How Does Feminism Change How We Understand the Values of Equality

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, feminism can be described as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” This view of feminism however, was not always the case, as the definition of feminism has changed over the decades, from its sudden popularity after the rise of the Suffragette movement in the early 20th century, to the present day. Equality, can described as “the right of different groups of people to have a similar social position and receive the same treatment.” Similarly to the definition of feminism, the definition of equality has changed over the course of  the recent centuries. This is seen in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of feminism, in that it is unnecessary and his primary concerns in his writing is the social and economical equality of man, rather than the equality between the sexes. Rousseau describes the patriarchy to be a ‘necessary part of life.’ John Stuart Mill, who was prevalent a century after Rousseau, advocated for the education of women and aimed for ‘perfect equality’ between the two genders, juxtaposing Rousseau’s ideals as well as highlighting the change that was seen in society over the course of a century. Finally Iris Marion Young’s view of feminism captures the modern day societies view of equality and feminism, as she highlights the worldwide oppression of women, and the structural injustice felt by women in society. 

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Rousseau’s view on feminism contradicts that of societies modern day view of feminism and equality. Rousseau was not an advocator women’s rights, unlike Mill who despite being predominant in the 19th century, before the surge of the popular suffragette movement, was a prominent advocate for women’s rights to education. In his work ‘Emile’, he states that, “Always justify the burdens you impose upon girls but impose them anyway. They must be thwarted from an early age. They must be exercised to constraint, so that it costs them nothing to stifle all their fantasies to submit them to the will of others.” When Rousseau speaks of equality, he focuses mainly on the social hierarchy and the economic equality of man, rather than the equality between both male and female. Rousseau identities two types of inequality between men, one being a natural in equality as a result of “the difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind, or of the soul.” And the other being a result of a convention,, which “consists in the different privileges, which some men enjoy, to the prejudice of others, such as that of being richer, more honoured, more powerful, and even that of exacting obedience from them.”Rousseau blames the inequality between men, in his work ‘Discourse of Inequality’, as a result of the invention of private property, and the division of labour, which in turn allowed for the poor to be exploited by their economical superiors, “all equality vanished; property started up; labour became necessary; and boundless forests became smiling fields, which it was found necessary to water with human sweat, and in which slavery and misery were soon seen to sprout out and grow with the fruits of the earth.” Rousseau’s lamenting of the inequities between man emphasise the values of equality at the time. In the 18th century, during the times of industrial revolution and major change globally, the old way of life was slowly beginning to dwindle away, while a new social hierarchy was beginning to take shape. Rousseau’s views can be compared to those of Young’s as both believe in the inequality of  the economic hierarchy, Young argues that due to the exploitation of the lower class, they are powerlessness against the upper class, however the upper class need the lower class in order to maintain their power, “Exploitation creates a system that perpetuates class differences, keeping the rich richer and the poor poorer.” Rousseau’s views of feminism do not change how we understand the values of equality, as Rousseau’s view of feminism directly reflects that of the time, it does not convey the modern day consensus for feminism, however it does show that the values of equality have remained the same as there is still somewhat of a social hierarchy today.

John Stuart Mill was born in 1806, and while he was born a century before its peak, his views on feminism concur with those of the suffragette’s. He understood the plight of women at the time, and sympathised with this, “Meanwhile the wife is the actual bondservant of her husband: no less so, as far as legal obligation goes, than slaves commonly so called. She vows a lifelong obedience to him at the altar, and is held to it all through her life by law.” His work, ‘The Subjection of Women’, an argument for equality between both genders, was the only major feminist theory written by a man at the time. The company that Mill kept shared his views on feminism, his long term friend whom he later married, Harriet Taylor Mill, was  a women’s right advocate and was said to have contributed to some of Mill’s works. He was friends with the leader of the suffragette movement, Emmeline Pankhurst’s husband, Richard Pankhurst. It can be argued that the company that surrounded Mill could have impacted his works in a liberal sense, as his views mostly contradicted those of the time. Mill’s liberal views also directly contradict that of Rousseau, which in turn highlights the shift in society as they were less than a century apart. Mill’s view of feminism changes how we understand the values of equality, because his views did not correlate those of the time, and his liberal views highlighted that society had the ability to change, unlike Rousseau, who’s views on equality directly corroborate with the views of the time, Mill showed that there was room for change and argued for it, advocating for the education of women, and arguing that women’s role in a marriage could be likened to slavery, “So far as the law is concerned, she is as subordinate to him as slaves, commonly so called, are to their masters.” Mill understood that feminism was not only the equality of women but the equality of both genders.

Iris Marion Young was born in 1949 in America, and her views of feminism and equality directly correlate with the modern day view. Young focuses on the theme of oppression throughout her work, in her book, ‘Justice and the Politics of Difference’ she states declares the five faces model to be; exploitation, marginalisation, powerlessness, cultural domination and violence. It is through this model that is it demonstrated that Young’s views parallels those of Mill’s as they are both liberal in their thinking. Jane Mansbridge argues that Young was, “a fighter for justice and against oppression. A strong commitment, a commitment there as long as any of us had known her, fuelled her writing and her activism.” Young’s feminism was stated to be part of her “commitment to justice.” Like Mill, Young’s views directly contradict those of Rousseau, who’s view represent the patriarchal society, that embodied 18th century Europe. While in comparison, it can be argued that Young embodies the view of society during the late 20th and early 21st century, in that she is a true advocate for women’s rights, and understands that there are still many barriers that must be crossed before trust equality is reached. In Young’s book, ‘Justice and the Politics of Difference,’ published in 1990, Derek Haggard argues that “Young’s book serves as perhaps the best attempt thus far at coming to terms with the appreciation of postmodern notions of “difference” within the context of a, still Marxist, critical theory.” This critique is similar to that of Mill’s work, in that they both understand and convey a comprehensive idea to the changing society in which they were written. Young’s view of feminism helps us understand the values of equality because she provides a coherent view of feminism, and as a result equality, in the modern and ever changing world, her views are similar to Mill’s in that they are both advocates for women’s rights. However, while Mill’s work was written in the 19th century, before women had the right to vote, and Young’s work was written in a seemingly more equal world, she both understands and conveys that there are ways to go before true equality is reached.

In conclusion, all three authors, Rousseau, Mill and Young all convey different views of feminism that help us to understand the values of equality from different viewpoints in different time periods. It is through Rousseau’s active disdain for any rights for women that he conveys the ideals of equality during the 18th century and societies attitude towards women at the time. It is through his pre-concern with the social and economical injustices that man suffered, that highlight the values of equality that were held up in that period. Mill’s liberal and futuristic view on feminism help us to understand the pace in which societies attitude to feminism and equality changed over the course of the 19th century. The immense contrast of his likening views to the suffragettes, to those of Rousseau set a precedent for future centuries. It is through Young’s writing that we understand the struggle the feminism still faces in the modern age, the contrast to Mill’s views and Young;s show the change that society underwent, but ultimately her views show that there is still oppression globally, through her ‘five faces of oppression’ model. As a result of these different views, they help us to understand the changing nature of feminism along with the values of equality, as each authors highlights the view in their specific time period and that societies general viewpoint can change overtime.