Uniquely human: the basis of human rights



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Pre-modern sexual relations

It would be impossible in a single book, let alone a chapter of a book, to provide a coherent and detailed history of sexual relations. What follows are some representative figures and an analysis of some issues that embody the theme of how to reconcile sameness and difference. I draw a somewhat arbitrary line between pre-modern and modern in the late eighteenth century. It is at that point that the relation between the sexes becomes thematized as a problem, and women’s voices are heard in increasing numbers.

Women historians and anthropologists in recent decades have been digging at pre-historic evidence. It seems likely from what can be pieced together that women were in the ascendancy over men. “Only women could produce new life, and they were revered accordingly; all the power of nature, and over nature, was theirs.”382 The awe at women was no doubt mixed with fear and to this day men sense at some level of consciousness that women are in touch with the forces of life, a power that can frighten men.

For a long time the role of men in the generating of a child was overlooked. Then, history’s most spectacular reversal occurred. Men discovered that they had a part in producing children. From that fact they used their “brute” strength to decree that women’s part in the birth process is insignificant. The Greek dramatist Aeschylus (524-456 B.C.E) articulated the ideology that would take hold in the West. The “Judgment of Apollo” at the climax of The Eumenides is that “the mother is not the parent of that which is called her child: but only nurse of the newly planted seed that grows. The parent is he who mounts.” 383

Aristotle. (384-322 B.C.E.) Despite his brilliance and insight as a scientist, Aristotle was sadly deficient in what he had to say about women. Some of it can be excused because he was working with the assumptions of his day but one might expect a great scientist to transcend the common thought patterns of the time. He may have been the first but he was by no means the last of scientific men whose views of women have turned out to be prejudices masquerading as science.

Aristotle’s great breakthrough in philosophical theory was to explain physical change by a duality of components in each individual thing. When change occurs, it is the relation that changes; the material element remains but it now has a different form. He applied the theory of form and matter at several levels. A “substance” might remain even as there is “accidental” change. Most generally, the theory recognizes an active and a passive element in every being. Aristotle called the active element in animals, including humans, the soul.

In his study of animals, Aristotle concluded that the female was an infertile male, incapable of producing semen (the “seed” of life).384 If one applies that to the human animal, the woman provided the matter; the man produced the soul that gives form to a human being. Carolyn Whitbeck calls this the “flower pot theory of pregnancy.”385 Even today, to mother a child means caring for an infant; to father a child mean to impregnate.386 If something went wrong with the pregnancy, it was the woman’s fault for not providing the proper receptacle. Aristotle was on the right track in positing an active and a passive element; but within the terms of his own philosophy, the active and the passive should not have been assigned to each sex separately.

In his Politics, Aristotle looks directly at human life, community and forms of government. He declares that the fundamental form of community, the family, is constituted by three relations: master-slave, husband-wife, father-child. In his description that follows, the master-slave relation receives the most attention. What he says of human slaves is shocking to modern ears; it bears testimony to how even brilliant people can look at the world and see the current state of things as the ways things have always been and must be. Interestingly, his discussions of slavery and women do not overlap though there were women slaves as well as men slaves.387 He does note that “the poor are obliged to employ their wives and children in servile offices for want of slaves.”388

Aristotle’s discussion of women and family is remarkably brief. He apparently thought that there is not much to explain. After commenting upon the taming of animals and the relation of slaves to their masters, he wraps up the relation of husband and wife in these words: “So it is naturally with the male and the female; the one is superior, the other inferior; the one governs, the other is governed; and the same rule must necessarily hold good with respect to all mankind.”389 What was evident to a man in the Athens of fourth century BCE is assumed to “necessarily hold good with respect to all mankind.”

Plato (428-348 B.C.E.). Alfred North Whitehead famously said that all of European philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato.390 That is surely debatable but no one doubts that Plato left an enduring mark in the history of human thought. Plato’s views are expressed through dialogues, myths and parables. What Plato himself thought cannot be directly lifted from the printed page.

The Republic is widely considered one of the greatest works in the history of philosophy. Plato offers a plan for an ideal society composed of three classes. The upper class, concerned with politics and military force, are called guardians. In stating the requirements to be a guardian, Plato poses the question of how men and women differ. He answers that question by offering that “the only difference apparent between them is that the female bears and the male begets.”391 Plato concludes that a woman’s difference from a man should not disqualify her from the guardian class.

