Analysis of Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication"


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Analysis of Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication"

  1. 1. MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT A VINDICATION of the RIGHTS of WOMAN I. INTRODUCTION Since ancient times, women have always been considered inferiorto men as they are ―female(s) by virtue of a certain lack of qualities‖.However, though scarce in number, there were also some womentrying to defy and mock the norm of women characterization. MaryWollstonecraft, who has been called the ―first feminist‖ or ―mother offeminism‖, was one of these brave women. In this presentation, we aregoing to study Mary Wollstonecraft‘s book-length essay on women‘srights, and especially on women‘s education, ―A Vindication of theRights of Woman‖, by focusing on her life story and the historicalcontext of the 18th century. Here, I‘d like to show you a short video,then will continue together. The most striking part of the video for me is about Wollstonecraft‘sopinion about the women sexuality: ―Women are sexual beings, but soare men! Female chastity and fidelity is necessary for stable marriage,but requires the male ones, too.‖ Not today but for the 18 th century, inwhich the ‗blind obedience‘ was expected from all women, thisstatement was very anachronistic. So, what did men of the 18th centurymean with this ‗blind obedience‘? Here, we will focus on a briefhistorical context of the 18th century. II. HISTORICAL CONTEXT of the 18TH CENTURY
  2. 2. This was a period in which the stress on rationality and thequestioning of traditional authority that started in the beginning of 17 thcentury was to reach its fullest expression. It was also a perioddominated by the experiences of the American and Frenchrevolutions, and in which philosophical debates on the nature offreedom and human rationality were to take tangible form in theAmerican Declaration of Independence (1776), and The FrenchDeclaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789). What united thephilosophers of this so-called ‗Age of Reason‘ or ‗TheEnlightenment‘was their optimism and their belief in progress throughthe human reason and knowledge. Although always expressed in terms of the rights of ‗man‘, it mightat first sight seem that this could be understood as a generic term thatincludes women. However, there was indeed a strikingly widespreadconsensus that the principles of rational individualism were notapplicable to women, because women were incapable of the fulldevelopment of reason by their very nature; thus we can find in thewritings of Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and above all Rousseau,the idea that women are essentially creatures of emotion and passion,who have an important role to play as wives and mothers, but who arebiologically unsuited for the public sphere. Briefly, women of the 18 thcentury were primarily educated at home, or in some rare instancesmay have been educated in a formal setting focused exclusively onextending and refining the domestic education. Primary education ofwomen revolved around the social responsibilities of women in termsof their appearance, decorum, and talents. Women of the past wereencouraged to develop refined talents in art, music, poetry, and
  3. 3. personal fashion as assets to attract a potential husband. These talentswould later serve as entertainment for their husband upon request. This consensus didn‘t go unchallenged, and by the end of thecentury there were a number of attempts to show its inconsistency, todemonstrate that the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment could beapplied to women as well as men. Of these best known is MaryWollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). III. MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT and HER BRIEF LIFE STORY Wollstonecraft was born on 27 April 1759 in London. She was thesecond and the first daughter of the six children. Although her familyhad a comfortable income when she was a child, the family becamefinancially unstable and they were frequently forced to move duringWollstonecrafts youth because of her father. Moreover, he wasapparently a violent man who would beat his wife in drunken rages.As a teenager, Wollstonecraft used to lie outside the door of hermothers bedroom to protect her. Wollstonecraft played a similarmaternal role for her sisters, Everina and Eliza, throughout her life.For example, in a defining moment in 1784, she convinced Eliza, whowas suffering from what was probably postpartum depression afterchildbirth,to leave her husband and infant; Wollstonecraft made all ofthe arrangements for Eliza to flee, demonstrating her willingness tochallenge social norms. The human costs, however, were severe: hersister suffered social condemnation and, because she could notremarry, was doomed to a life of poverty and hard work. Thus, the
  4. 4. two sisters established a school at Newington Green, an experiencefrom which Mary drew to write Thoughts on the Education ofDaughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the MoreImportant Duties of Life (1787). The book was about female educationto the emerging British middle class, and anticipated Wollstonecraftsfeminist arguments in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).Then, Mary became the governess in the family of LordKingsborough, living most of the time in Ireland. Upon her dismissalin 1787, she settled in George Street, London, determined to take up aliterary careerafter trying to take up the traditional female jobs --needlework, governess, and teaching. In 1788 she became translatorand literary advisor to Joseph Johnson, the publisher of radical texts.While working there, she became acquainted with the intellectuals ofthe days such as Thomas Paine, William Blake, Henry Fuseli, andWilliam Godwin. In 1790 she produced her Vindication of the Rights of Man, the firstresponse to Edmund Burkes Reflections on the Revolution in France(a defence of constitutional monarchy, aristocracy, and the Church ofEngland. He was against the French Revolution by emphasizing that apolitical doctrine founded upon abstractions such as liberty and therights of man could be easily abused to justify tyranny). She wasfurious and attacked the aristocracy and the hereditary privilege in herwork. In 1792, she published her A Vindication on the Rights of Woman,an important work which, advocating equality of the sexes, and themain doctrines of the later womens movement, made her both famousand infamous in her own time. Wollstonecraft added the simple but
