Inventing Human Rights

Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights – Directed Reading Essays

Hunt: Question 1

In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt argues that the novel and the epistolary novel, in particular, played a crucial role in the development of human rights. According to Hunt, the epistolary novel explored the interior lives of people from their perspectives, allowing readers to connect with strangers from different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels by exploring their desires and hopes. These novels, as a result, showed the aristocracy and other literate people that one’s desire for love and virtue, and other basic hopes that all human beings have, cross class and national lines.

I found Hunt’s argument about the crucial role of novel reading persuasive and convincing. She argues that reading novels allowed people in the eighteenth century to realize that human rights are self-evident because reading about the interior lives of different characters allowed them to connect with strangers, like their servants, whom they would be otherwise unable to know so intimately. In other words, Hunt argues that these novels developed the readers’ empathy to others in their society by allowing them to enter these outsiders’ interior lives. For example, Rousseau’s Julie and Richardson’s Pamela were focused on middle class heroines struggling with love, their place in society, and other kinds of inner turmoil. According to Hunt, these novels developed a sense of empathy in their readers by showing them that people, like their servants, who they probably previously considered strangers and outsiders are actually a lot like them. In particular, the novels showed their readers that, at the very core, all people, regardless of their socioeconomic level, are essentially the same in that they all desire peace and hope for love; they are all capable of feeling dejected and rejected; and they all strive to live virtuous and fulfilling lives that mean something.

Though I readily agree with Hunt’s argument that “human rights could only flourish when people learned to think of others as their equals, as like them in some fundamental fashion,” I am somewhat ambivalent about the particulars of her conclusion about the overall effect that reading these novels had on society (Hunt 58). It seems to me that while these novels helped break down certain stereotypes about low and middle class people, they might have also entrenched other stereotypes, particularly those about women. As Hunt points out, many of these novels showed women heroines trying, but nevertheless failing to get real independence and true autonomy. In my view, these portrayals, though realistic with respect to time and place, also contributed to perpetuating prejudices about women. Realism was not much of a concern for writers whose novels aimed to break down socio-economic barriers. As a result, many of these novels portrayed middle class characters with elegant and eloquent interior monologues, showcasing education that the characters could not have possibly had. However, the same courtesy was not extended to women. Middle class or even wealthy women were not given the independence that these heroines really strived for, or that their readers probably wanted for them. Instead, women were continuously presented as individuals bound to the home, and trapped within their families’ or husbands’ social class or status. Thus, though I agree with Hunt’s overall argument that these novels helped readers see others as they see themselves, by breaking down stereotypes of outsiders as a whole, I am more ambivalent about the overall conclusion. In my view, many of these novels also did a lot of damage about in terms of solidifying many stereotypes about women.

Hunt: Question 2

In Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt states that her “argument depends on the notion that reading accounts of torture or epistolary novels had physical effects the translated into brain changes and came back out as new concepts about the organization of social and political life” (33). Furthermore, she points out that “new kinds of reading (and viewing and listening) created new individual experiences (empathy), which in turn made possible new social and political concepts (human rights)” (Hunt 33 – 34). In other words, Hunt is arguing that the process of reading the epistolary novel taught the reader “nothing less than a new psychology” (Heller). This new psychology took the reader’s attention away from superficial differences, like socioeconomic level or class, and focused it on the similarities that are common to all human beings.

Hunt’s argument does not depend on evidence from actual physiological changes to the brain. Instead, she seems to be mainly arguing for a metaphorical way of talking about a change in outlook, in terms of the way that people felt and thought. According to Hunt, by showing readers the interior lives of strangers, these novels developed an understanding between strangers that is based on similarities, like hopes and desires for love. She concludes that the process of reading these novels facilitated an increasing sense of empathy for strangers within the reader, and this an increasing sense of empathy led to the invention of the notion of human rights. Thus, Hunt makes a solid argument in favor of empathy, regardless of whether or not there were actual physiological changes taking place.

