Sample Essay on Feminism

The stable male dominated society of Great Britain in the middle third of the eighteenth century offered little opportunity for women to play an active role in political, economic, or social affairs. It also seemed to offer little encouragement to the ideas now gathered under the term feminism: the movement for civil and political equality of women and men, and the opportunity of self-determination and autonomy for women. Society assumed that women were subservient to men, that their natural destiny was marriage, and that, therefore, women needed only minimal education.

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The feminism of the late seventeenth century which had found its fullest expression in the works of Mary Astell had, by the seventeen thirties, an old-fashioned tone. Astell’s feminism, founded in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694) and Some Reflections Upon Marriage (1700), grew from her religious convictions; if woman’s soul was as good as man’s, her mind was equally good and made of the same reason, to love God2. English society of the mid eighteenth century was little concerned with religion or radical political ideas. Trade, political office, improvement, enclosure, building the family fortune were subjects that were on most men’s minds. When they thought about women at all, they thought of them as created for men’s pleasure, to be used, guided, cared for, but not to be taken very seriously by the male sex. Pope’s “Of the Characters of Women: An Epistle to a Lady3,” though written to a lady of virtue, generally assumed the worst about her sex This module focuses upon feminist debates in eighteenth-century literature and thought. During this period, ideas of women’s nature social equality, and political and civil rights were elaborated or formulated in new ways, often in the context of more general discourses of history, progress and Enlightenment. This module will explore the different kinds of writing – periodical essays, novels, educational treatises, sociological and historical works – where the nature and position of women were evaluated and contested. More generally, it will introduce students to a number of the discursive arenas within which this reformulation of femininity took place: discussions of the “population” question, partly-political controversy about the nature of “obedience” and “authority”, the contemporary culture of “politeness”, the idea of the East as the location of female confinement and sexual exploitation, and debates about male and female education. The British eighteenth century saw a transition from the remnants of the Renaissance “querelle des femmes,” essentially a religious dispute over whether or not women are basically evil, to a post-revolutionary Enlightenment argument for the rights of women as citizens. In this course, we will examine major texts that investigate the status of women in the period, beginning with Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies in 1706 and ending with Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1796 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. We will read not only political and philosophical texts, but also novels and poetry that treat the status of women, or the debate over that status. We will discuss such issues as the relation between feminism and abolition; the role of literary coteries and “bluestockings” in arguing for female education; changing feminist (and misogynist) ideas about female sexuality; women’s roles in colonialism and Orientalism; and the impact of Revolutionary and reactionary debates of the 1790s on women’s status and writing.

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