  5. 5. radical idea that women, too, had a right to develop their facultiesfreely, that the laws subjecting them to the fathers and husbands couldbe changed, and that their existing defects (and indeed their charms)were largely as a result of social conditioning, and could be modified.By comparing women to military men – both are fond of dress, trainedin obedience, and not expected to think for themselves – she impliesthat education and socialization account for more differences thandoes gender role. At the time of writing A Vindication on the Rights of Woman,Wollstonecraft experiencedan additional complication that a life ofpassion could create for an independent woman trying to live by herreason (she was attacked most due to this unacceptable andunorthodox lifestyle). She fell in love with a married man, HenryFuseli, and horrified his wife by suggesting that the three of themmight live together. Soon thereafter, she went to Paris alone. InParis, Mary met with a dashing American Captain Gilbert Imlay, andagreed to become his common law wife (informal marriage used as asynonym for non-marital relationships such as domestic partnership).She bore him a daughter, Fanny, but then she learnt about hisinfidelities and attempted suicide twice. Finally, the relationship waswith Imlay was over. Mary eventually recovered her courage and went to live withWilliam Godwin, the political philosopher and the novelist. Althoughboth of them were opposed to marriage in principle, they eventuallymarried due to Marys pregnancy and to make the child legitimate inMarch 1797. During her marriage, she was happily working on anovel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman, in which Mary asserted that
  6. 6. women had strong sexual desires and that it was degrading andimmoral to pretend otherwise. This work alone sufficed to damn Maryin the eyes of critics throughout the following century. In August, adaughter Mary (who later became Shelleys wife), was born, and onSeptember 10the mother died of an infection. Shortly after Mary Wollstonecrafts death, Godwin published his"Memoirs" [memwar] of Wollstonecraft as well as her unpublishedand unfinished novel, Maria: or the Wrongs of Woman. As some haveargued, his honesty in his memoirs of her troubled love relationships,her suicide attempts, her financial difficulties, all helped conservativecritics to find a target to denigrate all womens rights. The result?Many readers steered away from Mary Wollstonecraft. Few writersquoted her or used her work in their own, at least they did not do sopublicly. Godwins work of honesty and love, ironically, nearly causedthe intellectual loss of Mary Wollstonecrafts ideas. IV. A VINDICATION of the RIGHTS of WOMAN A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was much acclaimed inradical political circles when it was published, but it also attractedconsiderable hostility. The statesman Horace Walpole, for example,called Wollstonecraft ―a hyena [haina] in petticoats,‖ and for most ofthe nineteenth century the book was ignored because of its scandalousreputation. Beginning in the late twentieth century, literary critics andphilosophers began to take great interest in Wollstonecrafts treatise asone of the founding works of feminism. Some issues discussed bycommentators of Wollstonecrafts treatise are the authors attitudetoward sexuality, ideas about education, the role of reason versuspassion, attitudes toward slavery, the relevance of the work to
  7. 7. contemporary struggles for rights, the unflattering portrayal ofwomen, and the status of the work as a foundational feminist text. Forme, after reading this book-length essay, it is a bit a debatable to whatextent the text is feminist. We will decide together after analysing it indepth. In 1791, two events took place that prompted Wollstonecraft towrite her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The first was thewriting of the new French Constitution, which excluded women fromall areas of public life and granted citizenship rights only to men overthe age of twenty-five. The second was the report on education givenby Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to the French NationalAssembly recommending that girls education should be directed tomore subservient activities. In his recommendations for a nationalsystem of education, Talleyrand had written: .... Men are destined to live on the stage of the world. A public education suits them [...] The paternal home is better for the education of women; they have less need to learn to deal with the interests of others, than to accustom themselves to a calm and secluded life. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is dedicated to Talleyrand,and Wollstonecraft appeals to him to rethink his views. In herdedication, Wollstonecraft states that the main idea in her book isbased on the simple principle that ―if woman is not prepared byeducation to become the companion of man, she will stop the progressof knowledge and virtue; and for truth must be common to all.‖ Inother words, for Wollstonecraft, the society will degenerate without