Though Hunt’s argument is not particularly scientific, her intuitions about the physiological brain changes in regards to empathy are supported with scientific evidence. Over the last few decades, brain science and neuroscience have confirmed the idea that empathy is a “neurological fact” (Gibson). Empathy is now understood as a kind of “minor constellation: clusters of encephalic stars glowing in the cosmos of an otherwise dark brain” (Gibson). University of Chicago’s neuroscientist, Jean Decety, has studied the physiology of empathy by charting “its existence using brain imaging and projected pictures of physical and emotional suffering: a stubbed toe, a child’s nosebleed, a grieving father clutching the body of his son” (Gibson). His studies consistently have shown the viewer’s anterior cingulate cortex and anterior insula light up on an fMRI scan when he or she witnesses another person’s pain (Gibson).

While Hunt’s abstract view of empathy argues that empathy helps people create connections between complete strangers, psychology and neuroscience now have a more clinical understanding of the concept. According to Decety, empathy starts with something involuntary, a shared emotion that is hardwired into our brains (Gibson). This emotion is what gives people “the capacity to automatically perceive and share others’ feelings” (Gibson). Besides being hardwired into our brains, empathy can also be learned (Gibson). The written word is the most effective and efficient way that people have to learn from others. Thus, this neurological finding that empathy can be learned buttresses Hunt’s argument that novel reading created an increased sense of empathy in society during the Enlightenment and facilitated the invention of the notion of human rights.

Hunt: Question 3

In the introduction to Inventing Human Rights, Lynn Hunt asks, “How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seeming natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?” (19). The process that allowed men to imagine others as their equals was literacy and epistolary novels, which showed the interior lives of their characters. These novels developed the society’s overall sense of empathy, or the ability to identify with others. Combined with the concept of virtue, one that is based on human value, the western world saw a rise in a new psychology. In particular, “This new way of viewing the self and others is the basis for, and intertwined with, human rights – the rights on man”  (Butler).

Throughout the Enlightenment, these ideas created movements and uprisings to eliminate slavery and establish more freedoms for poor and middle-class people. However, these ideas unfortunately did not transfer into significantly more equalities and freedoms for women. Hunt points out that “in contrast to French Protestants, Jews or even slaves, women’s status had not been the subject of pamphlet wars, public essay contests, government commissions, or specifically organized advocacy organizations, such as the Friends of Blacks” (168). Thus, women’s rights continued to rank lower on the “conceivability” or “think-ability” scale than those of other oppressed groups during the seventeenth and eighteenths centuries.

According to Hunt, women’s rights were not seen as much of an issue during that time, and women did not seek or gain as much autonomy as the rest of the oppressed people, because women were not viewed as “a clearly separate and distinguishable political category before the Revolution”(169). During the eighteenth century, people, “like almost everyone in human history before them, viewed women as dependents defined by their family status and thus by definition not fully capable of political autonomy” (Hunt 67). In other words, society identified women as different according to their gender, but then folded their identity into a social position within a particular class or race. Since a woman’s autonomy was seen as impossible to separate from her family’s status, women were not considered as a unique political category within a society. Thus, women could rise up “for some determination as a private, moral value,” but they could not do so by establishing “a link to political rights” (Hunt 67).

In other words, though women were viewed as people who had rights, they did not have political rights, which were essentially the only ones that mattered. Since women were not considered as a unique political category then they were not included in conversations about human rights, making them in a way ineligible for human rights. As a result, though slaves got their freedom and other oppressed groups gained additional rights, women within those groups continued to suffer. Furthermore, women as a whole did not even gain the right to vote in national elections anywhere in the world prior to the end of the nineteenth century (Hunt 168).

Burke and Paine – Directed Reading

Burke and Paine: Question 1

In Common Sense, Thomas Paine calls the notion of hereditary succession absurd and evil. He states that hereditary succession “opens a door to the foolish, the wicked, and improper,” thus embodying within it “the nature of oppression” (Williams 482). Furthermore, Paine states that men who are born with the power to rule, and have others obey them “grow insolent” because “their minds are easily poisoned by importance” (Williams 482). According to Paine, men who are born to reign live in a different world from those who they reign over, and their separation from their society allows them little opportunity to actually know the real needs of their people. As a result, when these men “succeed to the government” they are often “the most ignorant and unfit of any, throughout the dominions” (Williams 482). In other words, Paine argues that the very nature of hereditary succession makes the individuals who come to the throne less fit for the position than just about anyone else.