Plato never indicates whether the actual number of women guardians would be more than a token. He sometimes seems to forget his assumption that women will be guardians when he refers, for example, to the “guardians’ wives” or to a “community of women and children.” Was he playing with his own idea that women and men are essentially the same or did his radical thinking simply outstrip the language of his time?

The main problem with Plato as a proto-feminist is that while some women may be guardians the rest of the women, presumably the great majority, do not seem to have their lives improved. That is especially true of the nurses who are assigned the task of raising the next generations of guardians. Pregnancy in the guardian class is closely regulated by having only the best men mate with the best women. Abortion and infanticide seem to be implied as a quality control. Almost nothing is said about the education and living conditions of the women who have the important work of child-rearing.

While the Republic is read as emphasizing the sameness of men and women, Plato’s Symposium tells a different story. In this dialogue the myth of the androgyne is presented by Plato. It is recounted in the text by Aristophanes in these words: “Originally there were three sexes: man, woman and the union of the two. The primeval man was round, one head with two faces looking in opposite ways…Terrible was their might and they made attack upon the gods. After a celestial council, Zeus said: ‘Methinks I have a plan which will enfeeble their strength…I will cut them in two and they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers.” Zeus cut them in two, “like an apple which is halved for pickling or as you might divide an egg with a hair. Zeus turned their parts of generation round to the front…and they sowed their seed in one another….Each of us when separated, having one side only like a flat fish, is but the tally-half of a man, and he is always looking for his other half….When one of them meets his other half, the actual half of himself…the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy.”392

Plato was tapping into a nearly universal experience of duality, including the inability to control our own emotions. The androgynous myth speaks to anyone who has fallen in love. The feeling is that of finding what one was lacking, the completion of one’s being. The two lovers are impelled to embrace and form a new unity. Because there were three original sexes the story encompasses both gay and lesbian love as well as heterosexual relations. In recent history, Carl Jung made an explicit use of the androgynous myth in describing masculine and feminine principles within each person. Jungians defend the language but it easily lends itself to a dualism of male and female which is bad enough in psychology but disastrous for politics.393

Early Modern Writing on the Sexes

A woman’s movement in the nineteenth century was ignited by two books in the late eighteenth century: Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1762 and a direct rejoinder to Rousseau by Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1794. The two works exemplify the contrasting strands of a woman’s movement in the nineteenth century and the women’s movement of the twentieth century.



Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Rousseau is often referred to as the first modern man; he embodies all the contradictions that are found in the modern era.394 His writing is never free of an intense subjectivity which makes his philosophy reflect his personal life. Nowhere is that clearer than in his views of the relation between the sexes. He is often denounced as the main opponent of the rights of women but in his own time he was heralded as “the birthplace of love.”395 He inspired the strand of the woman’s movement that tried to strengthen the role of women as wives and mothers.

Far from hating women, Rousseau’s problem was his awe of women. Starting in childhood and throughout his life Rousseau was dependent on women. The dependency began with the sister of the Protestant minister he was sent to live with. He found the physical punishments that she imposed to be a mixture of pain and sexual stimulation.396 Later he received economic help from several rich women. He looked to women as the moral power for guiding society. He was severely critical of the mothers of his day, in part because he held them to an impossibly high standard. In a letter to Toussaint-Pierre Lenieps, Rousseau wrote: “Everywhere men are what women make of them.”397 He never succeeded in having a healthy, mutual relation of love with any woman. He treated badly his common law wife Theresa and he was hopeless as a father.

Rousseau’s political and educational theories are found in separate books published in 1762: Social Contract and Emile. The education of Emile was to prepare him for life in a reformed society. A common misinterpretation of Emile is to read it as proposing an education that is directed by no one except the boy himself. In fact, the book has a nearly omniscient teacher who plans every step of the boy’s education. The boy is prepared not to be a supreme individualist but to be a husband and father, and thereby a responsible citizen.

