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Catherine Macaulay and feminism


To: Connie T.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Catharine Macaulay and feminism
Date: 5 February 2003 14:40

Dear Connie,

Thank you for your e-mail of 3 February, with your paper towards the Associate Award, 'The Impact of Catharine Macaulay's View of Human Nature on Her Educational Philosophy'.

You make a convincing case for the importance of Catharine Macaulay's work. Her ideas appear to have been well before her time. Your paper is well argued, clear and leaves the reader in no doubt about the originality of Macaulay's educational philosophy. You also succeed in exhibiting vividly one of the main bones of contention in contemporary feminism, the value of 'male' characteristics.

The philosopher can point out that there is a logical difficulty here, which infects any attempt to argue for a radically different way of viewing some aspect the world. You talk of Macaulay's "resistance to the proposition that a separate, limited female nature exists. Conversely, her denial holds too for the existence of a separate male nature." Yet you also want to talk about 'male' characteristics and 'female' characteristics. The point here is not simply that when the feminist talks of 'male' characteristics she means, 'characteristics believed falsely to belong naturally to men as opposed to women', and similarly for alleged 'female' characteristics. It is not enough to lump all 'male' and 'female' characteristics together and assert that the ideal human being has them all. Because one ought to be able to say (in fact, you should say) that some of these characteristics exist for bad reasons, exist because of this false division between 'natures', and in a perfect world ought not to exist at all.

In other words, what we are talking about, are virtues and vices. It is possible to possess the virtues falsely associated with men in perfect harmony with the virtues falsely associated with women. Any characteristics which cannot be so combined must, therefore, be vices and not virtues.

Why 'must'? It is not enough to argue that human beings are perfectible. There can be more than one ideal of perfection. Thus, the difference between men and women, according to Rousseau, is not that men are perfectible but women are not, but rather, simply, that the ideal man is different from the ideal women. Logically, no judgement is required as to the relative value of these disparate ideals (whatever Rousseau might have believed). However, Rousseau seems to go further in asserting that society requires the realization of both ideals. Neither ideal is attainable in the absence of the other.

There is no doubting the ferocity of Macaulay's opposition to this picture. The question the philosopher has to ask is whether her view, persuasive though it may be to modern ears, does in fact follow, as she believes, from a particular conception of the Deity. (Another question, waiting in the wings, is of course what grounds we have for preferring Macaulay's view to that of Rousseau, in the absence of such an appeal.)

None of the snippets about God that you quote from Macaulay looks sufficiently convincing. (This is not a criticism of your paper.) 'Justice in the distribution of favours', for example, looks like just as good a case for Rousseau as for Macaulay. A stronger case is made with the idea of a God who perfectly combines male and female characteristics. However, one can imagine Rousseau's response. "God is infinite, whereas we are only finite." The fact that we are 'made in God's image', that we are 'perfectible' because God is perfect, does not logically entail the conclusion that Macaulay wishes to draw.

One main strength of your paper lies in highlighting the emphasis placed by Macaulay on the notion of education aimed at combating 'false consciousness', a startlingly modern notion. She held a view, the religious foundation of which is possibly open to doubt. But she thought through the consequences of that view with admirable clarity and foresight.

All the best,