In Paine’s view, the other evil of hereditary succession is the notion of the throne as a subject that can be possessed by a minor. Paine argues that since the minor is not of age, he is even less fit to rule effectively. As a result, this minor and his kingdom is under great threat from the ministers and other advisers, who “acting under the cover of the King, have every opportunity and inducement to betray their trust” (Williams 482). In other words, Paine is arguing that a minor who succeeds to the throne is even less able to rule effectively than he would be otherwise, and the kingdom is therefore even more likely to be threatened by internal politics, which often result in more suffering for the people of the kingdom of the whole. Paine also notes that these threats from the inside also threaten the kingdom when a king grows old and “enters the last stage of human weakness” (Williams 482).

According to Paine, the problem with a hereditary succession of rulers is just as much of an evil as the monarchy itself because both institutions only perpetuate social disorder, civil unrest, and suffering. Paine argues that “the most barefaced falsity ever imposed on mankind” is the idea that hereditary succession protects the nation from civil wars. To support his point, he points to the history of England: “thirty kings and two minors have reigned in that distracted kingdom since the conquest, in which time there have been (including the Revolution) no less than eight civil wars and nineteen rebellions” (Williams 483). Paine goes on to discuss the fight for monarchy and succession between two English houses, the House of York and the house of Lancaster, and how that fight for power “laid England in a scene of blood for many years”(Williams 483).

As a result, Paine concludes that monarchy and succession “have laid (not this or that kingdom only) but the world in blood and ashes” (Williams 483). He states that not only do hereditary succession and monarchy not create peace, these institutions actually do the opposite: they destroy “the very foundation it to stand upon” (Williams 483). He views monarchy and hereditary succession as the reason for all social unrest, revolutions, rebellions, and civil wars, stating that a monarchy is a form of government that is against God.

Paine and Burke: Question 3

In his Reflections, Edmund Burke’s says, “government is not made in virtue of national rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it, and exist in much greater clearness, and in a much greater degree of abstract perfection, but their abstract perfection is their practical defect. By having a right to everything, they want everything. Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants” (Williams 517). Burke argues that it is men’s wisdom that tells men which of their wants should be provided for. He further points out that the purpose of society is to restrain human passions: “society requires not only that the passions of individuals should be subjected, but that even in the mass and body, as well as in the individuals, the inclinations of men should be frequently thwarted, there will controlled, and their passions brought into subjection” (Williams 517). Burke argues that the only power that can control men’s passions is a power that is “out of themselves;” therefore, men’s liberties and their restraints “are to be reckoned among their rights” (Williams 517).

Thomas Paine puts forth certain rules that governments should follow in order to rectify the evils of monarchy and hereditary succession. For example, he proposes that assemblies should be held annually and should only have a president: “let the assemblies being annual, with the president only. The representation more equal, their business wholly domestic, and subject to the authority of a continental congress” (Williams 485). Instead of identifying certain rules about the rights and liberties of men and their governments, like Paine, Burke argues against these kinds of specifics. To Burke, liberties and restrictions depend on circumstances and time, and are therefore open to “infinite modifications” (Williams 518). Furthermore, Burke also states that restrictions “cannot be settled upon any abstract rule, and nothing is so foolish as to discuss them upon that principle” (Williams 518).

Burke and Paine have very different views regarding human rights and the function of government. While Paine relies on a clear definition of the rights of man, Burke considers this notion a pretended right. Burke states that “the pretended rights of these theorists are all extremes, and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false” (Williams 518). Burke does not accept a concrete definition of the rights of man because, to him, “the rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not possible to be discerned” (Williams 518). In essence, Burke is against idealism and extremism. He does not see the point in philosophizing about human rights when reality makes certain things impossible. For example, he asks, “what is the use of discussing a man’s abstract right to food and medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them” (Williams 518).

For Burke, the function of government is to establish a society that will prevent and avoid “the evils of inconstancy and versatility,” which, to him, are “ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice” (Williams 519). Burke’s vision of government is a lot less idealistic and a lot more pessimistic than Paine’s. Burke believes that safety and security are worth the prejudices and inequalities of western societies during his time while Paine believes that the social unrest, revolution, and bloodshed are worth the liberties that these sacrifices will bring.


Butler, Denis. “Introduction and Chapter 1 – Question 4.” 17 November 2012. Hunt Forum. 4

December 2012.

Gibson, Lydialyle. “Mirrored Emotion.” University of Chicago Magazine. 98 (4). 2006.