Early in the book, Rousseau praises Plato’s Republic as “the most beautiful educational treatise ever written.” That is actually faint praise because he adds that the public education Plato advocated no longer exists in that there is no longer a fatherland and citizens. Instead of public instruction, Rousseau’s interest is private or domestic education.398 By the end of the book, however, his total separation of public and private seems to be overcome in the form of the family, and in Emile becoming both father and good citizen. Rousseau strongly condemns Plato for doing away with the family: “Having removed private families from his regime and no longer knowing what to do with women, he [Plato] found himself forced to make them men.”399

The fifth and last book of Emile is a portrait of Sophie who is to be the perfect mate for Emile and the mother of his children. Some of today’s schools of education omit reading this last book because women students’ may find it offensive. This educational policy seems to assume that students should read only what they agree with. The problem is that Emile (originally entitled Emilius and Sophie) cannot be understood without the concluding book.400 While far more space is given to Emile’s education, Sophie’s education is just as important to the success of family life. Rousseau assumed that Sophie’s education is uncomplicated and is done by the mother in the ordinary course of the day, while Emile has to be led every step of the way by the tutor.

Book 5, like the treatise as a whole, proceeds dialectically, starting with a total opposition of men and women. He says that “in the union of the sexes each contributes equally to the common aim, but not in the same way.”401 That sounds reasonable enough. But he immediately concludes from this principle that “one ought to be active and strong, the other passive and weak” That theme is developed for the next several pages: man is superior in strength and woman is made to please man. Along with this apparent swagger of the man taking charge there is an underlying theme of women having secrets that men do not understand. Women by way of their sexuality can get men to do whatever women want. The tutor’s genius was letting the student think he was doing whatever he wanted to do while in fact the tutor was getting him to do exactly as the tutor wished. At the end of the book the tutor gives Emile over to Sophie who will henceforth be the teacher, the one who is in charge of the unsuspecting student.402

Emile has a vision of Sophie, the ideal woman, before he actually meets the girl whose name is Sophie, a word meaning wisdom. The joining of the qualities of manhood and womanhood creates an ideal marriage. Emile announces at the end of the book that he will be the tutor of his son. No mention is made of how their daughter will be educated. Presumably, Sophie as an exemplar of womanly wisdom will pass on her attributes and virtues.

Rousseau seems to think that the complementarity of roles for Emile and Sophie solves the great paradox of sex; it is “one of the marvels of nature to have been able to construct two such similar beings who are constituted so differently.”403 Rousseau did leave an unfinished novel in which Emile and Sophie have a disastrous breakup of their marriage.404 Perhaps Rousseau recognized the tenuous nature of his solution in which the active and passive in human life are dealt with by means of the passive woman manipulating the active man.



Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). While Mary Wollstonecraft admits admiration for Rousseau’s literary style, her aim in Vindication of the Rights of Woman is to refute his argument concerning the relation between women and men. Rousseau assumed an extreme difference between men and women; his search was for how to create a unity out of such difference. Wollstonecraft works from an opposite assumption, that in all the important aspects of humanity women and men are the same. She is rightly credited with beginning the modern struggle for the rights of women, that is, what is due to all women as their fair share of human goods.

What Wollstonecraft had to confront is the problem inherent in the cry for equal rights: Why is there now such a difference? Whatever the explanation, the tricky part is to avoid seemingly attacking women in their present state, in the name of woman as she should be. Wollstonecraft says “that women at present are by ignorance rendered foolish and vicious is, I think, not to be disputed.”405 But surely some of her sisters whom she was fighting for would have disputed this description and taken umbrage at it. Is Wollstonecraft’s statement one of self-hatred or is it an arrogant claim that she alone has escaped the present condition of women?

Wollstonecraft laid the blame for women’s condition on men’s oppression. “It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of men” and what women need is better education. But she is always perilously close to sounding like she is blaming the victim. “Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands, they will be cunning, mean and selfish.”406 Writing in the years of the French Revolution, she chides the French to carry through their enlightenment by allowing women to share with men in the advantages of education and government. “See whether they will become better as they grow wiser and become free. They cannot be injured by the experiment; for it is not in the power of man to render them more insignificant than they are at present.”407

As Wollstonecraft saw the problem, Rousseau had separated the sexes and divided the “virtues” of men and women. He had placed reason on the side of men, leaving to women emotion or sentiment. In any rebellion against oppression there is a danger that the oppressed try to get what the oppressor has, instead of trying to overcome the dichotomy that has created the oppression. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “reason” was taken to be the supreme power of man, his ability to control women, children, nonhuman nature and his own emotions. In the thinking of most (male) philosophers, women were lacking in reason, a deficiency that was compensated for by their virtues of care and compassion. Because human dignity and rights were regularly associated with reason, the unavoidable implication was that women quite properly lack rights.

