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Egalitarianism

Posted On: Sunday, December 04, 2016  By:  Peter Ricketson

 

Probably the most thought provoking and rewarding area of study in the new Australian History Curriculum is the topic on Progressive Ideas.

Units on Darwinism, Chartism, Socialism, Nationalism and Imperialism are already available on the Histoire website. Whether Imperialism or Nationalism can be considered ‘progressive’ is arguable, but few would deny that the ideals of Egalitarianism are progressive and worth fighting for.

A very comprehensive unit on Egalitarianism with a focus on The Campaign for Women’s Equality is now available on the website.

One of the most important progressive ideas to emerge from the late eighteenth century was egalitarianism, a belief in the principle that all people are equal and should have equal social, political and economic rights. Egalitarians saw equality as a moral question as well as being a fundamental right. Was it fair that women were treated as inferior to men? Was it fair that the colour of a person’s skin determined their future? Was it fair that the accident of birth gave one person power and privilege over another person? Many progressive leaders argued that just because inequality existed did not mean that it had to be accepted.

In the 21st Century the right to equality is now largely accepted in theory, if not always in practice, but in the late eighteenth century it was a revolutionary idea that threatened to overturn the way society was organised and governed. Very few people experienced equality, especially women, the poor and slaves.

The two century long struggle for economic, social, political and gender equality has made enormous gains, but there is still a long way to go. Unfortunately, the current political will in many national governments to guarantee equal opportunities for its citizens seems to have waned over the last couple of decades. Using 2015 data from Credit Suisse, Oxfam estimated that 1% of the world’s population now has as much wealth as the whole rest of the world. Just 62 people own the equivalent of 50% of the world’s population.

Growing inequality has become a major concern. In late October this year two and a half thousand Sydney people gave up their Sunday afternoon to listen to the French author, Thomas Piketty give a talk on ‘Is Increased Inequality Inevitable ?’ in his 2014 book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty had argued that :

“The distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers.” (p.2)

The American President, Barack Obama also identified growing inequality as a major issue facing his country and declared that ;

“I believe this is the defining challenge of our time” and that this “increasing inequality… challenges the very essence of who we are as a people.”

President Obama went on to emphasise the egalitarian principles of America’s founders.

“The premise that we’re all created equal is the opening line in the American story. And while we don’t promise equal outcomes, we have strived to deliver equal opportunity -- the idea that success doesn’t depend on being born into wealth or privilege, it depends on effort and merit.”

 

The whole of this important speech is published on the White House website.

As well as concern for growing economic, and therefore political and social inequality, there has also emerged a concern that the hard-won battles for women’s equality might also be under threat. With a sense of history and what was a stake in the American Presidential elections this year, the Australian writer and journalist, Anne Summers said that,

Like a lot of women around the world, I donned white on US Election Day, in honour of the suffragettes who fought so hard so women could partake in our democracy.

Following the election of Donald Trump, Anne Summers stated that :

We are now hurtling back to the baddest of bad old days where women are rated on their appearances, where few hold high office or other leadership roles, where they continue to get paid less and where, most importantly of all, they are not in control of their reproductive capability.

Thomas Piketty suggested that the basic questions of equality are too important an issue to be left to historians. But I don’t fully agree. Historians might not be able to reverse the anti-egalitarian trend that is sweeping parts of the world at the moment, but historians can give a context to what is happening.

Without a context of what has been achieved by a wide range of progressive ideas over the last 200 years it is very difficult to mount a coherent defence of those ideas under threat.

Engaging students with the development and evolution of a progressive idea such as egalitarianism is of vital importance to our continued health as a democracy.

The area of egalitarianism that has been focused on is the long campaign for women’s equality.

But not yet in America 2016. Suffragette cartoon 1900.

In the light of Anne Summers’ feelings about the results for women of the American Presidential campaign it is instructive to go back 225 years and re-read Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Wollstonecraft strongly asserted that women had exactly the same rights as men and would not accept any argument about women’s inferiority. She clearly stated that the aim of her book was to achieve “justice for one half of the human race.”

A Vindication of the Rights of Women was so important because for the first time women were provided with a way of thinking about women’s rights as well as how women’s rights could be achieved through social and political reform. For this reason A Vindication of the Rights of Women is often credited with being the founding document of modern feminism.

We strongly recommend this unit on the campaign for Women’s Equality because it will not only provide students with the broad historical context of what women have achieved over the last 200 years, but also a way of thinking about how gender equity might be still under threat today.

For example you can take six recurrent themes of Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing to measure what progress has been made since she first expressed them in 1792.

(1) Equal opportunities for education was the key for women achieving equal status with men. Education for life and not just for marriage and motherhood would prepare women for taking their full place in society.

(2) Equality could not be achieved without financial independence. Women, therefore, had the right to earn their own living and make their own decisions about their own personal lives.

(3) Social divisions based on gender were artificial and created by men to justify the subjection of women. Women were not the ‘weaker sex’, but shared a common nature with men.

(4) Women had been manipulated into accepting and conforming to a male version of the feminine ideal. Wollstonecraft warned young women of the traps awaiting them :

¡ being trapped into a state of dependency by believing that they should be brought up to be delicate and that delicacy was an end in itself;

¡ being trapped into a false sense of themselves and their worth by accepting the world of appearances;

¡ being trapped into submerging themselves into the life of the body by accepting the male emphasis on female beauty;

¡ being trapped into accepting that her success as a woman would be in proportion to her ability to please a man;

¡ being trapped into playing the fashionable role of coquette (to attract attention and win admiration by behaving seductively). By ‘playing the game’ girls accepted a version of female sexuality imposed by men that subtly prepared them to live only a limited life through their sexuality.

Wollstonecraft argued that once women’s powers of reason had been sharpened through education they would reject male manipulation of their lives.

(5) Women had also been manipulated into accepting a negative stereotype of themselves as being physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially inferior to men. Education would free women from passively accepting this crushing stereotype.

(6) There was more to a woman’s life than the frivolous world of appearances, gossip and pleasing a man.

As well as an extensive study of the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft, this unit plots the campaign for women’s equality through the lives and achievements of four other prominent campaigners for women’s rights. The women chosen are Fanny Wright, Barbara Bodicon, Vida Goldstein and Emmeline Pankhurst. Along the way students will meet many other women, movements and events that contributed to the status many women enjoy today.

I am sure you will find this a most rewarding and very relevant area of study for your students.