Clarisse Coignet (1823-1918) made a place for herself among the dominant male peers of her time. A moral philosopher, an educator, and a historian, Coignet held true to the notion of women being multi-taskers and could hold more than one title. Not only was Clarisse Coignet this triple threat, she was an active leader of La Morale indèpendante, a political and social movement in France. The movement sought to establish morality’s independence from science and religion. A woman mindfully aware of the world around her, Coignet’s earliest works were in response to the reform of French educational system and proclamation of the Republic. She defended public education in a 1856 work and delved into moral education with a textbook for secular schools published in 1874 that garnered wide recognition and debate.
Coignet’s work as an editor with the newspaper La Morale indèpendante helped bring to fruition her most significant philosophical work entitled, La Morale indèpendante dans son principe et son objet. The work published in 1869 was inspired by Kantian thought and illustrated her position on the relation of moral philosophy and religion. Coignet discussed the concept of individual morality that originated as a political movement in France at the end of the 18th Century and became a social movement in the early 1860s. The social movement of independent morality at that time sought to bring forth a conception of morality in correspondence with the political ideals of the French Republic. In this work, Coignet established a view of moral science that she labeled as “the true philosophy.” She argued that moral science is independent in its sovereign and origin in human life. Its goal is to construct a new society and a new individual through equal rights and reciprocal obligations. This was different and radical as it elevated human right higher than divine right.
Coignet founded independent morality in the freedom of the individual. Morality is an autonomous science and freedom comes from human accomplishments and human conscience. Man is the creator of morality; he or she is an end in himself or herself and the cause, end, and agent of his or her own goals. For Coignet, people are responsible for their willful activity and become moral by intervention of conscience. Religion and morality are separated from each other but morality does not exclude religion entirely. Coignet stated that religion is excluded from society as a political power but that religion exists in the human soul. Her discussion on the independent morality aligned itself with the rising discussion about women’s suffrage existing in Britain. Independent morality sought to renew women’s dignity and change their roles in society, being seen as ends in themselves and free to be their own persons with rights and morals. Coignet believed education should not separate men and women but instead should mix them together in order to improve their weaknesses. Interestingly enough though, Coignet argued that no matter what the future for women would be, women’s nature would remain the same which is motherhood, producing children.
Unlike the previous section of women philosophers, there is very little background information about Clarisse Coignet, only that she was born in 1823. I searched for a history of Clarisse Coignet only to find a brief paragraph by Dr. Bremand Nathalie from the University of Poitiers in France. The short paragraph stated Clarisse Coignet was the niece of famous Fourier Clarissa Hale and was a Protestant. Despite that loss of information, there seems to be an extensive study of her philosophical work, La Morale indèpendante dans son principe et son objet. It is clear Kant, who worked in the same period of history, discussing duty and morality, influenced Clarisse Coignet.
What was unexpected or, I had assumed wrongly, was that Coignet was not fully supportive of women’s suffrage (particularly in France) and women’s superiority. She understood or saw the limitations women have in regards to being in position of power or great strength, as their nature is ultimately to bear children, which makes them weak in body. I would have thought she would be fully supportive of women’s roles, or voice more opinion on the fact women could be something other than mothers and pursue careers with power. If she believed that moral law is grounded in human reason and that man is an end in himself, why would she claim that the role women still be subjected to? If a woman is a sovereign end in herself, should she not be able to be something other than a mother without discrimination? This seems to be a double standard.
Women are free to be their own persons, but their nature to be mothers hinders them from truly being their own persons. This idea still exists; women are struggling to stay at home or work as President or CEO of a company. The problem hasn’t resolved at all, but merely discussed and debated. At a point in history, the independent woman was seen as the role model for all other women to be free and true to themselves. But today, it seems like women are struggling with, on the one hand, a strong sense of independence and, on the other hand, a rising appreciation for motherhood.
Coignet seems to place a great deal of power and status on a human being in regards to morality and judgment. Are not human beings flawed creatures who can be driven by passion more often than reason? If that is the case, I do not see morality as grounded in human reason because it could be flawed. How can it be purely objective if morality comes from human conscience as each person might have different views?
Chapter 10. "Clarisse Coignet" by Jennifer Allen in A History of Women Philosophers: Modern Women Philosophers, 1600-1900 by Mary Ellen Waithe
Bremand Nathalie (2009). "Clarisse Coignet (1823-1918)." The first socialism, virtual library of the University of Poitiers. http://premierssocialismes.edel.univ-poitiers.fr/index.php?id=1003.