Chapter 14: Reason and Enlightenment
After the Reformation, Christians not only had to contend with each other, they had a new adversary. With the dawning of the modern age, the great debate between religion and science began. The doctrines and dogmas developed by the use of Reason and the scientific method began to usurp the doctrines and dogmas of theology. And as religion lost some of its power to persuade, philosophy and the developing social sciences, rushed in to fill the void.
While agnosticism and atheism were undermining religious taboos, enlightened men joined hands across the centuries with the multitude of patriarchs, priests, and rabbis who had kept women in subjection to men. Reason and scientific methodology led them to affirm the same thing their ancestors had decreed: women were intellectually, physically, and morally inferior to men.
John Jacques Rousseau stands in the forefront of modern patriarchy. His treatise, The Social Contract, called the Bible of the French Revolution, demanded freedom and equality for all men, but Rousseau made it quite plain that women had no such rights. "Women do wrong to complain of the inequality of man-made laws; this inequality is not of man's making, or at any rate it is not the result of mere prejudice, but of reason."
In spite of this rationale, Rousseau's other writings show that his denigration of the female was the result of his own prejudice and of the need to feel a "natural" superiority to a whole group of human beings. Rousseau
A native of Geneva, Switzerland, Rousseau came to Paris in the heyday of the French salons--those social/intellectual gatherings of women and men in which brilliance, charm, and wit were endlessly displayed among the elite of Parisian society. And women presided over those salons.
One historian reports that the society of that time was brilliant "because women were its life." And in spite of the obstacles that kept them from a formal education, they were able "to talk intelligently with the intellectual lions they loved to entertain. They rivaled the men in attending the lectures of scientists...the intelligence of women matched and sometimes overreached the intellect of men....As male sensitivity widened and deepened, feminine influence grew...they not only taught manners to men, they advanced or demoted them in political, even in academic life."
This was the scene that greeted Rousseau when he arrived in Paris. He was a man with a difficult personality and an irascible temper. He quarreled bitterly with Diderot and the other philosphes when he felt his ideas were not receiving the proper attention or acceptance. And to find that women, as well as men, were in the position of judging him--not always kindly--was more than he could tolerate. His misogyny found its way into his writings, especially those that had to do with the education of women.
He believed that a woman should be educated only to the degree that she could fulfill her role as wife and mother. For Rousseau that meant she needed enough superficial knowledge to be able to admire his astuteness--to listen admiringly as he "shared his thoughts" with her. But under no circumstances was she to think her own thoughts: "A female wit is a scourge to her husband...to everybody. Outside her home she makes herself ridiculous as she tries to assume a role for which she is unfitted....Her honour is to be unknown; her glory is the respect of her husband."
Rousseau was appalled at what he considered to be the intellectual pretensions of women. "If she really had talents, her pretentiousness would degrade them." But further thought on the subject led him to conclude that a woman was not even capable of intellectual pretensions: "The works of genius are beyond her reach."
Just in case someone missed his point, Rousseau also wrote, "The search for abstract and speculative truths, for principles and axioms in science, from all that tends to wide generalisation, is beyond a woman's grasp; their studies should be thoroughly practical. It is their business to apply the principles discovered by men."
Rousseau's comments about women flowed from the same pen that wrote The Social Contract. In that treatise he stated, "to renounce one's liberty is to renounce one's quality as a man, the rights and also the duties of humanity." But he didn't really mean that liberty is one of the rights and duties of "humanity"; he meant the portion of humanity that is male. The female was not to be allowed liberty, much less encouraged to claim it for herself. Of women he wrote: "They must be trained to bear the yoke from the first, so that they may not feel it, to master their own caprices and to submit themselves to the will of others."
Madame Vigee-Lebrun, a contemporary of Rousseau, wrote in her Memoirs that the power women had during the era of the salons was lost after the revolution: the same revolution that claimed Rousseau as its philosophical father. Of course Rousseau was only one of the many men who helped to insure that the patriarchy of the old world was firmly entrenched in the modern world that was forming around the ideas of progress, reason, liberty, and equality.
With the help of the newly developing disciplines of biology, psychology, and sociology, men "proved" that because of her deficiencies, the female fulfilled her natural destiny by being in subjection to the male. And although there were prominent men who argued that woman's position in the world was not dictated by nature--that she had been forced into her inferior position by the rules and regulations of man-made societies--their truths were ignored.
The men whose theories did prevail were the ones who rediscovered--by scientific and progressive means--what their superstitious and unscientific predecessors had always taught: woman was, by nature, an inferior creature whose lack of development destined her to be in subjection to the male.
Charles Darwin lent his considerable influence to the task of putting the female in her evolutionary place--a place of inferior development in relation to the male. Like Rousseau, he allowed that the female was more sympathetic, compassionate, and nurturing than the male, but both men said that such qualities belonged to an earlier, inferior, stage of human development. Darwin wrote:
Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness....It is generally admitted that with woman, the powers of intuition, of rapid perception are more strongly marked than in man; but some, at least, of these faculties are characteristic of the lower races, and therefore of a past and lower state of civilization.
Darwin also believed that only men demonstrated the superior characteristics of reason and intellect. Like the Christian spokesmen before him, he said that the aggression of the warrior revealed a higher stage of development than the characteristics of nurturance and tenderness displayed by the female. "To avoid enemies, or to attack them with success, to capture wild animals, and to invent and fashion weapons, requires the aid of the higher mental faculties, namely, observation, reason, invention, or imagination."
Darwin summed up his "scientific" observations regarding the inferior development of the female when he wrote: "The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain--whether requiring thought, reason or imagination or merely the use of the senses and hands."
Men continued to fight bitterly over the question of the origin of human beings, but whether they believed that God was the Creator of the universe, or nature the source of an evolutionary process that led to Homo sapiens, they united their theology, their philosophy, and their sciences in at least one common goal. The goal of insuring that women remained in subjection to men.
Their collective, and perhaps unconscious, efforts were bent on insuring that the female principle did not escape its confines and taint the world with a feminization of values and institutions. Kindness, compassion, and cooperation would not be allowed to undermine the kind of world order that men had been dictating since before the beginning of recorded history.
But even as these enlightened men were reinforcing the sexism of antiquity, a prophet in the tradition of St.Paul had a visionary experience of Christ. Her mission was to be a witness to the truth of the male/female nature of God. She was to establish a way of life that would reflect the equality of the Godhead; a way of life in which women and men would share responsibility and leadership in all areas of life.
Her vision directed her to begin this new work in the New World. So in obedience to that revelation, Ann Lee immigrated to America. She established her first church near Albany, New York, She and her followers became known as the Shakers.