Rebels who quit beaten paths

Women, Gender and Enlightenment
February 23, 2007

This collection of 35 essays is on the subject of the relationship of women to the Enlightenment. They cover aspects of women's various engagements with Enlightenment ideas as both the subject of debate and as the makers of debate. Each group of essays is prefaced by introductions that make important contributions in bringing together the diverse themes of the contributors. The book is a marvellous treasure house of ideas and scholarship: the editors have produced one of the most significant academic works of the past 30 years.

The particular significance of Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor's collection is that it makes us think, in the most detailed and precise way, about an issue that in the view of many of us in the social sciences and the humanities is of central importance. The question is that of the relationship of gender to knowledge. Ever since the publication of Londa Schiebinger's The Mind Has No Sex (in 1989) and Thomas Laqueur's Making Sex (1990), we have known that this relationship is complex and still very much part of the contemporary world.

Histories that write the history of women in terms of the exclusion of women from the public world (and hence from the worlds of "knowledge") have been replaced by those that see the very emergence of the modern in terms of a contest between the feminine and the masculine. In this account, the formal aspects of engagement with knowledge (in universities and other knowledge-based institutions) are less important than those more informal aspects of thought in which individuals attempt to achieve some account of the contrasting dynamics that construct every human being.

As Knott and Taylor point out in their introduction, this understanding of history, present in previous accounts of the Enlightenment, puts debate about female education "at the heart of the enlightened intellectual agenda".

The precise nature of this debate is explored in the various essays that cover aspects of Enlightenment thought throughout Europe and the American colonies. The chronology of the Enlightenment is understood in traditional terms, from the 17th century to the early 19th, and the contexts of the debates about gender and knowledge are many, ranging from religion to politics and from education to moral and philosophical questions.

Debates about education are less about access to institutions of knowledge (a campaign, rather than debate, that was to become central to 19th-century feminism) than to the refusal of men to listen to women or to allow that women had something to say that might contribute to the better understanding of the world, very often through a challenge to more autocratic forms of masculinity.

The power of the 18th-century voices of women was that, in a world in which the deconstruction of gender was unknown, there remained considerable scope for speaking with some assurance of the condition of women. At the same time, the various essays here suggest that many of the debates about women of the 18th century are as vital now as they were then, not least because many women questioned the social meaning, and validity, of the ideas attached to biological sex. In her essay "Feminists versus gallants", Taylor suggests that what occurred in the 18th century was an "unprecedented cultural convergence between the sexes".

A "cultural convergence" there might have been, but, as Taylor also notes, it was a cultural convergence that was not welcomed by all and was barely present in many of the more public institutions of 18th-century society.

Where it was most clearly a vital force was in the literary culture of the 18th century, in which women and men began to take part on something like equal terms, as both consumer and producer. Women did not just read more, they also wrote more, and these "amazons of the pen", as Dr Johnson described them, increasingly took a part in establishing a female voice in debate.

Mary Wollstonecraft is, of course, the great example of the "enlightened" female voice, but what she drew on, as this volume makes clear, was a rich vein of the work of other women, both as writers and as participants in debate, who had challenged the orthodoxy about the proper place of women.

The rich vein of non-conformity about gender, and gender relations, is part of the treasure trove that Women, Gender and Enlightenment reveals. Of this rich resource, two characteristics are apparent: first, that "enlightened"

ideas about women were not the preserve of any one part of Europe. In the 21st century, we often carelessly suppose a much greater distance between societies and nations than was actually the case in the past; this volume demonstrates those connections. The second characteristic of the debates about gender is that in some cases women (and men) arguing for greater gender similarity, if not actual equality, were pushing against an open door: there was a degree of consensus among the self-consciously "enlightened" of both sexes that a rational life, and a rational society, could not be built around the assumption of the rational incapacity of women.

"Sense" in a woman was welcome to sections of 18th-century male society.

Yet where this welcome became a bit strained was at those points where it looked as if the radicalism of women might disturb the social order. Mary Hays wrote that "vigorous minds are with difficulty restrained within the trammels of authority, a spirit of enterprise urges them to quit beaten paths". Therein lies much of the problem of "free thinking" and of women's relationship to knowledge.

In the two centuries since the Enlightenment, women across the world have had to fight for access to all forms of education; indeed, in some parts of the world that struggle continues. But as Kate Soper notes in her characteristically perceptive concluding essay, greater gender parity has often included women in the given rather than opening up new ways of looking at the world.

Quitting the "beaten paths" has not always been the history of post-Enlightenment feminism. But it is an important characteristic of this volume that what it does is to interrupt those conventional histories of women that see the "emancipation" of women in terms of their gradual integration in the public, institutional world, as if the history of feminism could be written as an account of the eventual compromise of the demands of feminism and the possibilities of social reality.

The accounts in Women, Gender and Enlightenment subvert that conservative view of social change by demonstrating how subversive and how radical the voices of women can actually be. The arguments made by women in the 17th and the 18th century were not just for access to the same world as men, but for the transformation of it.

The Enlightenment is typically written as the history of European thought from Descartes to Kant and has, post-Bauman and his thesis of the connections between the Holocaust and the Enlightenment, given the Enlightenment something of a negative meaning. Yet this volume, through placing women at the heart of Enlightenment debates about social change, allows us to see again that Kant and Descartes also left the "beaten path", and that the true spirit of the Enlightenment was not synonymous with those detailed questions of social organisation with which it became embroiled in the 19th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, women "dared to know"

long before Kant had thought of the phrase.

That daring is now given its voice in this brilliant collection.

Mary Evans is professor of women's studies, University of Kent at Canterbury.

Women, Gender and Enlightenment

Editor - Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 769
Price - £95.00 and £22.99
ISBN - 1 4039 0493 6and 0230 517811

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