French feminist and anti-slavery activist Olympe de Gouges was the first to discuss women’s role in the modern political order. Between 1789 and 1793 (the year of her execution during the phase of the French Revolution known as the Terror), she authored a series of pamphlets that introduced many enduring themes of feminist discourse: women’s access to political rights and their capacity to have their own political voice, the need for equality in education, and a realignment of gender relations to allow women to have independence within and outside of marriage. De Gouge proposed a new social contract between man and woman based on equality (de Gouges, 2014). Her work fell on deaf ears. All French constitutional acts between 1791 and 1795 excluded women from France’s civil and political life, and the Napoleonic Code of 1804 consolidated this status quo by forbidding women to make legal contracts, control their property or wages, or engage in business without their husband’s permission (Acampo in Merriman & Winter, pp. 801-802).
Across the Channel in England, almost simultaneously, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) challenged the unequal gender relations of her time from what we now would call a “liberal” feminist standpoint (Mellor, 2002, p. 141). Wollstonecraft viewed the inferior status of women as a product of their social conditions and therefore as socially constructed.
She called for substantial changes in education, marriage and political rights. In regard to education, Wollstonecraft criticized the philosophy of education of the era, which she saw as aiming to (re)produce gender inequalities. An education that mostly trained women to appeal to men conditioned them to be emotional, shallow, and childish. Instead, Wollstonecraft argued, women should be trained to be rational, independent beings on par with men. Instead of having no prospect in life other than marriage, which was too often a form of “legal prostitution,” women should be enabled to live independent lives. They should be trained with the capacity to enter various professions and to support themselves. Wollstonecraft’s argument included a demand for women’s accession to civil and political rights as fully equal, rational human beings.
- Mary Wollstonecraft and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman © Library of Congress and John Opie is licensed under a Public Domain license