Heller, D. “Introduction and Chapter 1 – Question 4.” 9 November 2012. Hunt Forum. 4

December 2012.

Hunt, Lynn. Inventing Human Rights. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008. Print.

Williams, David. The Enlightenment. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.


The Enlightenment of America

How might Lynn Hunt’s treatment of the 18th-century change of opinion on torture apply to the still festering question in the U.S. of the ethical legitimacy of capital punishment? Is this country heading in the direction of abolishing the death penalty—as the Enlightenment was heading in the direction of abolishing torture (and, after that, slavery)?

On one hand, I believe this country is heading in the direction of eventually abolishing the death penalty— just as the Enlightenment was heading in the direction of abolishing torture (and, after that, slavery). Attitudes about torture of prisoners for example, or rather enhanced interrogation techniques, have changed since the Bush administration and all of the public fear mongering that went along with it, during that time.

However, the pessimist in me tends to think that unfortunately America will not abolish the death penalty any time soon. Enlightenment took place during an enormous rise in literacy; unfortunately, literacy and education seem to be on a decline. Even politicians who occasionally speak of education only focus on the importance of technological education, such as vocational schools. In my view, a proper comprehensive humanist education that is grounded in humanities and literature is absolutely necessary, if a society wants its people to enjoy a sense of social awareness and empathy for those who are less fortunate.

Unfortunately, empathy is on the decline in America. A recent study found that empathy levels have been declining over the last 30 years, and that the decline in empathy has been particularly steep since the year 2000. For example, it found “college students today show 40% less empathy vs. students in the 1980s and 1990s.” As a result, I do not feel optimistic about the likelihood that America will reevaluate its position regarding capital punishment.

HUNT 2 – General Question

What, in your view, is the next stage of human rights development? Will we now (and ought we now?) to strive beyond adult human rights to rights for other people and/or creatures?

In my view, the next stage of human rights development in America should be those rights that people in Europe currently enjoy. People are entitled to life thus guns should be heavily regulated, especially those that are used to kill people. The prison system should be reformed (private prisons should be outlawed) and sentences should not be so long. Capital punishment should be outlawed. People should not be able to hit or assault their children and call that “teaching them a lesson,” just as adults are not allowed to legally assault other adults in order to teach them a lesson. People should be entitled to know what is in their food, whether it is genetically modified or filled with preservatives that probably cause cancer and other defects. And the animals that we eat should be treated humanely, at least as humanely as possible. It is without doubt that we can treat them more humanely and still eat them because there are countries that are currently doing so. There are a million other human right issues that should also be addressed and reformed (right to a living wage, right to free or almost free healthcare, rights of people in America and other countries to not be exploited for our companies’ profits) but these are just some off the top of my head. Unfortunately, just as we were about sixty years behind abolishing slavery, I don’t think any of these changes will come to America anytime soon. As I have stated in my other post, ideas about human rights require empathy and empathy is on the decline.

A recent study found that empathy levels have been declining over the last 30 years, and that the decline in empathy has been particularly steep since the year 2000. For example, it found “college students today show 40% less empathy vs. students in the 1980s and 1990s.” As a result, I do not feel optimistic about the likelihood that America embarking upon the next stage in developing more comprehensive human and animal rights.

True or false (or mostly true or most false); Thomas Paine is a much more characteristic “Enlightenment” thinker than Edmund Burke is. Defend your position with reasons based on material in the texts.

Yes, Thomas Paine is a much more characteristic “Enlightenment” thinker than Edmund Burke is. Burke is much more conservative. He wants to prevent “the evils of inconstancy and versatility,” which, to him, are “ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice” (Williams 519). Paine’s vision of government is a lot more idealistic than Burke’s. Paine believes in social unrest and revolution if it is for a good cause. Burke does not. Burke argues for safety and security. As a result, Paint appears to be much more of a typical Enlightenment thinker than Burke does.

Linear Approach to the Enlightenment

OUTRAM 1 – Chapter 9

What does Outram mean by the “linear” approach to the Enlightenment? Do you agree with her that this approach is problematic? Why?

