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Achieving Gender Equality 18th Century Style

Monday, February 15, 2021 - 07:00

Certain cycles of thought around gender and sexuality seem to recur across history, and different themes sometimes recur in conjunction. Binhammer's study of early feminist thought of the 1790s -- the era of Wolstonecraft's A VIndication of the Rights of Women among other texts -- addressed the question of women's sexuality, and how it seemed to parallel some of the feminist "sex wars" of the later 20th century in fascinating ways. But the most fascinating conclusion (at least, as I synthesize it) is that the main thrust of these radical English proto-feminists boils down to "women can only achieve equality if we can erase gender from human interactions, but the gender we need to erase is 'female'." Much like attitudes toward masculine and feminine under the earlier "one sex" approach to gender, these 18th century feminists coded undesirable traits as feminine and desirable ones as masculine. Thus for a woman to be self-actualized and admirable, she must "become a man" in everything but her sexuality.

It would be easy to deride such views as unenlightened. To note that true gender equality comes from ceasing to assign essential gender to specific personality traits or behaviors. And yet, it's a trap that feminism has fallen into again and again. Another trap we se recurring across centuries of feminist movements is a capitulation to respectability politics. The 1790s feminists dove into the rising tide of bourgeois domestic respectability, either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that "domestic respectability" was the enemy of gender equality. (Nor did embracing domestic virtue as a beacon save them from being derided as sexually undesirable or sexually deviant, even as they joined the mobs attacking non-normative sexuality.)

How does this engage with lesbian history? For one, it's part of the creation of the myth of  "sexless" romantic friendship. It points out that there are multiple "lesbian histories" at work in parallel, being assigned to different streams of society and shifting in how they are judged. When creating historic characters, one shouldn't assume that a woman who rejects feminine norms and restrictions will inherently embrace homoerotic desire. At the same time, the character who "isn't like other girls,"  who rejects traditional femininity as a sign of her rebellion against social norms, and who adopts performative masculinity as a path to personal achivement is very much a part of the fabric of history, even though she sometimes feels anti-feminist to a modern reader. (I'm suddenly getting a character sketch in my head of a wild-eyed radical 1790s feminist being chided by an older woman, "It sounds like you don't actually like women very much, my dear!")

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Binhammer, Katherine. 2002. "Thinking Gender with Sexuality in 1790s' Feminist Thought" in Feminist Studies vol 28, no 3. pp. 667-690

Using the springboard of theoretical discourse around feminism and sexuality around the 1980s, Binhammer uses proto-feminist literature of the later 18th century as a lens for how theories of feminism and theories of sexuality intersect and come into conflict. The focus of 1980s feminist rhetoric narrowly on (heterosexual) sexual dynamics as a source of oppression, contributed to the rise of queer theory as the more dynamic field for examining theories of sexuality. But that pendulum-swing in turn led to queer theory discounting the importance of gender within theories of sexuality, and the relevance of how gendered bodies affect sexuality.

Having used more recent debates as a springing-off point, Binhammer turns to the ways gender and sexuality were handled in 1790s feminist literature by authors such as Wollstonecraft, Hays, Macaulay, Robinson, and Wakefield. A key theme of these writers was that “the mind has no gender” and that the supposed differences between the sexes were purely (or at least primarily) social custom and not rooted in biological fact. But the ways in which these principles were argued betrayed underlying assumptions about gender and sexuality that the authors were not equipped to recognize or challenge, especially given the socio-political context in which they arose.

[Note: I’m going to toss in a spoiler at this point, to make sure I don’t forget the thought. Binhammer’s conclusions—though she doesn’t phrase it in these words—is that “the mind has no gender, but the gender that it doesn’t have is ‘female’,.” And although these feminists argued for the right of women to embrace their sexuality, the sexuality they were supposed to embrace was heterosexual procreation within marriage. Equality of the sexes meant the right and responsibility for both men and women to be ‘masculine’ as understood at the time. Undesirable mental and  moral traits were labeled “feminine” with no apparent self-awareness of how this undermined the feminist program.]

There were two key social factors that shaped this particular approach to feminism. During the 18th century, there had been a conceptual shift from viewing male and female as relative positions on a sliding scale (the “one sex” model) to viewing male and female as distinct and complementary (the “two sex” model). This raised the question “what did it mean to be a woman, now that she wasn’t simply a ‘lesser man’?” That is, having concluded that women were a “separate species” it was necessary to define what the characteristics of that species were. Having experienced a period of defining “women’s nature,” the 1790s feminists were now challenging the premises and conclusions of that definition.

The second factor was a disillusionment among the intellectual middle class (which was also the class rising in political importance) with the libertine sexuality of the aristocracy. Here Binhammer points out some significant parallels with 1980s feminism. The 18th century feminists are often critiqued, in retrospect, for having conservative anti-sex attitudes that led to the sexual repression attributed to the Victorian era. (Cf., the “sex wars” of later 20th century feminism.)

But Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries were not simplistically “anti-sex.” They were trying to re-envision an empowered feminist sexuality that challenged the embedded misogyny of their times. But they did so in ways that could not escape being strongly gendered. Criticism of 1790s feminists as being “hostile to the desiring female body” overlooks the extensive body of literature they wrote (and lives they lived) in which sympathetic women who embraced sexual desire (and especially sexual desire outside conventional marriage) were unjustly punished, ostracized, or doomed by the unequal status of women under the law, and the unequal judgement of society.

