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Angels and Demons in the Moral Vision of Auguste Comte Mary Pickering The feminine revolution now must complete the proletarian revolution, just as the latter consolidated the bourgeois revolution, which first emanated from the philosophical revolution. Auguste Comte, 1852 In The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill wrote, "One can to an almost laughable degree, infer what a man's wife is like, from his opinions about women in general."1 Whereas Mill is considered a leading feminist of the nineteenth century, Auguste Comte, the founder of positivism and sociology, is regarded as one of the era's greatest misogynists. Reading the letters between these two men tussling over the "woman question" and Comte's major work of the 1830s and 40s, the Cours de philosophie positive, many scholars have dismissed Comte as yet another advocate of women's subordination.2 However, this article will demonstrate that his attitudes toward women were complex, contradictory, and variable. Like many of his contemporaries, Comte was basically an essentialist, who maintained that women were different from men. As Michèle Le Doeuff has remarked, the current "feminism of difference ... is apparently unaware of how much it owes to Auguste Comte."3 Yet throughout his life, he wavered on how he regarded the differences between men and women. In the beginning and end of his life, he valorized the differences, while in the middle, he deplored them and tended toward misogyny. These changes reflect, on the one hand, his own relationship with his wife and other women, as Mill implies; on the other hand, they point to tensions in the nineteenth-century cult of domesticity. Such inconsistencies of thought, particularly regarding the representation of women, reveal the sites of contestation in the culture at large.4 The questions that I will address include the following: How and why did Comte's attitudes toward women change? What effect, if any, did these changes have on the scientific doctrine of positivism? And finally, what do these changes tell us about the underlying tensions in the patriarchal culture of the early nineteenth century—a culture that found its claim to hegemony increasingly difficult to maintain? Comte first alluded to the "woman question" in 1819, while involved at the age of twenty-one in an affair with a married woman. He wrote to © 1996 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 8 No. 2 (Summer) 1996 Mary Pickering 11 his childhood friend Pierre Valat that this "half of the human species is worth . . . mfinitely more than the other [half]." Expressing staunchly feminist sentiments, he explained that he hoped to compensate for the "general offenses" of his sex, because "women ... have suffered so much from the males of their species." A male typically manipulated the "horrible law of the strongest" to lord it over a woman, whom he regarded as a "domestic animal" or "toy destined for all eternity for the good pleasure and usage of his Majesty Man." Comparing women to other oppressed groups, slaves and serfs, Comte lamented that a poor woman, to survive, had to sell her body or work in the hardest, worst paid jobs imaginable. Men left women the "very smallest number of professions and the least lucrative ones." Progress, according to Comte, included not only women's liberation from male domination but improvements in their economic status. Yet, because he recognized that class, race, and gender issues were linked, he maintained that women would not be freed until all men achieved their liberty. Thus women everywhere should be "liberals," for their own social and political conditions would improve only with the general advance of civilization.5 In implying that women had political rights and in condemning the Napoleonic Code, which legalized the patriarchal system and denied them citizenship, Comte suggested that they should become engaged in public affairs. Women could then ensure that moral force—the "law of common interests"—would supersede arbitrary physical force—the "law of the strongest"—to become the directing power of society.6 Born in 1798, Comte was deeply influenced by the feminist discourse that developed around the time of the French Revolution, when women used equal rights arguments to support their demand for a role in the new...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 10-40
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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