What Outram is referring to when she argues against the “linear” approach to the Enlightenment is the idea that there was one particular result or point to the movement as a whole. Outram argues that part of the problem with certain accounts of the Enlightenment is that “‘the Revolution’ has been seen as the terminus of ‘the Enlightenment’” (133). This position views the Enlightenment as some sort of linear movement that has a defined starting point and a defined ending point. The ending point is the French Revolution. Since the French Revolution is characterized by its brutality and war, the linear approach to the argument then somehow negates or diminishes all of the underlying reasons that led up to the revolution. Outram points out that it is impossible to approach the Enlightenment linearly. It is a movement, and like many movements, is characterized by social pressures, ideas, and historical incidents. As a result, the movement as a whole is too complicated to be analyzed comprehensively using a simple linear approach.

OUTRAM 2 – Chapter 9

What clarifications does she provide about the term “revolution”? Why are these clarifications useful? How did it change your sense of what “revolution” means?

Outram’s analysis of the Enlightenment shows that the movement is more than just something that ended in the French Revolution. Her book shows us that there were in fact many influences and ideas that all came together in a kind of perfect storm that unfortunately resulted in the brutality, which was the French Revolution. Furthermore, she also points out that the term “revolution” also underwent a number of changes, in terms of its meaning, throughout the years. During the 18th century, the term referred to “a change” that brought back “a former state of affairs” (Outram 137). This definition implies that something was going wrong in society when the revolution occurred and the revolution serves the purpose of returning things back to normal. In the 19th century, the word came to mean something slightly different which resulted in a completely different way of looking at revolutions. In the 19th century, the term revolution meant “an upset in the established order,” implying that the revolution is no longer a symptom of what was going on, but the sickness itself (Outram 137). I found these clarifications very useful in that they clarified my feelings of the current revolutions in the Middle East. Unlike most Americans who tend to associate a lot of positive feelings with the notion of revolution, I was born in the Soviet Union (Kiev, Ukraine) and my associations with the word revolution are quite negative. (Like Burke, I often think that things could be worse and that the bloodshed may not be really worth it). I imagine that many people felt the same way in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and that it wasn’t until the consciousness of the western world as a whole moved on and saw the positive in the American Revolution that some of those associations were forgotten.

Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights

Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights

HUNT 2- Introduction and Chapter 1

How does Hunt answer her question posed on the top of p. 19: “How did  . . . men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seeming natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?” (I am not asking you to read the whole book yet; she gives a preliminary answer to the question on pp. 26-34.)

In her introduction, Hunt asks, “How did these men, living in societies built on slavery, subordination, and seeming natural subservience, ever come to imagine men not at all like them and, in some cases, women too, as equals?” (19). The method that allowed men to imagine others who were quite different from themselves as equals, or rather the method that eventually facilitated this ability to imagine, was emotional appeal. Emotional appeal or empathy (the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes) has the ability to breakdown the worst and most strongly held prejudices. The way that empathy spread throughout society was through writing and literacy. In particular, reading novels, especially those that showed the interior lives of their characters, allowed people from different backgrounds, genders, and classes to connect with each other (or rather allowed wealthy men and women to connect and see poorer people, like their servants, as people with the same feelings and emotions and desires as themselves).

HUNT 3 – Introduction and Chapter 1

According to Hunt, how did 18th-century individuals come to think of human rights as “self-evident”? She says emotions had much to do with it. How so? And what did the concept of individual “autonomy” have to do with it?

In examining “the paradox of self-evidence,” Hunt argues that understanding the notion of self-evidence, which is crucial to understanding the concept of human rights, “gives rise to a paradox: if equality of rights is so self-evident, then why did this assertion have to be made and why was it only made in specific times and places?” (19). Hunt points out that “human rights only become meaningful when they gain political content” (21). However, during the 18th century, both in England and France, notions of human rights were all too general “to be of direct political use” (23). As a result, these ideas were mainly used to distinguish humans from the divine and from animals, rather than establish “politically relevant rights such as freedom of speech or the right to participate in politics” (23). The way that 18th-century individuals come to think of human rights as “self-evident” is through the rise of empathy which came from reading novels. Novels like Rousseau’s Julie and Richardson’s Pamela presented middle class heroines struggling with inner turmoil. This novels experienced great popularity, facilitating a rise in empathy. People who didn’t otherwise see the interiority of middle class people suddenly realized that other people, who were otherwise quite different from them, shared their basic desires, passions, hopes, etc. These ideas created notions of individuality and individual autonomy.