From this arose a critique of both gender and sexuality founded on the following premises. Male sexual appetite (portrayed almost exclusively as aristocratic) was a form of tyranny that had as a goal keeping women in a state of ignorance and helplessness. So long as libertine male sexual appetite is the ruling force in social relations, women’s survival depends on the skills of seduction and attractiveness, rather than cultivation of the mind and spirit. This not only makes women weak with respect to their own lives, but makes them ill-suited to be competent mothers and wives, contributing to the degradation of society in general.

Class politics were as much a force as gender politics in this rhetoric, and to some extent the 1790s feminists were piggy-backing on the revolutionary, anti-aristocratic political movements of the time. By assigning sexual tyranny specifically to aristocratic men [note: and dodging the reality that their revolutionary brothers-in-arms were equally at fault] they argued for the moral superiority of women, and specifically of bourgeois women.

This is one point where the philosophical structure becomes contradictory. “the mind has no gender” and yet women were considered innately more modest than men, by which they meant not that they were devoid of sexual desire, but that women were inherently more able to manage and control their sexual desires. And that this difference arose out of innate differences in the personalities of men and women. As Robinson wrote, “the passions of men originate in sensuality those of women, in sentiment: man loves corporeally, women mentally.” While it’s easy to see how this could be read by modern theorists as being “anti-sex”, the dynamic it arose from is more complicated and has to do with what 1790s feminists meant by “de-sexing” or “un-sexing” women.

By “de-sexing” they mean removing those elements traditionally assigned as “feminine” from the definition of womanhood. Removing the burden of sexual servitude to men and the focus on being sexually attractive, rather than allowing women to exist as rational beings equal to men. When the contemporary critics of thee feminists called them “unsexed,” they meant a variety of things, including “over-sexed, devoted to excessive (heterosexual) desire.” For critics like Richard Polwhele, educated women were to be derided for excess sexuality, not for the prudery they were later accused of.

For Wollstonecraft, in contrast, “unsexed” meant the absence of specific gendered qualities, but only in the context of the mind, not the body. The 1790s feminists did not envision a lack of physical distinction between men and women, nor did they reject the idea that woman’s appropriate goal was motherhood. Indeed, they embraced the idea that the ideal mother would be an “unsexed” woman whose education and virtue, being equal to men, made her better equipped to raise educated and virtuous children. Strip away the expectation for women to exist for the sexual convenience of men and they will naturally live chaste, monogamous lives.

Thus, the arguments these feminists made for women’s intellectual equality revolved around the goal of domestic virtue within marriage, rather than the goal of individual self-realization and independence for women. (“Independence” for women was associated with libertinism or prostitution and thus was suspect.) Once men and women were intellectual equals, sexuality would be governed solely by reason, not by sensuality. And reason, in their minds, dictated that the purpose of sexuality was reproduction. Nature had designed humans to take enjoyment in sex, but only for that eventual purpose.

Non-reproductive sexuality, they reasoned, resulted in a weakened body as well as weak morals. This necessarily denied the acceptability of a wide range of non-reproductive sexual practices that had previously been part of social strategies for family planning that did not require the denial of sexual desire. Those were now recategorized as inherently perverse. Within this philosophy, celibacy held a questionable place, in part motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment.

In dealing with the question of the appropriate relationship to sexuality, the 1790s feminists re-gendered the mind. Male sexuality was the deprecated libertine sensuality, female sexuality was the rational pursuit of healthy reproduction. But this was not the only way in which minds were re-gendered via the consequences of feminist philosophy. This is apparent in how differently the concepts of “masculine women” and “feminine men” were treated.

To the 1790s feminists, a “masculine” woman was not the perversely mannish sexual deviant who shows up in such fictions as Sir Charles Grandison or Belinda. She was the woman who, as Hays writes, “emulates those virtues and accomplishments, which as common to human nature, are common to both sexes.” [Note: Or, to paraphrase a more contemporary comment about feminism, “when they act like human beings, they’re defined as being men.”]  Certain male-coded behaviors in women, such as a fondness for hunting and sport, were considered symptoms of deviant sexuality—an association that had developed gradually during the 18th century and supplanted an earlier less sexualized and more tolerant attitude toward “mannish” women.

For a woman “being feminine” should be a temporary, situational state, only engaged in for licit sexual purposes. The rest of the time, she should be masculine in the virtuous sense. “Being a woman” was a procreative function, not a stable identity.

The association of femininity with undesirable uncontrolled sexuality could then be turned around and assigned to men engaged in libertine, non-reproductive sexual promiscuity, even those who engaged in it only with women, but especially those men who engaged in sex with men. Having sex with men did not make a man effeminate, rather it was an inherent (undesirable) femininity that caused him to desire sex with men (among other things).

This alignment of how attributes are gendered male or female creates the apparently contradictory picture of “feminists” who argued for the rights of women but considered femaleness inherently bad and maleness inherently good. Women were to be liberated from gendered oppression by “becoming men,” not by removing any of the social stigma associated with being women.

Binhammer concludes by returning to the question of the consequences of a theory of feminism that does not include sexuality, and a theory of sexuality that does not critique gender. In focusing purely on liberating women from gender constraints, the 1790s feminists imposed equally oppressive constraints on sexuality. Not an entire rejection of sexuality, but one that served a highly specific bourgeois social ideology that itself remained hostile to women’s equality.

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