The Enlightenment may be termed both a period and a process.
Periodically, it spanned the mid-seventeenth to early-nineteenth centuries and,
simultaneously, it describes a process undergone by man to employ his own
understanding. At the fount of Enlightenment thought was an emphasis on the independent
use of reason. In line with the concept of a great Chain of Being, the
prevailing view was that man had a capacity for rational thought and could
exert moral autonomy, differentiating himself from the instinct and emotion-led
level of the animal. Enlightenment ideals included reason, self-control, modesty
and virtue. Regarded as divine attributes granted to ease man’s struggle to
achieve perfection; one may ascertain that these values were intended for all people
to appreciate. Attaining an enlightened state required freedom of thought and
expression, as asserted by Kant “All that is needed is freedom”.1 However, the question remains
of whether Enlightenment principles were freely available? This essay shall
focus on the role played by gender in
determining access to Enlightenment modes of thinking. The most established
viewpoint throughout the Enlightenment era was that women were both physically
and intellectually inferior to men. Whilst men endeavoured to deepen their
powers of reason and judiciousness, women remained represented solely by feelings
and assumptions. Two significant Enlightenment texts, Voltaire’s Candide and Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, serve
to emphasise the extent to which the characteristics of Enlightenment thought
remained elusive for women. The French Revolution initiated the formation of an eighteenth-century
intelligentsia, who made the first attempts to understand and evaluate the
relations between men and women.2 As a member of this group,
Voltaire challenged the alleged superiority of the male sex, maintaining that there
was little difference in mental ability between the sexes, “women are capable
of all that (men) are”.3 His novel Candide is well-known for its scathing
satire of optimism, however it also offers a platform for Voltaire to proclaim
his views on the conflict between Enlightenment ideals and gender. Subverting the
popular idea that behavioural traits were founded upon biological sex; the text’s
protagonists, Candide and Cunégonde, exhibit a wide range of male and female
attributes. Candide is naïve and sincere, whilst Cunégonde is contrastingly assertive
and aggressive. Indeed it is she who first seduces Candide, “Cunégonde dropped
her handkerchief, Candide picked it up. Innocently she took his hand”.4 As their story progresses,
Voltaire highlights the uniformity of human nature by depicting a variety of
characters- male and female, young and old- all of whom suffer together at the
hands of fate.  Furthermore, Candide allows Voltaire
to convey disgust toward the sexual and economic oppression of women.5 This is most evident in
the instance when Paquette bemoans the brutalities of prostitution, “Oh, sir if you could imagine what it’s like
having to caress just anybody… to be exposed to all manner of insult and
degradation…I am one of the unhappiest and most unfortunate creatures alive”.6 She is defined as
a sexual object, designed to satisfy male desires and her abilities to think in
a reasonable manner or exert self-autonomy are non-existent. Through the
exploitation of Paquette’s character, reduced to a sexualised and
instinct-driven state, Voltaire underlines how Enlightenment values were
inaccessible for women. Throughout Candide, Voltaire
suggests that men and women are equally dependent on one another for fulfilment,
as shown by Candide’s persistent search for Cunégonde. The interdependence of
the two genders challenges the view that women were heavily reliant on the
superiority of men. This viewpoint is torn asunder in the final chapter, when
Candide affirms that “We must cultivate our garden”.7 In Candide’s cooperative
community, the women become active participants, transcending their previous
roles as objects of male lust and victims of rape.8 Although they are engaged
in domestic duties, their drudgery is no worse than that of their male
counterparts, who labour also.9 The transformation of
Cunégonde’s character, from a woman of beauty to physical disfigurement, is
significant in conveying Voltaire’s social message. In the end, the garden
affords her the opportunity to become accepted, not because of  charm or attraction, but due to her
productivity and willingness to cooperate.10 Both Cunégonde and the
old women move from being viewed in sexual terms to individuals esteemed for
the quality of their work.11 Their partnership with
Candide, no longer as subordinates but instead imbued with respect, accentuates
Voltaire’s critique of the Enlightenment ideology that women should always be
relegated to the level of pawn rather than partner. The late 1750s to early 1800s bore witness to a shift in the
intellectual advancement of women. In Britain, this tilting viewpoint was
spurred on by the establishment of female literary circles, such as the
Bluestockings, who offered women an opportunity to reconsider their gender in
terms of a collective female identity.12 Although the Bluestockings
were relatively conservative and not explicitly political, they galvanised the
likes of Catherine Macaulay and Mary Wollstonecraft to initiate important debate
on the availability of Enlightenment ideals for women. Both Macaulay’s Letters on Education and Wollstonecraft’s
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman make
a strong case for the furtherance of female education. Macaulay broached the
topic in connection with her ardent republicanism, joining the dots between
gender-neutral education and how this could be used to benefit the public
sphere.13 Wollstonecraft cared less
about a political agenda and concentrated more on changing the opinions of men
towards women. Therefore, this essay shall focus on the influence of Wollstonecraft’s
Vindication on expanding the
availability of Enlightenment ideals, whilst prompting women to recognise the
