Constance Pipelet, Review of a Book by Théremin, On the Condition of Women in a Republic
In this review of a book by an author favorable to women’s education, Pipelet argues that republics should demonstrate a different attitude toward women than monarchies. She restates the arguments for more education and more opportunities for women and rejects those positions that keep women in intellectual dependency and passivity.
Many philosophers have addressed the subject of women. Most of them were content to remind women of their duties, and to set such narrow limits on their minds, their hearts, and their passions that women saw themselves endlessly needing to overcome these limits. Most of these philosophers pretended not to see the eternal equilibrium with which nature has balanced the real force of men with the tacit force of women. They told women, "We are the being par excellence, you are merely incidental." At each instance, they sent women back to what has been called the primitive state of nature, without thinking that men themselves are very far from this possibly illusory state. They forgot that the existence, tastes, and passions of women are directly linked to theirs, and that the impulse, good or bad, that drives one cannot leave the other behind. From these two false premises, the philosophers drew the spurious result that the most just and objective mind can, in no way, be applied to men and women as they are. Some of them have dared, in vain, to raise their voices in our favor. Disapproval, neglect, and that sort of authority that time lends to injustice itself, all combined to leave things in the order that the Law of the Jungle has established, almost always avoided by the skill of the weakest.
Under the old government there was a time when one religion, which we were fond of abusing, made it a crime for God's faithful to cast a glance upon His most pleasing work. There was a time when the majority of the laws seemed to still be imbued with traces of barbarity and feudalism. There was a time when it was not thought to be necessary to ensure that half of the human race be protected by half the laws tied to humanity. This is how it appeared. But for ten years now, the words of equality and liberty have been echoing throughout the land, and philosophy, with the help of experience, has ceaselessly taught man about his true rights. That during this time the rights of women have been completely neglected is what is hardest to comprehend, as if the important themes with which our minds have been taken since the Revolution in some way seemed to justify this oversight.
Yes, no doubt circumstances justified it. Women are such an essential part of society that it seems incredible that they have counted for nothing in the various schemes which were necessarily designed to achieve happiness for all. Public interest, and the interest of individuals, are equally wronged by this strange and illusory omission.
It is certain that by tying women in any way to the State, their opinions would not be set since these opinions are almost always floating between their own passions and those of the men who interest them. It is certain that by doing so, no patriotic spirit is being fostered in their hearts, and consequently in those of their children, and this lack of spirit shall be all the more unalterable in that it will be thought through and based upon their own interests. Finally, it is certain that it is not of the greatest importance to make women love the government under which they live because they are endlessly thinking and discussing with the men, and often on their level, while also subjugating these men through the wiles of their gender. They can thus have more influence over even the most clear-headed of minds than the law could ever achieve. Oh! Success could never allow a virtuous woman, beautiful and enlightened, of whom there have been so many, lacking even the first and most essential of these qualities, from nonetheless subjugating the greatest of men! . . .
This reasoning, simple and proven by experience, must have struck the fairest of minds. But unfortunately there are fewer of that sort than of the other. The masses are seduced equally by error and truth provided that one has the art of giving them a distinctive appearance. The masses have easily adopted the opinion that by restricting and eliminating the power of women, men would apparently have consequentially greater latitude. Force was placed on one side, and weakness was assumed to be on the other. In vain, a thousand heroic actions, especially during the Revolution, seemed to lead to this judgment. The judges were men, and the women, forgotten so to speak, were not able to benefit of the laws that favor men, and have remained floating, left to themselves, the winds of fate, their whims, their own company, their still active passions, and their influence which is so often triumphant.
It must be admitted, however, that even if these passionate and exclusive minds have managed to establish in the masses an unfavorable opinion of women, Nature, stronger than they, compensates women for it, usually on an individual basis, thereby reestablishing the equilibrium. It is in this way that justice reasserts itself, as when the husband enjoys deferring to his wife's advice. It is there where, upon leaving a gathering which included speeches against women's education, a sensible father seeks to develop the seeds of all talent and knowledge in his daughter. Finally, it is there where this same man, perhaps the author of a law against women's independence, does not consent to give into the arms of a son-in-law the woman who owes him her life. Even though no matter how much he assures her of a life free from the whims of her husband, an inconsistency that alone would suffice to enlighten everyone, if self-love or pride could ever be enlightened by truth. I say it again, it is above all since the Revolution that this inconsistency has become more painful, and which women, following the example of men, have thought the most about their true natures and have consequently acted. It is those women whose fortune has allowed them free time to give in part to teaching, that their former education dedicated to pleasure. Already they are being admitted into scholarly organizations and into art schools, and everyone should already see that merit has no gender, and that rights cannot either. This is therefore the best possible time to call for lawmakers to pay attention to women for a moment. This is doubtless what Citizen Théremin, a man of letters favorably known for several political works, was thinking when he offered the public his new work entitled On the Condition of Women in a Republic. This work, which is the subject of this essay, has already received the praise that it deserves in several newspapers. I should no doubt rush to add mine here, but I would then be a judge in my own defense which could open myself to challenge. So before explaining my opinion of this interesting work, I am going to write a short exposé, and allow the public to decide itself about the merit of the work.
By establishing a small number of clear and precise principles taken from nature, and by supporting these principles with facts and historic observations, Citizen Théremin comes out today in favor of women. First he demonstrates that from ancient times, although seemingly enjoying less domestic liberty, women nonetheless had more political liberty than ours in that they took part in government, which was even, on several occasions, placed into their care.
