The issue of the ‘distinction of sex’ was central to the Enlightenment attempt to understand the role of women in contemporary society, yet it was also one of the areas of most fundamental disagreement. On the one hand, the period from the mid-eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries witnessed the development of a medical science which emphasised the enormous extent of physiological and psychological difference between men and women. On the other hand, Enlightenment sociologists dwelled upon the greater social and intellectual convergence between the sexes brought about by historical progress. Radical thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft were suspicious of this idea of convergence, seeing it as a form of managed and veiled inequality; her wish was to see the distinction of sex altogether ‘confounded’ in society as far as biologically possible. Debates over the social convergence and natural differences between the sexes were themselves versions of the old question about the extent to which woman was to be understood primarily as a natural or as a social category, and they had a particularly pronounced effect on attitudes towards women’s intellectual endeavours. All three of the articles in this section explore the tension between the naturalist and sociological tendencies of Enlightenment gender debate with this question of women’s intellectual potential to the fore.
KeywordsEighteenth Century Early Nineteenth Century Natural Difference Historical Progress Radical Thinker
Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.