ways in which they could come to appreciate Enlightenment modes of thought. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has been labelled “A founding manifesto
in Western feminist theory”.14 Within it, Wollstonecraft
strives to show that Enlightenment values were free for all to appreciate and
describes the manner in which these ideals should become available to women. At
the heart of her argument is the belief that men and women were born with an
innate capacity to reason and that this rational ability was granted by God, in
order for human beings to perfect themselves.15 Wollstonecraft’s stance
is founded upon the Lockean tenet of the “tabula rasa”- that social and
environmental influences, rather than defects based on biological sex, moulded
women into subordinate creatures.16 In her eyes, the notion
of a just God who would create woman and, thereafter, deny her the capacity to
acquire reason, a trait which allows the attainment of virtue, is an
inconceivable one.17 She asserts that woman
stand alongside man, ranked above the level of the beast, as decided by God
alone. Wollstonecraft decries man for his natural superiority, questioning “Who
made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?”.18 Affirming that
Enlightenment ideals should be made available to all, regardless of gender, she
emphasises the non-distinction between the rational capacities of men and women. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication
offers a launch pad from which to attack Enlightenment thinkers who promoted
female inferiority. Her focus rests mainly on refuting Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s contention
that a woman’s value was measured in terms of sexual allure; a viewpoint which
led women to believe that they were incapable of reasonable thought. Wollstonecraft
lambasts this, “All the writers that have written on the subject of female
education and manners…have contributed to render women more artificial, weak
characters than they would otherwise have been”.19 In a direct address to
leading male philosophers, Wollstonecraft asserts that the continuous
confinement of women to the private sphere, hidden from politics or participation
in public discourse, inevitably renders them slaves to male desire. Women
cannot recognise their intrinsic abilities to indulge in Enlightenment ideals,
simply because they are destined to be “the galling yoke of sovereign man”.20  The argument that Enlightenment ideals should be free for all to
appreciate is further strengthened by Wollstonecraft’s conviction that domestic
duties, motherhood and reason are not mutually exclusive. She emphasises that,
to be good mothers, women must exert independent thought, “Reason is absolutely
necessary to enable a woman to perform any duty properly”.21 Dismissing that marriage
is the sole factor necessary for female fulfilment, Wollstonecraft argues that
women should be viewed as marital partners rather than puppets: Nay, marriage will never be sacred till women, by being brought up with
men, are prepared to be their companions rather than their mistresses…virtue
will never prevail in society till the virtues of both sexes are founded on
reason.22 Her viewpoint aligns with the picture Voltaire paints of men and women
working together for the common good. Each sex is dependent on the other,
underlining that virtue is bereft of sexual character- it is a human attribute,
a divine gift used in the struggle for advancement and the attainment of
Wollstonecraft emphasises that, for the Enlightenment to succeed in catalysing
social progress, it is necessary for women to abandon “false femininity” in
favour of rationality and self-dependence.24 Having communicated that Enlightenment principles must be free for all
to appreciate, Wollstonecraft continues her Vindication
by demonstrating how these ideals may be made available through gender-neutral
education. The crux of her argument is that women do not lack reason- they  simply have not been afforded the opportunity of
a rational education and the lessons of virtue ensured by this.25 Wollstonecraft stresses
the importance of education, attesting that the woman who employs her own
intellect assumes the power of self-governance, “I do not wish them to have
power over men but over themselves”.26 Education offer a route
for women to acquire mental strength, transforming them from silently
sexualised objects to speaking subjects, unafraid to lend their views to
political and social commentary. By remaining sheltered from the realities of
life and saturated in romantic illusions, Wollstonecraft claims that women become
ignorant and vulnerable. The frailty and wavering opinions carefully nurtured within
them by a patriarchal society act as barriers to their understanding of Enlightenment
ideals. She drives home her opinion that both sexes ought to be co-educated, in
efforts to “shut out gallantry and coquetry.”27 Although critical of
women for their indulgence in frivolity, Wollstonecraft insists that the female
penchant for “coquetry” arises solely from lack of access to a well-rounded
education.  Although it may be argued that women were permitted a degree of independent
thought in certain cases, e.g. in the salon culture of post-Revolution France; one
must bear in mind that such societies welcomed women merely as “civilisers”,
intended to soften the passions of over-excitable men.28 This essay has striven to show that Enlightenment
ideals were intended for all to appreciate, yet they remained unattainable for
members of the female sex. Voltaire’s Candide
and Wollstonecraft’s Vindication each
offer “a bold response to the profound exclusion of women from both the
discourse and practice of Enlightenment philosophy”.29
The texts emphasise the manner in which social distinctions rendered women
creatures of cunning rather than rational beings.30
At the heart of both is the conviction that, without an acknowledgement of
female rationality, the journey towards a wholly enlightened society is
hindered by oppression and power-mongering.

