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Women’s Role in World Literature of Enlightenment Essay

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Updated: Aug 30th, 2021

Conventional wisdom has presented the Enlightenment Period as a watershed in artistic and intellectual development, marking the beginnings οf the ‘modern,’ in terms οf cultural views and practices. For women, particularly, this period was even more liberating than to men. Great advances were made in art and literature for women, and finally after years οf oppression, the female voice was to be heard. Did women have a Renaissance?

Literature reflects not only the author’s thoughts, but also the society in which the author lived. A close study οf the lives οf women in literature οf the pre-modern world shows they suffered from increasingly repressive social constraints. In early societies, women bore children, cared for the home and helped maintain the family’s economic production. Men hunted, made war, assumed primary responsibility for the family’s economic welfare.

The patriarch figure Orgon in Tartuffe is a good example οf how the Father οf the house has absolute power and is a basic belief οf the Enlightenment Era. Male dominance was important from the time οf the earliest written historical records, probably as a result οf men’s discovery οf their role in hunting and warfare as activities necessary for existence. The belief that women were naturally weaker and inferior to men was also certified by god-centered religions. In the Bible, God placed Eve under Adam’s authority, and Paul urged women to be submissive to their husbands. In Hinduism, the reward οf a proper woman is rebirth as a man, ancient Chinese women were considered to be the property οf their fathers or husbands and in Japan, women were dressing in men’s clothing in order to obtain the same benefits as men (Reece).

In most traditional societies, women generally were at a disadvantage. Their education was limited to learning domestic skills, and they had no access to positions οf power. The Enlightenment, with its egalitarian political importance, provided a favorable climate for the rise οf feminism in the 17th and 18th centuries, and many extraordinary women from all walks οf life found ways to exercise their powers and leave records οf their brilliance.

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz is best known as a major Baroque literary figure οf Mexico. However, her insatiable desire to understand everything around her, combined with her reading οf classical philosophy with her advocation οf the educational rights οf women mark her as a philosopher as well. Juana grew up knowing full well the educational restraints put on girls in Mexico schools, having to educate herself in her Grandfather’s library. She passionately pleas for the opportunities for girls to be educated as equally as boys in her letter, Reply to Sor Filotea de la Cruz.

Oh, how much harm would be avoided in our country if older women were as learned as Leta and knew how to instruct in the way Saint Paul and my Father, Saint Jerome. And failing this, and because οf the considerable idleness to which our poor women have been relegated, if a father desires to provide his daughters with more than ordinary learning, he is forced by necessity, and by the absence οf wise elder women, to bring men to teach the skills οf reading, writing, counting, the playing οf musical instruments, and other accomplishments, from which no little harm results, as is experienced every day in doleful examples οf perilous association, because through the immediacy οf contact and the intimacy born from the passage οf time, what one may never have thought possible is easily accomplished (de la Cruz 423).

Juana uses historical and biblical references, inferences to Saints and concise logic to powerfully support her position. Her style οf writing leaves the reader with the belief that this is a woman made to think. This remarkable woman who complained οf a lack οf education, accumulated a library with four thousand books and she lead the dramatic and musical education οf the girls who studied at the convent, composing plays and music for them to perform. She reigned over a salon in Mexico City, frequented by the intellectual and political elite οf her era. She also gave counsel to her sister nuns, and adjudicated disputes. In the same decade that Sor Juana was hotly defending a woman’s right to an education and intellectual prowess in Reply to Sor Filotea de la Cruz in Mexico, England’s Mary Astell wrote her argument for the education οf women.

After a full-scale civil war and the beheading οf Charles I, an egalitarian ideology allowed for thoughts οf more revolutionary ideas. The Restoration Period spawned intellectual projects for women. Mary Astell laid out the plan for education women in A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, her first published work which catapulted her to fame as a woman’s advocated in her day. Astell’s Serious Proposal appears in 1694, at a time when the misogynists were still active and when the market in profeminine conduct books had been thriving.

This pamphlet proposes the founding οf an academy οf religious retreat for ladies only, where women could improve their minds through philosophical self-reflection. Astell believes that women would be better off sequestered for their learning to separate from the lewd male world that trivializes them. Astell repeatedly opposes the claim that women are naturally ignorant. “‘To believe this claim,’ she states at one point, ‘is to argue lack the souls which would allow them to develop intellectual agility; and to deny women souls,’ she concludes, ‘wou’d be as unphilosophical as it is unmannerly’” (Deluna 236-237).

Astell models her pamphlet to the day’s conduct-book conventions in order to engage a female audience, which has been exposed to and influenced by such literature. After her Serious Proposal is rejected for seeming to be “too Catholic” by English readers, Astell goes on to write Some Reflections Upon Marriage. She argues, much as Sor Juana does, for the scriptural support οf women’s education.

Another female reformer who sought educational refuge οf the church was Mary Ward. Ward lived an exciting life, sometimes even dangerous, being hunted by the English government in London as a Catholic subversive and also imprisoned in Germany by the Catholic Church itself. She was in ill-health most οf her life, yet still had incredible strength to fight for her cause οf educating women. Ward and her aides would hold open house to recruit new students for their school, right under the noses οf the English government who found their activities, “subversive” (Fraser 16). Mary Ward opened convents and schools as far apart as Liege and Colonge, Vienna and Prague, Rome and Naples. Above all education, and the need for education in women if they were to perform God’s work, aroused Ward’s dedication.

Aphra Behn became one οf the first female writers who actually made a living as a writer. After the passing οf her husband, she became a playwright in order to make money. She used the stage as a vehicle for advertising women’s gifts. She used her dramas to break down the conventions that deprived women οf their rights in the late 17th century.

In the literary marketplace, more and more women were beginning to make their way as professional writers; one οf these women was Mary Wollestonecraft. Wollestonecraft ran a school for girls, and in order to obtain more teaching materials, she gathered anthologies to teach language and morals to young girls. Later, she became a professional writer in London, where she authored eleven works, one being a political vindication οf human rights, A Vindication οf the Rights οf Women.

Wollestonecraft explains the ways in which denying serious education to women hurts both sexes and undermines society, arguing that gaining the right for women to be educated would make women be fit companions for men and have a chance to become equally accomplished intellectually. Though she makes her case for women’s rights passionately, Wollestonecraft nevertheless provides a clear analysis οf the problems facing women at that period in history, refuting such traditional views as those οf John Milton, who held that women were designed to manifest their attractions in order to gratify the senses οf men while docilely obeying them.

She states that the women’s minds are not in a “healthy state: for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity” (Wollstonecraft introduction 1) Wollstonecraft’s straight forward approach appeals directly to women, treating them as rational creatures, rather than a child, asking them to acquire strength both οf mind and body and abolish the conceived feminine traits encouraged by men.

Works Cited

Aphra Behn, (1640-1689).” Sunshine For Women. 2001. Web.

De La Cruz, Sor Juana Ines. “Reply to Sor Filotea De La Cruz.” The Norton Anthology οf World Literature. 2nd Ed. Ed. Sarah Lawall. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002. 403-430.

Deluna, D.N. “Mary Astell: England’s First Feminist Literary Critic.” Women’s Studies Volume 22, Issue 2. 1993: 233. Web.

Fraser, Antonia. “Mary Ward, a 17th Century Reformer.” History Today Volume 31 Issue. 1981: 14. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Weatherford.

Reece, Lyn. “Gender Difference in History Women in China and Japan.” Teaching.

Wollstonecraft and the Quakers.” Women’s Studies. Volume 22, Issue 3. 1993: 281. Web.

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