“Wollstonecraft and Gouges on the Women’s Revolution”
By Alan Coffee (Kings’ College London, Philosophy) & Sandrine Berges (Bilkent, Philosophy)
Date: Thursday 26 April, 2018
Abstract: In her Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution,Wollstonecraft presents a view of the course of the events that lead to the Terror as the inevitable outcome of first inequality and then the oppression and prejudice that invariably followed. While she regards the revolution as justified she is conflicted about the course it must take. In principle a gradual revolution is needed because people have time to adjust themselves, internalising new principles, shedding old prejudices and adopting new virtues. But such a revolution can never happen because the elites who got the country into this mess are both intellectually and morally incapable of giving up their privilege, even when this eventually goes against their interest. In the end, the chaos becomes unstoppable and in the power vacuum it is small-minded petty self-interested individuals who are the chief obstacle to progress and peace. These are the cocks on their dunghills. An interesting parallel that emerges from reading Wollstonecraft’s history is the light that it sheds on the other revolution that she writes about – the women’s revolution.
A Revolution in manners requires a close look at the place women actually occupy in society, that we which they are said to occupy, and that which they could and should occupy given the right reforms. This is why Olympe de Gouges, philosopher of the French Revolution, looked at women’s place in society at three levels, natural, social and political. When Wollstonecraft says that there must be a revolution in female manners, she means, of course, not only that women should stop acting like precious imbeciles, but that men should stop treating them as such. What Gouges is doing in her early political writings, is to show that women are already manifesting the sort of virtues and behaviour that the republic needs, but that these virtues and behaviour are obscured both by the representation (or non-representation) or women’s role in primitive society and contemporary culture, and by the tendency of newly freed men to turn into petty tyrants.