Conscience was invented by a woman, Daniel Dombrowski playfully suggests in “The Heart of the Matter,” tracing the idea of conscience to Greek tragedy and Antigone’s rebellion against her king. But in real life, for most of our history, women were systematically denied the opportunity to develop and act on conscience because they were denied autonomy—the essential right of self-governance that Frank Furedi elucidates in An Anatomy of Autonomy. When Mary Wollstonecraft declared in 1791 that women were “rational creatures,” capable of exercising autonomy, she challenged law, culture and the supposedly safe harbor of home and family life, as well as prevailing concepts of the divine order.
One hundred years later, in The Solitude of Self, Elizabeth Cady Stanton clarified the existential challenge of autonomy: “We come into the world alone, unlike all who have gone before us; we leave it alone under circumstances peculiar to ourselves … No matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so, they must make the voyage of life alone.”
For many women, this was a fearful vision of freedom, and Stanton’s assertion of autonomy distinguished equal rights feminists from protectionists who still defined women primarily in relation to family and community. Asserting a woman’s duty to herself, as Wollstonecraft and Stanton dared to do in the 18th and 19th centuries, meant rejecting the ideal of feminine selflessness. It’s worth noting that the consequent view of feminism as selfish has persisted into the 21st century, fueling opposition to reproductive choice.
Lawyer, writer, social critic