1 Immanuel Kant, “An
Answer to the Question: “What is Enlightenment?””, in Kant’s Political
Writings, ed. Hans Reiss and trans. H. B. Nisbet. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1970), 55.


2 Katherine B. Clinton, “Femme et Philosophe:
Enlightenment Origins of Feminism.” Eighteenth
Century Studies 8, No. 3 (Spring, 1975), 284.

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3 Clinton, Femme
et Philosophe, 288.

4 Voltaire, Candide
and Other Stories, (1759), ed. Roger Pearson. (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2008), 5.

5 Arthur Scherr,
“Voltaire’s Candide: A Tale of Women’s Equality.” Midwest Quarterly 34,
No. 3 (Spring, 1993), 271.

6 Voltaire, Candide,

7 Voltaire, Candide,

8 Scherr, Voltaire’s
Candide, 277.

9 Scherr, Voltaire’s
Candide, 279.

10 Scherr, Voltaire’s Candide,

11 Ibid.

12 Harriet Guest,
“Bluestocking Feminism.” Huntington
Library Quarterly 65, No. 1/2, Reconsidering the Bluestockings (2002), 69.

13 Mary Caputi. “‘The
Manly Virtues’: Macaulay’s Influence, Wollstonecraft’s Legacy,” in Political Ideas of Enlightenment Women:
Virtue and Citizenship, ed. Lisa Curtis-Wendlandt, Paul Gibbard and Karen
Green, (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013), 175.

14 Caputi, The
Manly Virtues, 173.

15 Mary
Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, (1792), ed. Janet
Todd. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), xlv.


16 John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding
(1690), ed. John W. Yolton. (London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1997), 77.


17 Wollstonecraft, Vindication,

18 Wollstonecraft, Vindication,

19 Wollstonecraft, Vindication,

20 Wollstonecraft, Vindication,

21 Wollstonecraft, Vindication,

22 Wollstonecraft, Vindication,

23 Wendy
Gunther-Canada, “The Feminist Author and Women’s Rights,” in Rebel Writer: Mary Wollstonecraft and
Enlightenment Politics. (Illinois: Northern Illinois Press, 2001), 101.


24 Barbara Taylor, “Feminists
versus Gallants: Manners and Morals in Enlightenment Britain,” in Women, Gender and Enlightenment, ed.
Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 52.

25 Gunther-Canada, The Feminist Author and Women’s Rights, 109.


26 Wollstonecraft, Vindication,

27 Wollstonecraft, Vindication,

28 Steven Kale, “Women’s Intellectual Agency in the History of
Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century French Salons,” in Political Ideas of Enlightenment Women: Virtue and Citizenship, ed.
Lisa Curtis-Wendlandt, Paul Gibbard and Karen Green. (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing
Limited, 2013), 127.

29 Gunther-Canada, The Feminist Author and Women’s Rights,

30 Gunther-Canada, The Feminist Author and Women’s Rights,

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