Document 2B: "Degradation of Women in Civilization," Théorie des Quatre Mouvements et des Destinées Générales, (The Theory of the Four Movements and of the General Destinies), 3d ed. (originally published in 1808, this ed. 1841-1848). Republished in Oeuvres Complètes, I (Paris, 1966), pp. 131-33, 145-50. Reprinted in Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen, eds., Karen M. Offen, trans., Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate in Documents, Volume One, 1750-1880 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983), pp. 40-41.
Is there a shadow of justice to be seen in the fate that has befallen women? Is not a young woman a mere piece of merchandise displayed for sale to the highest bidder as exclusive property? Is not the consent she gives to the conjugal bond derisory and forced on her by the tyranny of the prejudices that obsess her from childhood on? People try to persuade her that her chains are woven only of flowers; but can she really have any doubt about her degradation, even in those regions that are bloated by philosophy such as England, where a man has the right to take his wife to market with a rope around her neck, and sell her like a beast of burden to anyone who will pay his asking price? Is our public opinion on this point much more advanced than in that crude era when the Council of Mâcon, a true council of vandals, debated whether or not women had a soul and decided in the affirmative by a margin of only three votes? English legislation, which the moralists praise so highly, grants men various rights that are no less degrading for the sex [women], such as the right of a husband to sue his wife's recognized lover for monetary indemnification. The French forms are less gross, but at bottom the slavery is always the same. Here as everywhere you can see young women languishing, falling ill and dying for want of a union that is imperiously dictated by nature but forbidden by prejudice, under penalty of being branded, before they have been legally sold. Such incidents, though rare, are still frequent enough to attest to the slavery of the weaker sex, scorn for the urgings of nature, and the absence of all justice with respect to women.
Among the signs that promise the happy results to come from the extension of women's privileges, we must cite the experience of other countries. We have seen that the best nations are always those that accord women the greatest amount of liberty; this can be seen as much among the Barbarians and Savages as among the Civilized. The Japanese, who are the most industrious, the bravest, and the most honorable of the Barbarians, are also the least jealous and the most indulgent toward women; this is so true that the Magots of China travel to Japan to deliver themselves up to the love that is forbidden them by their own hypocritical customs.
Likewise the Tahitans were the best among the Savages; given their relative lack of natural resources, no other people have developed their industry to such an extent. Among the Civilized, the French, who are the least inclined to persecute women, are the best in that they are the most flexible nation, the one from which a skillful ruler can get the best results in any sort of task. Despite a few defects such as frivolity, individual presumptuousness, and uncleanliness, however, the French are the foremost civilized nation owing to this single fact of adaptability, the trait most alien to the barbarian character.
Likewise it can be seen that the most corrupt nations have always been those in which women were most completely subjugated...
As a general thesis: Social progress and historic changes occur by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and decadence of the social order occurs as the result of a decrease in the liberty of women.
Other events influence these political changes, but there is no cause that produces social progress or decline as rapidly as change in the condition of women. I have already said that the mere adoption of closed harems would speedily turn us into Barbarians, and the mere opening of the harems would suffice to transport the Barbarians into Civilization. In summary, the extension of women's privileges is the general principle for all social progress.
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