Women and the Enlightenment

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Women and the Enlightenment
The status of women during the Enlightenment changed drastically; surprisingly, much of the talk
concerning individual liberties, social welfare, economic liberty, and education did not greatly affect
the unequal treatment of women. In many ways, the position of women was seriously degraded
during the Enlightenment. Economically, the rise of capitalism produced laws that severely
restricted women's rights to own property and run businesses. While Enlightenment thinkers were
proposing economic freedom and enlightened monarchs were tearing down barriers to production
and trade, women were being forced out of a variety of businesses throughout Europe. In 1600,
more than two-thirds of the businesses in London were owned and administered by women; by
1800, that number had shrunk to less than ten percent.
While the Enlightenment greatly changed the face of education, the education of women
simultaneously expanded in opportunity but seriously degraded in quality. In the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries, education was available only to the wealthiest women, while education was
available, in theory at least, to most men. But the education that these select women received was
often fairly equivalent in content and quality to the best education available to men. The
Enlightenment, however, stressed the absolute importance of education for moral development
and the ideal operation of society. So education was extended to the women of the upper and
middle classes; however, Enlightenment thinkers also believed that the various intellectual
disciplines, such as science and philosophy, were meant only for men. These subjects, then, were
closed off to women. Instead women were offered training in "accomplishments," that is, various
skills that contribute to the moral development and the "display" quality of a wife: music, drawing,
singing, painting, and so on. So while men were learning the new sciences and philosophies, all
that was offered to women in education was decorative "accomplishments."
The economies of pre-industrial Europe were primarily based on family economies; the individual
household was the fundamental unit of economic production. Within this unit, most of the
necessities of life were produced by members of the family. These family economies were, by and
large, sustenance economies. In this environment, there was no place for individuals living outside
of a family. If someone lived individually, he or she was regarded as a criminal or beggar or worse.
For both men and women, then, there really was no alternative, socially or economically, to living
within a family.
Women began to function as productive laborers within this family economy at the age of six or
seven (sometimes earlier). In agricultural communities, this meant, usually, light farm labor, and in
an artisan's family, this meant taking part in the business itself. Women in artisan families were
very often trained in the artisanal skills of the family; as they grew up, they became more vital and
important to the functioning of the business. On the farm, however, women's labor was
considerably less valued, and women almost always left home between the ages of eleven and
fourteen to either work on another farm or become a servant in a household.
Very few women could marry without a dowry. If a woman was part of a family, the family would
usually make up the dowry. If she was on her own, which was the most typical fate of rural women,
then she had to save enough money to pay her own dowry. This dowry went to the husband and
was invested in the family economy, whether agricultural or artisanal. That is, the woman was
required to invest in the household economy before she could join it.
In general, women's lives were oriented around the economy of the household rather than family.
Both the marriage and the children took second place to production within the family economy; this
was absolutely vital, for a bad year in the family economy could mean starvation.
Nevertheless, the new urban economies of pre-industrial Europe created low-level, low-wage
jobs in various industries. For both men and women, this work was brutish, harsh, cruel, and
actually paid less than sustenance wages. While most women stayed within the family economy,
several displaced women found themselves as the central labor force of pre-industrial industries. In
the illustration below by William Hogarth we see a hemp factory where women are beating hemp
into ropes. The labor is obviously difficult and the shop steward of the factory can be seen hovering
over the main character with a whip.
We know little of women's communities for the general run of the European population. Women's
lives, in general, consisted of unceasing labor. In the middle and upper classes, however, women's
communities began to develop a new and revolutionary life. The works of the philosophes began to
filter into women's communities and undoubtedly shaped women's self-concepts; in fact, much of
the activity of the philosophes was sponsored by women and women's communities. While women
found that the presses were closed off to them, they still had an immense amount of influence over
the currents and contents of the philosophe movement. A seed was being planted; women's
communities were demanding a more central intellectual role in European life. This seed would
blossom into the revolutionary feminist works at the end of the century: Mary Wollstonecraft's
Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Olympe de Gouges' Declaration of the Rights of Women.