  8. 8. educated men, particularly because mothers are the primary educatorsof young children. Written in simple and direct language and regarded as the first greatfeminist treatise, Wollstonecrafts A Vindication of the Rights ofWoman (1792) is a declaration of the rights of women to equality ofeducation and to civil opportunities. In it, which is comprised of 13chapters, Wollstonecraft argues that true freedom necessitates equalityof the sexes; claims that intellect, or reason, is superior to emotion, orpassion; seeks to persuade women to acquire strength of mind andbody; and aims to convince women that what had traditionally beenregarded as soft, ―womanly‖ virtues are synonymous with weakness.Yet, most importantly, Wollstonecraft advocates education as the keyfor women to achieve a sense of self-respect and a new self-image thatcan enable them to live to their full capabilities. Here Wollstonecraftwas particularly concerned to refute the ideas of the philosopherRousseau, who in his work Emile, which described the ideal educationof a young man, had included a chapter on the very differenteducation of Sophie, Emile‘s future wife. For Rousseau, men‘s andwomen‘s natures and abilities were not the same, and thesebiologically given differences defined their whole role in society, withmen becoming citizens and women wives and mothers. This meantthat the education of boys and girls must both recognise the naturaldifferences in ability: ―Little girls always dislike learning to read andwrite, but they are always ready to sew [sov]‖. Wollstonecraft was soenraged by his views on women, and refused to accept that womenwere less capable of reason than men, or that vanity, weakness andfrivolity were the natural attributes of her sex: ―I have, probably, had
  9. 9. an opportunity of observing more girls in their infancy thanRousseau‖. Moreover, she added that this kind of ―femininity‖ is asocial construct rather than being women‘s true ability, because men‘sand women‘s common humanity is based on their shared and ―God-given possession of reason‖. Thus, virtue must be the same for bothsexes. This meant that for Wollstonecraft, the virtues of the good wifeand mother could not be seen as ―natural‖, nor could they be basedupon a male-imposed ignorance. As one of Wollstonecraft‘scontemporaries, Mary Astell (1666-1761) said, ‗If all men are bornfree…how is it that all women are born slaves?‘Because of that,Wollstonecraft insisted on the idea that women must be givenknowledge and education so that they can make rational choices, andthese rational choices are necessary for the betterment of the society.Yet, to be able to make independent rational choices, besides theeducation and knowledge, women also needed to have independentemployment, property and the protection of the civil law to be able toget rid of the economic necessity that lead them into the forcedmarriages. She expressed how women were ‗legally prostituted‘through these forced marriages, and explained how men considered‗females rather as women than human creatures‘ and how they were‗anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives andrational mothers‘. She also argued heavily against the ‗sociallyconstructed‘ position of women, which had been forced upon them bymen. Shortly, for Wollstonecraft, a woman who is forced to performtraditional female roles will do so very badly, but if men would... but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship, instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant
  10. 10. daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers - in a word, better citizens. I think here the paradoxical statements start for us and forWollstonecraft also. As the above quotation suggests, Wollstonecraftdid not expect that education and freedom of choice would lead mostwomen to reject their traditional role, but argued that they wouldenable them to perform better. She didn‘t accept the public/privatesplit that runs through liberal thought, and which insists on thesuperiority of the former over the latter; rather she sought to show thatdomestic duties, properly performed, were a form of rationalcitizenship: that is, they were to be seen as public responsibilitiesrather than asource of private satisfaction (Thornton and Vogel, 1986). The problem with this, of course, is that in a world in whichdomesticduties are unpaid, the economic dependence of a womanupon her husbandremains; Wollstonecraft had perceived the dangersof this, but does not follow its implications through. Similarly, herinsistence that motherhood is aform of citizenship does not solve theproblem of the male monopoly offormal political and legal power,which leaves women dependent on thegoodwill of men to ‗snap theirchains‘. Moreover, the predominantly domestic role Wollstonecraftoutlines for women—a role that she viewed as meaningful—wasinterpreted by 20th-century feminist literary critics (and also for theones in 21st) as paradoxically confining them to the private sphere. But still, in defending this right, Mary Wollstonecraft accepts thedefinition of her time that womens sphere is the home, but she doesnot isolate the home from public life as many others did and as many