Wollstonecraft insisted that all virtues are founded in reason and that there are not separate sets of virtues for men and women. Women need an equal share in reason. “Children cannot be taught too early to submit to reason…for to submit to reason is to submit to the nature of things, and to that God, who formed them, to promote our real interest.”408 The danger here is assuming that what men in the eighteenth century meant by the term reason was identical to the nature of things and what God had formed. If reason is split off from emotion, it might lack a human context for its calculations and control. Wollstonecraft advised a mother to “give true dignity to her daughters” by proceeding on a plan “diametrically opposed to that which Rousseau has recommended.” But the opposite of Rousseau’s plan might not escape from being limited by the terms Rousseau had used.

A trust in reason defined in opposition to emotion was inimical to qualities without which the human race cannot manage. Wollstonecraft wished to persuade women “to endeavor to acquire strength of mind and body.” To do that she has “to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonyms with epithets of weakness.”409 She is certainly right that the oppressive men she is opposing have made such phrases into signs of weakness, but those qualities can also be seen as invaluable aspects of a full humanity.410 She is wary of Rousseau’s advice to use weakness as a means of manipulating the strong. But if men as well as women shared in heart, sentiment, and taste, then men might be better husbands, women better wives, and together they might be better parents of the next generation.

Rousseau’s starting point of male and female principles that are opposed to each other made it impossible for him to reach a mutuality of women and men. Wollstonecraft zeroed in on that vulnerability, but given the language and political situation of her time there was no way to describe the mutuality that she sought. She is led to this ironic and tragic formulation of the problem: “Nor will the important task of education ever be properly begun till the person of a woman is no longer preferred to her mind.” One can hope that choosing a woman’s mind over her person is not the choice that women have.

An alternative approach in the 1790s was Judith Sargent Murray’s The Gleaner that championed political equality for women while arguing that women were superior in feelings. Women’s virtue derives from “sentiment at once sublime and pathetic.”411 Murray unfortunately had less influence on the nineteenth-century discussion than did Rousseau and Wollstonecraft. In more recent times, however, many women have found attractive this combination of political equality and a claim to the biological/cultural superiority of women.

The Nineteenth-Century Movements

Rousseau and Wollstonecraft set the direction for the nineteenth century in which the improvement of the lot of women was identified either with a strengthening of her role in the family or with her using her talents in roles besides those of wife and mother. The two directions do not necessarily contradict each other but advocates on both sides often perceived it that way. A new kind of tension between home and workplace began early in the nineteenth century and has continued to the present. The tension involves the relation between men and women but the focus has usually been on the woman’s family responsibility.



Man’s World, Woman’s Place. The late eighteenth century had begun the social and economic transformation that would lead to a radical change in the relation between men and women. That change is reflected in the language of “separate spheres” of activity. Actually, a separate sphere of woman’s activity was not contrasted with a man’s sphere but with the man’s world. At the center of the transformation was a change in the nature of work as the modern industrial economy was born. The rhythm of human life became controlled by the machine and its needs. It seemed obvious to most people that the men would leave the home each day and go to the factories for production of goods while women would stay at home and take care of the children and the necessities of life.

Women were to provide a respite from the harsh realities of the work world while also having the key role of consumer in the new economy. “The two roles, saint and consumer, were interlocked and mutually dependent; the lady’s function in a capitalist society was to appropriate and preserve both the values and commodities which her competitive husband, father and son had little time to honor or enjoy; she was to provide an antidote and a purpose for the labor.”412 The existence of two spheres would not logically be an unfair arrangement. Equality between the spheres was claimed but individual women became uncomfortable at a place being assigned to them without their having had much choice.

The woman did have one big choice, that of a husband. She did not have a realistic choice to remain outside marriage and a family setting. Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic study of the United States in the 1830s has positive things to say about the arrangement that was taking shape. He attributed the “singular prosperity and growing strength of that people to the superiority of their women.” Care has been taken, he says, “to trace two clearly distinct lines of action for the two sexes, and to make them keep pace one with the other, but in two pathways which are always different.”

Tocqueville favorably contrasts this arrangement in the United States with what was happening in Europe, which in attempting to make one sex equal to the other had degraded both: “From so preposterous a medley of the works of nature nothing could ever result but weak men and disorderly women.” Tocqueville did recognize that in the United States “the independence of woman is irrevocably lost in the bonds of marriage.” Nonetheless, “she has learned by the use of her independence to surrender it without a struggle and without a murmur when the time comes for making the sacrifice.”413 As was usual in this way of thinking, the talk was about woman and her nature rather than about women and their lives.



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