The Enlightenment and Race and Gender

Term Paper 2012 12 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Region: USA




I The Enlightenment thinkers

II The Enlightenment and Race
a. Anti-Semitism
b. Slavery

III The Enlightenment and Gender


List of Reference


For centuries, the term ‘Enlightenment’ has been used by historiographers and historians to refer to a period in history which was marked by great change in the way people thought about the essence of life. It was coined by people who believed that they had finally found answers to life’s problems – not in religion but in science. Many revolutions were born out of this age of reason, including the French Revolution which today is generally used to mark the end of the Enlightenment era. Its ideals of liberté, egalité and fraternité were carried through out Europe and even into the Americas. Yet, whether these goals were achieved, especially in connection with gender and race, shall be further discussed in this essay.

At the outset of this paper will be a brief introduction to the Enlightenment and its most important philosophes. In the following two chapters, this paper will take a closer look at the relationship between the Enlightenment and ideas of race and gender. How did Enlightenment thinkers address and handle these topics? What was the legacy of Enlightenment concerning women and in particular black emancipation? How does anti-Semitism relate to the subject, and how could racism avail in societies that claimed to stand for equality of rights?

Acknowledging that the United States of America is a nation which was founded and thoroughly shaped by Enlightenment thinkers, this paper will focus just as much on the developments in the nation states of Europe as it will on the United States of America.

I The Enlightenment thinkers

Prior to the Enlightenment, issues such as law, government, gender, and race were almost solely addressed from a religious angle. The Church of Rome put in place social structures and laws based on its understanding and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures while the commonality was expected to simply accept and submit. However, in the late 17th century, intellectual thinkers arose in France, England, Germany, and other European countries who believed that human beings were not meant to be marionettes of any religious or political institution. Instead, they began to embrace the idea that they each man was subject to his own decisions, rather than to predestination. Realizing that they had the power to bring about change through the choices they made, they started believing that they could influence their communities for the better. Increasingly, they turned to science for answers. A severe sense for justice and a hunger for knowledge based on reason rather than revelation was what drove them despite violent counteraction.

Voltaire was one of the most influential French writers of the Enlightenment. He lived between 1694 and 1778[1] and strongly promoted the right to freedom of speech, of expression, of religion, and of press.[2] The radicalism which accompanied his beliefs can be heard and felt in his famous quote: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will fight to death for your right to say it.”[3] Having spent nearly three years in British exile, his early convictions were shaped by English philosophers and the British form of government. Still, in terms of race his beliefs were opposed to those of British philosophers. While British thinkers – due to strong Christian teaching – believed in monogenesis of human beings[4], Voltaire’s thoughts on race were polygenistic[5]. He believed that every ‘race’ had its own separate origin. In this connection, he began to wonder whether blacks were maybe less intelligent than whites.[6]

When philosophes addressed ‘the gender question’, similar thoughts were uttered and put down in writing. Jean-Jacque Rousseau, for one, believed that women were “made specifically to please man”[7] and that their place and role in society were restricted to the home.[8] His strong opposition to women’s demands for emancipation were often referred to and used as justification for political or social gender inequality.[9]

II The Enlightenment and Race

Post-modern literature on the Enlightenment and race has repeatedly brought forth the argument that biological racism is a rather new phenomenon born out of and nourished by the Enlightenment.[10] The following two subchapters shall substantiate this argument by drawing on concrete examples from European and American history.

a. Anti-Semitism

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europeans practiced so-called religious racism – the discrimination and violent opposition of anyone non-Christian.[11] During this time, Jews had the worst repute, since they wore the stigma of having killed Christ, the Son of God.[12] They lived in ghettoes[13], and for centuries, they suffered discrimination, torture, and religious killings because of this stigma. As historians confirm, there was a cure to the ‘disease of Judaism’: conversion.[14] This cure, however, was only recognized as such as long as religious differences were the main reason for discrimination. With the Enlightenment – a time, where religion radically decreased in power – a new reason for their discrimination appeared. This new form of racism was no longer based on religious beliefs, but on science. The argument now was the innate evilness of Jews, which was incurable.[15]

While the slogan of the French Revolution speaks of liberté and egalité, not all advocates of the Enlightenment favoured the liberty or equality of people from different racial or ethnic backgrounds – specifically Jews. With the French Revolution, Jewish ghettoes were rescinded and their former inhabitants liberated from “special taxes, restrictions of movement, and political and social segregation”[16]. They also gained French citizenship. Indeed, these were great improvements and only possible because of the Enlightenment. However, the moment Napoleon seized power, the old order of social and political discrimination was put back in place, and carried on as had before. Also, when Charles Darwin – mid-19th century – came up with his theory of ‘the survival of the fittest’, the belief grew that the government had the right and the responsibility to protect the survival of the strongest species by sterilizing or exterminating humans that were thought to weaken or retard its progression.[17] When German Enlightenment writers ‘identified’ the Aryans as ‘the master race’ and themselves as their direct descendants, Jews – along with anyone thought to be a weak link in the lineage of pure blooded Aryans – became known as ‘parasites’ that had to be eradicated.[18] The innate evilness which was attributed to Jews almost two centuries before the Holocaust now led to a national fear amongst Germans which in their eyes justified their falling back on the “final solution”[19].


[1] Cf. Munck 2000: 1.

[2] Cf. Chetty 2012: slide 18.

[3] Chetty 2012: slide 18.

[4] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 66.

[5] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 62.

[6] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 62.

[7] Rousseau 1762: 249.

[8] Cf. Rousseau 1762: 250.

[9] Cf. Munck 2000: 17.

[10] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 53, 56, 86.

[11] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 30.

[12] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 18.

[13] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 65.

[14] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 20.

[15] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 19, 56, 79.

[16] Frederickson 2002: 65.

[17] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 85-86.

[18] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 90, 92

[19] Cf. Frederickson 2002: 113, 120.


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Title: The Enlightenment and Race and Gender