her view that there can be no true affection between spouses who have nothing in common. It is only once women are educated that there can be the solid, enduring friendship between the sexes that heralds the moral regeneration of mankind. However, two further lines of thought appeal to assumed differences. Mill first argues that women possess a distinctive aversion to war and addiction to philanthropy, of which they would make better use if they were better informed. In addition, although women should have the right to work, Mill takes it that when they marry they make ‘a choice of the management of a household, and the bringing up of a family’ as the first call on their exertions. Older women who have completed this task may decide to direct their energies to public life, for instance by standing for parliament. But the first place of married women is, once again, in the home.

Citing this article:
James, Susan. Claims of right. Feminism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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