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Richard Desjardins
Prof. Cooke-Cornell
English 130
6 February 2015
Womens Rights During the Enlightenment
From the mid 17th century to the late 18th century men searched for answers
through reason, science, and intellectual thinking. During the Enlightenment, thinkers
also constantly challenged the authority of organizations such as the Catholic Church.
These thinkers emphasized individualism. Immanuel Kant believed there are only a few
men who walk firmly, and who have emerged from nonage by cultivating their own
minds (Kant 3). Nonage is the idea in which people or guardians make the decisions
for others who are not mature enough to make them on their own. Kants and other
Enlightenment thinkers ideas revolved around mens role in society and not womens.
Mary Wollstonecraft saw this flaw and addressed the issue in her essay A Vindication of
the Rights of Women (1792). Her argument for women to break away from obedience to
men and become independent thinkers is built upon Immanuel Kants ideas about
Kant believed that nonage was self-inflicted and the only way to break free was
for a person to use his own reasoning. He gave the Enlightenment the motto have the
courage to use your own understanding (Kant 1) to accentuate the idea that they must
use their own mind to make personal decisions. According to Wollstonecraft, Women
are told from their infancy [. . .] that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed
cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile

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kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man (Wollstonecraft 2). Women
were taught from their birth that they needed to be obedient towards men and all they
needed was a pretty face. These thoughts were instilled into their minds since day one,
putting women deeper and deeper into nonage. Some may say that this is not selfimposing nonage because men were a huge factor in it; however, it is. Even though
women were brainwashed, it only takes one thought, one idea, or one question to start the
process of breaking out. They just needed to show the courage to know more and ask
why they had to be obedient. Wollstonecraft knew that this was an issue and wrote, if
then women do not resign the arbitrary power of beautythey will prove that they have
less mind than man (Wollstonecraft 11). All women need is the courage to develop their
minds and they will finally be free from obedience.
Men during the Enlightenment era tried to keep women submissive towards them.
Kant writes, Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to
it that the overwhelming majority of mankind--among them the entire fair sex--should
consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous (Kant 2). The
guardians that Kant says try to keep men in a state of immaturity by making them believe
that its hard to take care of themselves. Men were the guardians towards women during
the enlightenment. Wollstonecraft knew that men manipulated womens thoughts and
made them believe that they needed to be obedient to gain the protection from a man. She
discovered how women were being stepped on and wrote, Men, indeed, appear to me to
act in a very unphilosophical manner when they try to secure the good conduct of women
by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood (Wollstonecraft 4). Men
scrutinize how women are less powerful and intellectually sound than them, but they

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want to keep women stuck in this utterly unfair position. Wollstonecraft believed that
men keeping women in this state of nonage was wrong and noted, if they are really
capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves; or, like the
brutes who are dependent on the reason of man (Wollstonecraft 64).
Women needed to start questioning the things men did and start using their minds
freely. Women would be, either the friend or slave of man (Wollstonecraft 61) and to
become a friend of man, women must break free of nonage and develop their own minds.
Wollstonecraft believed the woman who strengthens her body and exercises her mind
will, by managing her family and practicing various virtues, become the friend, and not
the humble dependent of her husband (Wollstonecraft 41). Most women during the
Enlightenment didnt understand that they were stuck in nonage. Women had the ability
to exercise their minds when they were brainwashed. It was the factor of if women
wanted to put in the effort and question men to break out of nonage so they did not have
to be a slave anymore. Kant wrote, it is very difficult for the individual to work himself
out of the nonage which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to
like it (Kant 3). Being taught from childbirth to be obedient towards men is hard to
break away from. However, Kant also noted, Once [] men have thrown off the yoke
of nonage, they will spread about them the spirit of a reasonable appreciation of man's
value and of his duty to think for himself (Kant 4). It only takes one. The one woman
that will cultivate her own mind and spread her ideas throughout the population will be
the key for women to break free from their obligatory obedience towards men.
Wollstonecraft was the woman who used Kant as a basis of her ideas and started a

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Word choice can be extremely powerful. In the skit Whos on First, by Abbott
and Costello, words can confuse one another. No matter how simple the words may be
they can still be confusing. In this skit Abbott tries to tell Costello the starting roster for a
baseball team. The names of the players are names that are normally words that are used
in questions to find things out. For example, who, what, and I dont know. When Abbott
said that Who was on first Costello asked who is on first. Abbott was able to manipulate
his mind because who is normally not a name. The power of words is immense and
manipulative. Wollstonecraft saw how men use words to make women inferior to them
but they ridicule them for being lesser than men. Wollstonecraft writes, from Rousseau
to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than
they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society
[] to degrade one half of the human species, and render women pleasing at the expense
of every solid virtue. (Wollstonecraft 12). Wollstonecraft notices male Enlightenment
thinkers degrading women by using a complex language. These male figures are using
their ability to use words to manipulate females minds and make them seem stupid just
like Abbott did to Costello.

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Works Cited
"Abbott & Costello Who's On First." Online Video Clip. YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web.
06 Feb. 2015.
Kant, Immanuel. What Is Enlightenment? Columbia University, n.d. Web. 4 February
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Bartleby, n.d. Web. 4
February 2015.