On the Civic Advancement of Women (Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber) (1792) by Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel
“As though freedom, with all its discomforts, were not preferable to the most comfortable slavery!” – Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel
Theodor Gottlieb Hippel’s (1841-1896) writings on the position of women in society presented a radical view of women and their abilities. He also discussed men and their active subjugation of the female sex. Published during the Age of Enlightenment, when reason and liberalism were the focus of intellectual and philosophical writing, von Hippel’s work contributed to a wider intellectual debate about women’s place into this new understanding of the world. Close friends with famous philosopher Emanuel Kant, Hippel was at the center of Enlightenment culture.
As a writer, Hippel often published satirical texts and he wove this wit into his writings on women, accounting for some of their popularity. His most famous work at the time was his treatise on marriage, Über die Ehe, published in 1744. He advocated for the institution of marriage being separated from religion, arguing that marriage should be conceived as a more fundamental union between two people. However, now his most famous work is On the Civic Advancement of Women (Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber), 1792, which is cited as one of the first major works on the issue of feminism.
The Enlightenment period was marked by an increased presence of women in a number of social settings. Salons especially provided a space in which both men and women could come together and discuss the issues of the day. In was in these salons in seventeenth century Paris that the “woman question” became one of the most popular topics of discussion. Women were often the hosts of salons and so were able to actively direct discussion towards the question of women’s place in society. They also participated in these debates alongside men, in turn demonstrating their intellectual ability. This was important during this time as reason was advocated as the most noble human quality.
One such advocate of this ethos was René Descartes (1596-1650), who argued that capacity for reason existed among all human beings, independently of the body. Another author who had tremendous impact on the literature surrounding the position of women was Jean Jacques Rousseau. A common theme that ran through all his writing was the fear of women’s influence on men and the subsequent loss of masculinity. He often blamed the ills of modern society on the increasing presence of women in wider society. It was into this turbulent intellectual debate that Hippel entered when he published On the Civic Advancement of Women (Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber) in 1792.
While it was published in the same year as Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous A Vindication of the Rights of Women Hippel went much further in his critique of contemporary gender relations and his solutions to the issue of inequality. Hippel objected strongly to the exclusion of women from the rights of man. Part of what makes his writing so radical is that he openly criticizes the part men play in the suppression of women. He questions men’s fear of women’s freedom active denial of women’s agency and suggests that it was consciously done for the sole benefit of men, “Do you really believe that half the world exists merely for your pleasure?” he asks his reader. He dismisses the notion that guardianship is better for women argues that even the most uncomfortable freedom is better than the most comfortable slavery. He further emphasizes the conscious nature of men’s actions by describing it as “sin” against half the human race and against the will of God.Hippel furthers his argument and relates it to the Enlightenment debate of unalienable rights by placing it more explicitly in the context of human rights. He states that “The female sex lost its human rights through no fault of its own”. This phrasing illustrates that he believes men have taken away the unalienable rights granted to all humans, rather than simply saying that they were never granted to women.
Hippel also emphasize the skills that women have to offer the public sphere, demonstrating that his argument is not solely based on the idea that all humans should have the same rights but that on a more practical level both men and women have shown that they are worthy of the same human rights. He gives the example of the economy, as women are more than capable of controlling and successfully running their own homes so surely they could be just as successful running the state’s economy too. He also suggests women may be more qualified to control the economy as men “have so masterfully turned it upside-down” which even in today’s context is still a very provocative argument to make.
What makes Hippel’s On the Civic Advancement of Women (Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Weiber) so relevant today is the direct manner in which he addresses men in this work. It is still relatively uncommon for a man to speak out so passionately about women’s rights let alone men’s part in their subjugation. This argument is significant as it addresses the need to change gender relations as a whole; not just women’s actions within the current system. Furthermore, Hippel’s emphasis on universal human rights is relevant to today’s debates surrounding intersectional feminism. The Enlightenment is most commonly seen as a time when the idea of equal rights reshaping politics. However, it was just men who were benefiting from this new ideology. Therefore, we must consider today, at a time when the issue of feminism is being so widely discussed, who is being included in the contemporary feminist narrative. We must be mindful that feminism must include all women, not just a select few.
Katherine Trott, History Major, 2019
Literature and Websites
- Hippel, Theodor Gottlieb. On Improving the Status of Women. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979.
- Goodman, Dena. “Women and the Enlightenment”. In Becoming Visible: Women in European History, ed. Renate Bridenthal, Susan Mosher Stuard, Merry E. Wiesner. 233-262. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.