HUNT 4 – Introduction and Chapter 1

What role did novels and novel reading play in the formation of a belief in human rights? What does Hunt mean when she claims that a certain kind of novel “taught their readers nothing less than a new psychology” (39)?

Novels showed aristocrats and everyday middle-class literate people that the desires for love and virtue, and the basic hopes that all human beings have, cross class and national lines. The novel, especially the epistolary novel, showed the interior lives of characters. Reading about the interior lives of characters allowed people to connect with people whom they would be otherwise unable to know so intimately (such as their servants). Hunt says that a certain kind of novel (the epistolary novel) “taught their readers nothing less than a new psychology.” What she means by this statement is that these novels allowed people to see others, who were very different from them on the surface, as a lot more similar. The similarities created empathy and allowed people to understand one another. In other words, these novels gave them access to the interior lives of strangers, making them not so strange after all.

HUNT 1- Introduction and Chapter 1

What suggestive comments does Hunt make about Rousseau and Condorcet in the early pages of her Introduction?

In the early pages of her Introduction, Hunt discusses the “rights of man” and how our notion of human rights came from this idea. She notes that Condorcet was the first philosopher to tackle this issue, of defining human rights. In particular, he stated that the concept of the rights of man consisted of “security of person, security of property, impartial and fair justice, and the right to contribute to the formulation of the laws” (Hunt 24). To Hunt, Rousseau’s reasoning and language are less defined and precise and she is particularly critical of the inconsistency in his argument. As Rene pointed out, Rousseau states that “humans may be citizens and humans may be sovereigns but citizens are not sovereigns and not all humans enjoyed the rights of citizenship (women, slaves).”

Science and the Enlightenment

Why was there such doubt about the veracity and stability of scientific knowledge during the Enlightenment? See pages 96-98 especially.

There was such doubt about the veracity and stability of scientific knowledge during the Enlightenment because there was a tension between a desire to understand the natural order of the world and the knowledge that nothing that we could learn about the natural order of the world was beyond doubt. People challenged the concept of reasoning causally by arguing that “nothing guarantees that causal reasoning produces truth” (Outram 100). Since science could not prove something to the exclusion of all doubt, scientific knowledge was easy to doubt and scrutinize. Furthermore, science was also a threat to religious institutions because it challenged the notion of “God’s order” (Outram 96), and this threat made it even more the subject of attack.

OUTRAM chapter 7

What was “Science on the ground” (in the everyday world) up to in the Enlightenment? Outram comments on this at the end of the chapter, but the question is implicitly present throughout her discussion. On the other hand, what was “expert science” up to, or does this phrase (my phrase, not Outram’s) make any sense in the period?

The science on the ground refers to the notion of science transitioning away from natural philosophy toward more practical (evidence-based) notion of science. The notion of expert science was still a new concept during the Enlightenment and I’m not sure that it made sense yet. Life was still ruled by religion and science has not yet proven itself substantially using observations and evidence to have something resembling what we now know as a body of science.

Wollstonecraft versus the Bluestockings

Wollstonecraft versus the Bluestockings

What are the differences between the “feminism” expressed by Wollstonecraft and that of the Bluestockings–if indeed you believe that the Blues express or practice any kind of “feminism.” For example, can the modestly progressive views expressed in the Matrimonial Creed be compared to the doctrines expressed in the Vindication?

It seems to me that both women express feminism but they focus on two different things.Mulso’s essay argues for friendship between husband and wife and encourages women to seek a husband that she can consider a friend. Wollstonecraft’s essay goes straight to the heart of the matter and addresses the reason why men and women in marriages are not equal. In other words, her argument implies that it is not enough to say that men and women should be equal. Instead, she addresses the various stereotypes that women possess in society and argues that society perceives women this way (stupid or blindly obedient) because they are not given proper access to education. Wollstonecraft’s essay almost entirely focuses on education, its function in reforming society, and reforming the image of a woman as something less than a man. For example, women were often attacked for not being virtuous. Wollstonecraft points out men have access to extensive character education that teaches them how to reason and what it means to be a gentleman. She then argues that the reason why women appear as if they are lacking in virtue is that they do not have access to the same kind of character education that teaches men about virtue, makes them virtuous.

Women and Enlightenment

Wildcard question: why did women suddenly find a myriad of intellectual opportunities in the Enlightenment?