He reminds us that under the monarchy women had still maintained a few accidental bits of this power, and, considering that a Republic is the subsequent perfecting of a monarchy, he thinks that it should be even more favorable towards women. According to the author, progress in the civilization of the human race has always brought women a greater amount of happiness.
He is not content merely to state this last truth; he proves it, and shows us successively the woman as mistress in civilized France, slave for the stupid Orientals, and servant for the savage barbarians. Moving on from these examples to his argument, he successfully refutes an English philosopher by the name of Godwin who claimed that love was lost as the human race achieved a greater degree of perfection. A strange system that nature refutes at every second, and to which the English author himself does not seemingly hold to with conviction since he married Madame Walstooncraft [Mary Wollstonecraft], a woman of letters known primarily by a work on women's rights.
But where Citizen Théremin really brings his opinions into the light of day it is when, after having shown that happiness only exists through the free exercise of one's faculties and that women have as much right to this happiness as men, he adds that there are two beings in women, as much as there are in men. The first is the moral being, free by its very nature, knowing only the laws of its own morality and having no gender. And the second, a physical being, dependent upon man in the same manner that man is dependent upon it. . . .
First he is surprised that under the current government, which he never ceases to believe to be the most favorable toward women, no extension of their schooling or their sphere of activities has been accorded. He observes that the ability to inherit equal portions, and divorce, are almost the only points that they have won from man's freedom. He speaks against the inconsistency that judges and sentences women as men in criminal court, while they are treated as children who still require a guardian in civil court. It is as if, concurrently, women have been given the ability to distinguish right from wrong for capital crimes, and then been refused this same ability when it comes to cases that are much less important. He makes us feel how in the current state of things, contrary to all intelligence, it is absurd to claim that women should, regardless of their social status, give themselves up solely to those meticulous and servile tasks which men take pleasure in assigning them. Tasks which support a portion of them, and provide a resource without which they would be left in idleness and misery. . . .
It is said that one should provide an education to the sons whose fathers died for the country. Yes, no doubt we should. But these sons, do they not have sisters? Their fathers, did they not lavish the same care upon both? Must it be that the luck of being a male or female deprive these unfortunate orphans of the help that a just and beneficent nation should share equally with all of the individuals who compose it? Must it be that so many other women who feel within themselves this competitiveness, this fire that is the source of all the great qualities and of all the great virtues, see, from childhood, these precious seeds which the fortunate development had made the apple of their family's eye and possibly the glory of their country, compromised, smothered in their hearts, by a barbarous prejudice! . . .
And please don't object at this point that by educating women, they are being torn from their domestic tasks. An educated and enlightened woman will not spend the time she needs for her household and her family on her studies. This time will come from those hours that so many others spend at balls, strolls, and at idle and extravagant gatherings. Please also don't object here with that eternal refrain, always disproved by experience, that women are not born to be taught, that their eyes are too frail to withstand the light of science and art. A thousand examples handed down over the centuries are proof to the contrary. And when we no longer have to cite this irrefutable fact, the complaints that they never cease to inspire on this subject would be more than a sufficient answer. Let us be honest with ourselves . . . we all carry within us the sense of our own ability. After the turmoil of our youth, there is no reasonable being who does not place themselves in their rightful place. Nature draws the line that everyone must follow and is not content only revealing to the genius the secret of what they should undertake. Nature also sets in mediocre minds the limits of their mediocrity, and when it gives a being, any being, the constant desire to better themselves, one can boldly assume that it has also given them the means.
But it is time to return to the work of Citizen Théremin, and to complete the analysis. One point was left for him to address, and that point was important: Should or should not women vote in the nation's assemblies and be allowed to work for the State? That is the question that he seems to ask, and that he resolves easily by his same principles. Recalling that, even though it has been established that women should have a moral existence that is separate and independent from man's, he has always considered that physically and individually they are dependent upon each other. Consequently, their interests are the same, and therefore husband and wife are but one political entity, even though they may be, and should be, two civil entities. The vote and political actions of one are therefore necessarily contained in those of the other. "And note this mothers and wives," he writes, "when your children and your husband deliberate in the sovereign assembly, it is for you as much as for them that they are deliberating. It is your interests as much as theirs that they are addressing. And when they pronounce a 'yes' or a 'no' on where the future of the State lies, it is your voice that echoes in the assembly."
The author does not believe it necessary to justify that men have appropriated supreme power for themselves exclusively, and he certainly is right. I am pleased to echo his thoughts. Although more than one woman has exercised this power with glory, and though others, in usurping it, have justified women's audacity by their merit and success, in general women do not cite these instances of authority in order to escape the place that nature has very specially assigned them. As Citizen Théremin says extremely well, and above all most gallantly: "They exercise another kind of supremacy that men do not share with them and that they know better how to maintain, and which is not invaded as often as is men's." However, returning to his first principles, he makes it felt how much it is just and necessary to compensate women for this apparent absence in politics by tying them to the State by other means. He requests that the government employ them in public schooling and when celebrating national holidays. He would like them to be tasked with a host of functions in charity work, peacemaking, and benevolent work which are suitable with the their innate sensitivities. Finally, he ends his work with the observation that fairness requires that women be placed within reach of being able to defend their natural and inalienable rights by seating them on civil courts, where most of the issues that concern them are dealt with. A proposition so fair that it would seem inconceivable that it has not already been adopted.
Le Mois, vol. 5 (Prairial? Year VIII [May/June?, 1800]), 228–40.