Women During the Enlightenment: Roles & Treatment

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  • 0:02 Women in the Enlightenment
  • 0:54 Pre-Enlightenment Roles
  • 2:11 The Englightenment
  • 4:59 Results
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the traditional gender roles for women in 18th century Europe and how the Enlightenment affected attitudes that encouraged future change.

Women in the Enlightenment

In countries like Saudi Arabia, traditional customs and religious beliefs prohibit women from doing many things, including driving. You may have heard about it in the news - Saudi religious leaders, for instance, openly protested women being allowed to drive in late 2013. However, slowly, more and more women have been taking to the roads in these conservative countries, building upon the achievements of women like Zahida Kazmi, Pakistan's first and only female cab driver.

Often in matters like these, change takes a long time, and attitudes have to shift before anything tangible can be accomplished. As with women and driving in some Asian countries today, women faced similar restrictions in Western Europe in the 18th century. It required an attitude shift - brought in part by the Enlightenment - before any real change ever occurred.

Pre-Enlightenment Roles

Prior to the Enlightenment, women in Western society lived their lives almost entirely governed by the will of men. Women were expected to live within the domestic sphere; their primary duties were cooking, cleaning, childrearing, and other household responsibilities. This was especially true of the middle and upper classes of society. Though some poorer women were forced to work in the fields or outside the home to provide the family with increased funds, women were largely kept in the house if it could at all be helped.

Furthermore, they were expected to live according to the rules laid out for them by the men in their lives - at first their fathers and later their husbands. This patriarchal society dictated everything about women's lives, from the company they kept to the activities they enjoyed. Women existed largely to keep house and produce children - heirs for the upper class and labor for the lower.

As such, women's sex lives were also under considerable scrutiny; a woman having sexual relations before marriage could damage her standing in the eyes of potential suitors and significantly hurt her prospects of a future marriage. Women who did not remain chaste prior to marriage and were found out were often virtually thrown away: forced to join a convent or sent to live with extended family in far-off locations.

The Enlightenment

There was little real impetus for change in these traditional gender roles during the early modern period. However, during the Enlightenment, philosophers in the 18th century began developing ideas based on the use of logic and reason - rather than the accepted truth of contemporary religion - which contradicted the very basis on which traditional gender roles were constituted.

Classical liberalism, for instance, claimed that each individual possesses fundamental rights and freedoms that cannot be infringed by the government or any organization. If each individual, according to these theorists, possessed certain, inalienable rights regardless of class, creed, or color, it was only a small logical step to include women in this group as well.

Despite the egalitarian principles many Enlightenment thinkers espoused, there were still many detractors to the idea of allowing women greater freedom. Many men in the Enlightenment proposed universal suffrage and basic human rights for all men, while at the same time specifically excluding women from those statements.

For instance, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote multiple times about the gross inequalities between the sexes. However, while he recognized the separation of traditional gender roles, he exhorted his readers that they were necessary, as women were most important to society as wives and mothers, stating, 'Always justify the burdens you impose upon girls but impose them anyway.'

Despite this rhetoric, there were others who felt just as strongly that the traditional walls put up against greater female participation in society needed to be torn down. Some women even participated in the salon culture, which was prevalent during the Enlightenment era, particularly in France. Salons were intellectually driven meetings held by philosophers or thinkers and their colleagues, usually at a person's home or in a coffeehouse. Since so many of these intellectual gatherings were held in people's homes, they were readily accessible to women, and they were welcome to listen and provide input.

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