Why did women suddenly find an array of intellectual opportunities (salon conversation, literary criticism, travel, scientific lectures) in the Enlightenment? Why, in other words, did the Enlightenment provide a new domain, different from anything available in the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries in England? (Think about Shakespeare’s world, for example). What has changed?

It seems to me that the primary reasons why women suddenly found an array of intellectual opportunities in the Enlightenment are education and relatively cheap books and other publication materials. Salon conversations, literary criticism, scientific lectures, and even travel are impossible intellectual opportunities to engage in without literacy. Enlightenment opened up opportunities for education for people outside of wealthy men and these opportunities slowly but surely became available to women. Since intellectual opportunities are very different from warfare or other physical tasks, women who were taught to read and write quickly embraced these activities. Furthermore, women continued to lack opportunities in other aspects of society (such as merchant work, business ownership, etc.). As a result, somewhat well off and educated women embraced intellectual activities such as writing (novels) and treatises as a substitute for a working life.

Heller’s Bluestocking Salons and the Public Sphere

In Bluestocking Salons and the Public Sphere, Dr. Heller describes the development of the bluestocking salons in England. They were inspired by salons first established in France, but the English nevertheless aimed to develop their own intellectual movement. Well off women hosted these salons in their homes, and women both hosted and engaged in intellectual debates in the salons. These salons helped shape the intellectual climate of that society by allowing men and women to engage in arguments in one place, as equals.

Elizabeth Montagu felt that women and men should be treated as equals. As a result, she was often criticized as being masculine, or not feminine enough. Unfortunately, even today, this is a common accusation made against women who are not afraid to speak their mind. Women are expected to be demure, quiet and unimposing and these expectations make it very difficult for a woman to argue loudly and convincingly.


Take a good look at Bluestocking Hester Mulso’s little treatise, “Matrimonial Creed,” written in the 1750s (same decade as Voltaire’s Candide) but published later after her death. This piece shocked her older male contemporaries, one of whom swore that, based on what he saw in it, she would never marry (he was quite wrong). Can you imagine why he and others found her reasoning dangerous–or are we today simply too far away from the sort of expectations regarding marriage that prevailed until the Enlightenment? (Indeed, it’s probably truer to say “that prevailed up through the Enlightenment and in some respects into the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth”).

Here are a couple of more focused questions:

(1) Why is “friendship” a key term for Mulso in this treatise? Why does she need that concept?

(2) Why, according to her, is it necessary for a woman to choose a husband whose superiority she genuinely believes in? Do we still have any sense of the significance of this today? Why or why not?

Finally, what are the ‘first duties” she alludes to in article 1?

Friendship is a key term for Mulso because friendship implies equality. People with different positions in society (say, the owner of the house and a servant, even today) cannot really be friends due to the power disparity. This was (and probably still is) the case for many marriages. Today, many men continue to marry women who they can dominate or influence (there are degrees of this disparity). Thus, friendship between a wife and husband is of outmost importance because, in friendship, both parties are of equal standing. Though the treatise at first appears as old fashioned (arguing for women to choose men who their superiors), it is not really that outdated. Instead, the emphasis on friendship shows that it is actually quite progressive for the time.

“Fair sex” during the Enlightenment

So, what about the place and participation of the “fair sex” during the Enlightenment? What observations by Outram do you find interesting? What observations in my own writing on the Bluestockings interest you? What do you think of the obvious differences between Outram’s arguments and mine?

What is interesting about the Outram chapter is how the chapter shows that while the Enlightenment sought to create equality between different men, it also sought to create distinctions between men and women (distinctions that argued that women are something less than men). Men classified women according to their role in the home. They then used that classification to argue that women are inferior intellectually (without realizing that intellect often comes with education). Women did, however, play an important role in the Enlightenment (especially, rich widows) as salon organizers. As widows, they were older (past marriage eligibility) and endowed with all of the inherited money to do with as they wished. The salon was a place to explore and discuss ideas, and there women engaged in discussion along with the men. In Dr. Heller’s paper, we learned that the Blues was something of a negative word used by many writers of the time (i.e. Samuel Johnson). It is likely that this resistance to women as intellectuals resulted from jealousy. Women who ran salons were rich and relatively powerful, a position that many men (especially, male writers) were not used to.