Cartesianism and sexual politics

European Conceptions of Women in the Early Modern Period

Seventeenth and Eighteenth century conceptions of the status of women, both on the continent and in England varied across culture, nationality, and religion. But there were some important commonalities.

Education, even for the relatively wealthy, was generally limited and had a significant religious component. And though there is a marked tendency towards increased education as the seventeenth century developed, women in particular had very limited access to formal education, it being seen as inessential for the purposes for which the woman was expected to exert herself. These purposes or ends were primarily the raising and care of family and management of household affairs. Such activities included childbearing (fertility rates were high, in part because of high infant mortality), cleaning, cooking, feeding, and in more affluent households, the management of servants and workers.

Men, as such, typically enjoyed significant legal privileges over women. They often had absolute authority over the running of family affairs, which included ownership of all property, and ultimate control of the purse. Women had some legal protections but normally could not work outside the household without their husband or father’s permission, could not own property, could not vote, and could not independently seek an education or marry (there were exceptions to some of these, depending on time and place, but they were just that, exception). The lack of education in particular had significant implications for attempts by women to assert their equality. Lacking in education as they were, it was difficult for women to even recognize or articulate the nature and conditions of their oppression, much debate on equal footing with educated men on the various intellectual, religious, moral, and aesthetic issues of the day. Moreover, their critiques were usually confined to works written or translated into their own native tongue.

There are, of course, exceptions to these restrictions, but it is no surprise that many well-known or influential women intellectuals were also either extremely wealthy, aristocrats, well-connected in the church, or some combination of these.

Cartesian Sexual Politics

A Universal Reason

Astell articulates a broadly Cartesian conception of the mind and its activities. Astell, like Descartes, conceives of the human mind as consisting of faculties or capacities for performing certain sorts of activity. The two most fundamental capacities are those of understanding and will. She conceives of the understanding as the capacity of the mind to be conscious of its ideas, and of the content of these ideas as the basis of what is known. What are ideas? Astell presents two different senses of them—general and strict. Here’s her characterization of ideas in general.

By Ideas we sometimes understand in general all that which is the immediate Object of the Mind, whatever it Perceives; and in this large Sense it may take in all Thought, all that we are any ways capable of Discerning: So when we have no Idea of a thing, ’tis as much as to say we know nothing of the matter. cite:astell2002, 168

Thus ideas—the immediate objects of the mind—are required for knowledge. Astell also has a stricter account of ideas:

Again, it is more strictly taken for that which represents to the Mind some object distinct from it, whether Clearly or Confusedly; when this is its import, our Knowledge is said to be as Clear as our Ideas are. For that Idea which represents a thing so Clearly, that by an Attent and Simple View we may discern its Properties and Modifications, at least so far as they can be Known, is never false; for our Certainty and Evidence depends on it, if we Know not Truly what is thus represented to our Minds we know nothing. cite:astell2002, 168

Thus, not only are ideas required for knowledge, but we can have “clear” or “obscure” and “distinct” or “confused” ideas. We know best and most completely or perfectly when our ideas are clear and distinct.

Astell contends that when we know something it is either because of

Error is the result, not of some imperfection in our ideas or the broader activity of the understanding, but of the misuse of the will (see also Descartes’ Fourth Meditation). In finite rational beings such as ourselves, error occurs when the will causes the understanding to judge that something is (or is not) the case despite lacking

In her discussion of the

The Mind as Unsexed

Icon by Nun from The Noun Project. Website built with Org-mode, Hugo, and Netlify.