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Tolerance

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Caroline Warman

4. Nicolas de Condorcet (1743-1794), ‘On Admitting Women to the Rights of Citizenship’, 17901

Texte intégral

  • 1 Nicolas de Condorcet, ‘Sur l’admission des femmes au droit de cité’, Journal de la Societé de 1789, (...)

1On 3 July 1790, Condorcet published this plea against the exclusion of women from the public sphere in the Journal de la Société de 1789.

2Did [all philosophers and legislators] not violate the principle of equal rights for all when they calmly deprived half humanity of the right to contribute to legislation and when they excluded women from the rights of citizenship? Is there any stronger proof of the power of habit, even among enlightened men, than seeing the principle of equal rights invoked on behalf of three or four hundred men who had been deprived of their rights by some absurd prejudice and yet at the same time forgetting these same rights when it comes to twelve million women?

3For this exclusion not to be an act of tyranny, one would need either to prove that the natural rights of women are not absolutely the same as those of men, or show that they are not capable of exercising them.

4Now, the rights of men derive exclusively from the fact that they are sentient beings, capable of acquiring moral ideas and of reasoning about these ideas. Since women possess the same qualities, they necessarily possess equal rights. Either no human individual possesses true rights, or all humans possess the same ones; and those who vote against the rights of others, whatever their religion, colour, or sex, have from that moment abjured their own rights.

5It would be difficult to prove that women are incapable of exercising the rights of citizenship. Why should human beings exposed to pregnancies and to passing indispositions not be able to exercise the same rights that no one has ever imagined taking away from people who contract gout every winter and who easily catch colds? Even if we accept that men do enjoy some intellectual superiority beyond the simple difference in their education (a superiority which is far from being proven, but which should be before women are unjustly deprived of a natural right), this superiority can consist in only two points. It is said that no woman has ever made any important discovery in the sciences or given any proof of genius in the arts, in writing, etc.; but presumably nobody would propose to grant the rights of citizenship exclusively to men of genius. Some add that no woman enjoys the same breadth of knowledge or the same power of reasoning as certain men; but what does this prove other than that, with the exception of a very small class of highly enlightened men, there is complete equality between women and the rest of men; that if this tiny class of men were set aside, inferiority and superiority would be equally shared between the two sexes. Now, since it would be completely absurd to limit the rights of citizenship and eligibility for public offices to this superior class, why should women be excluded rather than those men who are inferior to a great number of women?

6Finally, some will say that there are certain qualities in the hearts and minds of women that ought to exclude them from the enjoyment of their natural rights. Let us examine the facts. Elizabeth of England, Marie Theresa of Austria, and the two Catherines of Russia have all proven that women lack neither strength of character nor intellectual resolve.

7Elizabeth possessed all the frailties of woman; did these do more to undermine her reign than the frailties of her father or her successor? Have the lovers of certain Empresses exerted a more dangerous influence than the mistresses of Louis XIV, Louis XV, or even Henry IV?

8[...] It has been said that women have never been guided by what is called reason, despite possessing much intelligence, wisdom, and a faculty for reasoning developed in them to the same degree as in subtle dialecticians.

9This observation is false: they are not governed, it is true, by the reason of men, but rather by their own.

10Their interests not being the same, which is the fault of the law, and the same things not having for them the same importance as for us, they can, without being unreasonable, determine their actions according to other principles and work towards different goals. It is as reasonable for a woman to occupy herself with the attractiveness of her person as it was for Demosthenes to cultivate his diction and his gestures.

11It has been said that women, though better than men, being gentler, more feeling, and less subject to the vices that derive from egotism and hard-heartedness, do not properly possess the instinct for justice; that they follow their sentiments more than their conscience. This observation is truer, but it proves nothing: it is not nature but rather education and social existence that cause this difference. Neither has accustomed women to the idea of what is just, but rather to the idea of what is decent. Removed from public affairs and excluded from every decision that is determined with reference to justice or fixed laws, they concern themselves with and act upon those things which are settled by invoking natural decency and sentiment. It is therefore unjust to propose, as the grounds for continuing to deny women the enjoyment of their natural rights, arguments that only derive from a kind of reality because women do not in fact enjoy their natural rights.

12If one were to admit such arguments against women, one would need also to take away the rights of citizenship from that part of the population which, given over as it is to ceaseless toil, can neither enlighten itself nor exercise its reason, and soon, little by little, the only men permitted to be citizens would be those who had pursued studies in public law. Were one to admit such principles, one would need, as a necessary result, to abandon any kind of free constitution. The various different types of aristocracy used precisely these kinds of pretexts when establishing or justifying themselves; the very etymology of the word ‘aristocracy’ proves this.

13One cannot put forward the argument that women are dependent on their husbands, for it would be possible at the same time to bring to an end this tyranny created by civil law, and in any case no injustice can justify committing another.

14There remain therefore only two objections to discuss. In truth, they only provide arguments against granting women the rights of citizenship that are founded on utility, arguments of a type that cannot be used to outweigh true rights. The contrary maxim has too often provided tyrants with pretexts and excuses; it is in the name of utility that commerce and industry groan in their chains, and that Africans remain enslaved; it is in the name of public utility that the Bastille was filled with prisoners, that censors were appointed to limit the publication of books, that trials were held in secret, and that suspects were tortured. [...]

15I now ask you to be so kind as to refute my arguments with something other than jokes or rants. I would like you to explain in particular, any natural difference between men and women that would legitimately justify excluding women from rights.

16The equality of rights established between men in our new constitution has brought upon us eloquent declamations and ceaseless derision; but until now, nobody has been able to provide a single reason against this equality of rights, and this failure has not been for want of talent, nor for want of trying. I am so bold as to believe that the same will be the case when it comes to the equality of rights between the sexes.

Read the free original text online (facsimile), 1790 edition: http://lf-oll.s3.amazonaws.com/​titles/​1014/​0570_Bk.pdf

Notes

1 Nicolas de Condorcet, ‘Sur l’admission des femmes au droit de cité’, Journal de la Societé de 1789, V, 3 July 1790, pp. 1-13.