Rousseau implied that this proved the point that women ought to serve their husbands and children, and that they had no need to be educated as a man. Wollenscraft used the fact that women must bear children as evidence that they must be educated, because as they age they will need consolations of the mind to keep them satisfied as their motherhood and old age draws them away from the sensual pleasures of youth. A good mother and grandmother, she would suggest, will not be a Roussean heroine constantly hoping to passively seduce men and defining her life accordingly.
Unlike Rousseau or those scholars which based their opinion on old bones, the feminist thinkers of the Enlightenment based the core of their arguments regarding women on the same arguments which male philosophers of the era used to support universal (white) male suffrage and democratic proceedings. During this era, philosophers (including Rousseau) argued that men were intrinsically and naturally free, and that society ought to operate on the basis of social contracts which took into consideration the natural rights and liberty of humans as rational and self-determinate beings. In general, feminist of the era appealed to nature not so much in terms of discussing the differences in nature between males and females, but in terms of recognizing the natural rights of all humans and applying these to women as well. It is interesting to note that de Gouges was, for this impunity, denounced as being unnatural in her own era. The focus on women as humans, and hence as being heir to natural human rights, is unique to the time during and following the Age of Reason. Of this matter, De Gouges wrote: “Liberty and justice consist in restoring all that belongs to another, hence the exercise of the natural rights of woman has no other limits than those that the perpetual tyranny of man opposes to them; these limits must be reformed according to the laws of nature and reason.
” (Gouges, 125) Wollenscraft agreed that women had by nature the same rights as men, and argued that if they were not allowed “the exercise of… reason,” (56) then they could not indeed be considered virtuous or free.
In conclusion, the status of nature in Enlightenment thinking regarding gender was rather unsteady. Nature was used to prop up arguments both for and against feminism, being used to justify both the subservient state of women and the need they had for more liberty and respect. The ultimate contribution of Enlightenment thinking to the state of women, however, was not in its views on gender or on male-female relationships. The contribution for which this era and even its more misogynistic thinkers must be thanked by modern womens rights movements is that they created the very concept of individual rights and liberties based on the natural reason of mankind. It was the role which nature played in the understanding of rights and liberties which eventually led to the idea that women, too, had natural rights. This understanding, which was voiced early on by Wollenscraft and de Gouges, is what would truly inspire later generation.
Bibliography de Gouges, Olympe. “The Declaration of the Rights of Women.” in: SOURCE. pgs 124-128
Schiebinger, Londa. The Mind has No Sex. Harvard University Press: Cambrige, 1989.
Wollenscraft, Mary. “Women and the Rights of Man. In: SOURCE..