Condorcet took the question of political rights to its logical conclusions. He argued that if rights were indeed universal, as the doctrine of natural rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen both seemed to imply, then they must apply to all adults. Condorcet consequently argued in favor of granting political rights to Protestants and Jews and advocated the abolition of the slave trade and slavery itself. He went further than any other leading revolutionary spokesman, however, when he insisted that women, too, should gain political rights. His newspaper article to that effect caused a sensation and stimulated those of like mind to publish articles of their own. But the campaign was relatively short–lived and ultimately unsuccessful; the prejudice against granting political rights to women would prove the most difficult to uproot.
Habit can familiarize men with the violation of their natural rights to the point that among those who have lost them no one dreams of reclaiming them or believes that he has suffered an injustice.
Some of these violations even escaped the philosophers and legislators when with the greatest zeal they turned their attention to establishing the common rights of the individuals of the human race and to making those rights the sole foundation of political institutions. For example, have they not all violated the principle of equality of rights by quietly depriving half of mankind of the right to participate in the formation of the laws, by excluding women from the rights of citizenship? Is there a stronger proof of the power of habit even among enlightened men than seeing the principle of equality of rights invoked in favor of three or four hundred men deprived of their rights by an absurd prejudice [perhaps he is thinking of actors here] and at the same time forgetting those rights when it comes to twelve million women?
For this exclusion not to be an act of tyranny one would have to prove that the natural rights of women are not absolutely the same as those of men or show that they are not capable of exercising them. Now the rights of men follow only from the fact that they are feeling beings, capable of acquiring moral ideas and of reasoning about these ideas. Since women have the same qualities, they necessarily have equal rights. Either no individual in mankind has true rights, or all have the same ones; and whoever votes against the right of another, whatever be his religion, his color, or his sex, has from that moment abjured his own rights.
It would be difficult to prove that women are incapable of exercising the rights of citizenship. Why should beings exposed to pregnancies and to passing indispositions not be able to exercise rights that no one ever imagined taking away from people who have gout every winter or who easily catch colds? Even granting a superiority of mind in men that is not the necessary consequence of the difference in education (which is far from being proved and which ought to be if women are to be deprived of a natural right without injustice), this superiority can consist in only two points. It is said that no woman has made an important discovery in the sciences or given proof of genius in the arts, letters, etc. But certainly no one would presume to limit the rights of citizenship exclusively to men of genius. Some add that no woman has the same extent of knowledge or the same power of reasoning as certain men do; but what does this prove except that the class of very enlightened men is small? There is complete equality between women and the rest of men; if this little class of men were set aside, inferiority and superiority would be equally shared between the two sexes. Now since it would be completely absurd to limit the rights of citizenship and the eligibility for public offices to this superior class, why should women be excluded rather than those men who are inferior to a great number of women?
. . . It is said that women have never been guided by what is called reason despite much intelligence, wisdom, and a faculty for reasoning developed to the same degree as in subtle dialecticians. This observation is false: they have not conducted themselves, it is true, according to the reason of men but rather according to their own. Their interests not being the same due to the defects of the laws, the same things not having for them at all the same importance as for us, they can, without being unreasonable, determine their course of action according to other principles and work toward a different goal. It is as reasonable for a woman to occupy herself with the embellishment of her person as it was for Demosthenes [a Greek orator] to cultivate his voice and gestures.
It is said that women, though better than men in that they are gentler, more sensitive, and less subject to the vices that follow from egotism and hard hearts, do not really possess a sense of justice; that they obey their feelings rather than their consciences. This observation is truer but it proves nothing. It is not nature but rather education and social conditions that cause this difference. Neither the one nor the other has accustomed women to the idea of what is just, only to the idea of what is becoming or proper. Removed from public affairs, from everything that is decided according to the most rigorous idea of justice, or according to positive laws, they concern themselves with and act upon precisely those things which are regulated by natural propriety and by feeling. It is therefore unjust to advance as grounds for continuing to refuse women the enjoyment of their natural rights those reasons that only have some kind of reality because women do not enjoy these rights in the first place.
If one admits such arguments against women, it would also be necessary to take away the rights of citizenship from that portion of the people who, having to work without respite, can neither acquire enlightenment nor exercise its reason, and soon little by little the only men who would be permitted to be citizens would be those who had followed a course in public law.
. . . It is natural for a woman to nurse her children, to care for them in their infancy; attached to her home by these cares, weaker than a man, it is also natural that she lead a more retiring, more domestic life. Women would therefore be in the same class with men who are obliged by their station or profession to work several hours a day. This may be a reason for not preferring them in elections, but it cannot be the grounds for their legal exclusion.
. . . I demand now that these arguments be refuted by other means than pleasantries or ranting; above all that someone show me a natural difference between men and women that can legitimately found [women's] exclusion from a right.
Source: The materials listed below appeared originally in The French Revolution and Human Rights: A Brief Documentary History, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Lynn Hunt (Boston/New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996), 119–121.