The history of women is a central theme in the comparative historical perspectives of writers of the Enlightenment, most notably in Scotland and France. The condition of women was treated as an ‘index’ or even a ‘thermometer’ registering the stage of development, the level of civilization, the standard of politeness, achieved in a particular society. It was assumed that all societies would progress through a series of stages, economic, political and cultural, and that manners and social institutions of those stages — including the gender relations and structures of marriage — were distinctive. Even more significantly, the relations of the sexes became a central theme in understanding the significant motors of progress, the pursuit of desires to be met through different forms of commerce, in the acquisition of land and property, in the fulfilment of sexual desire and in the refining exchanges of conversation and sociability. In the same way, the situation of women was particularly significant in the representation of those who were not part of the modern commercial societies of western Europe, whether these were the native Americans or African slaves of the eighteenth century, or the early peoples of the European past, German, Caledonian or Scandinavian. The importance of gender relations in such histories was to have a lengthy legacy, to nineteenth-century liberal views of progress and to liberal feminism, as well as to a discipline such as anthropology. As Tomaselli points out, the direct response of Friedrich Engels to that legacy in 1888 was a socialist and materialist, yet also romantic, version of the history of women.


Gender Relation Distant Past Commercial Society Moral Worth Comparative History 
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© Jane Rendall 2005

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