  11. 11. still do. For Mary Wollstonecraft, the public life and domestic life arenot separate, but connected. Men have duties in the family, too, andwomen have duties to the state. It sounds good, but what are these duties? Here comes the opinionof Rousseau again about the women duties. In his book Emile, towhich Wollstonecraft is responding directly, Rousseau confronts atroubling question: ―Why would any free man bother to stick aroundlong enough to help raise the children and look after his wife if hedidnt have to, since those are both large demands on ones freeindividuality—especially to his psychological freedom, his sense ofbeing wholly independent?‖ (This is something at the centre ofRousseaus political thought). The wifes job, simply put, is to deceivethe man into staying at home by sustaining for him the illusion of hisfreedom, by serving his psychological and sexual needs. Thus,Rousseau devotes some time to outlining how society is to educateSophie to make the nuclear family functional. That means, above all,taking care of things, so that the husband will remain a loving parentand a good citizen, without ever sensing that his freedom is beingrestricted. Emiles independence paradoxically is going to dependupon Sophie - though he must never be aware of that. What aboutWollstonecraft‘s reactions to this idea of Rousseau? Strangely, shesays ―OK‖, but if Sophie is to carry out all that Rousseau wants her todo in maintaining Emiles sturdy sense of autonomy, she has to have ashrewd understanding of the society in which they live; in otherwords, she has to have an educated reasonable intelligence in order tocarry out her main task of sustaining the family. This, of course, is themajor problem in Rousseaus argument. If women are to have the
  12. 12. more difficult role in society, if they are going to have to understandmen and society sufficiently well to protect the family, and if they aregoing to have to be educated for these tasks, then the various thingsRousseau wants them to be taught simply do not seem adequate.Wollstonecraft concludes her ideas by saying that ―to deal with men inthe way Rousseau demands, surely women require the chance to learnwhat men learn‖. That is, she wants true equality in educationalpursuit for all people, because only when woman and man are equallyfree, and woman and man are equally dutiful in exercise of theirresponsibilities to family and state, can there be true freedom. Shortly,Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Vindication, makes clear her position: aneducation which recognizes her duty to educate her own children, tobe an equal partner with her husband in the family, and whichrecognizes that woman, like man, is a creature of both thought andfeeling: a creature of reason. Here again, another major problem arises from Wollstonecraft‘suncritical adoption of a concept of reason which is bound up with theneed to subdue passion and emotion – qualities traditionallyassociated with the female. For Rousseau in particular, the rule ofreason was to be achieved by the exclusion of the objects of passion –women – from public life, because if women enter public life they notonly disrupt it but they also destroy its domestic foundations.Wollstonecraft was against the idea that women were irrationalcreatures, because reason is a God-given possession and men andwomen are equal in the eyes of God. But also she accepted that reasonwas the basis of rational citizenship and that it involved theovercoming or control of love and passion. Although she recognised
  13. 13. the existence of female sexuality, this was only to insist that it, likelove, must be subordinated to reason, so that marriage andmotherhood must be based on rational choice and duty. Here we see again, one of Wollstonecrafts most scathingcriticisms in the Rights of Woman.She is against false and excessivesensibility, particularly in women. She argues that women who are"the prey of their senses" cannot think rationally, because thesewomen - due to the pleasure of the attention of men - actually preferbeing considered as objects rather than as rational beings. Shecontinues that ―women are told from their infancy, that a littleknowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness oftemper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerilekind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; andshould they be beautiful, everything else is needless, for at leasttwenty years of their lives. In fact, not only do they do harm tothemselves but they also do harm to all of civilization: these are notwomen who can refine civilization – these are women who willdestroy it. But reason and feeling are not independent for Wollstonecraft;rather, she believes that they should inform each other. ForWollstonecraft, the passions underpin all reason. The goal, forWollstonecrafts ethics, is to bring feeling and thought into harmony.The harmony of feeling and thought she calls reason. In bringingtogether feeling and thought, rather than separating them and dividingone for woman and one for man, Mary Wollstonecraft was alsoproviding a critique of Rousseau, who desires to convert a woman into―a coquettish [koketiş] slave and a sweeter companion to man
  14. 14. whenever he chooses to relax himself‖, because a woman who lacksreason and who is full of passion must be subject to the ‗superiorfaculties of man.‘ As part of her argument and defence to Rousseau that womenshould not be overly influenced by their feelings, Wollstonecraftemphasizes that they should not be constrained by or made slaves totheir bodies or their sexual feelings.This particular argument has ledmany modern feminists to suggest that Wollstonecraft intentionallyavoids granting women any sexual desire. Cora Kaplan argues that the"negative and prescriptive assault on female sexuality" is a"leitmotif"[laytmotiv] of the Rights of Woman.For example,Wollstonecraft advises her readers to "calmly let passion subside intofriendship" in the ideal companionate marriage. It would be better, shewrites, when ―two virtuous young people marry . . . if somecircumstances checked their passion‖. According to Wollstonecraft,―youth is the season for love in both sexes; but in those days ofthoughtless enjoyment provision should be made for the moreimportant years of life, when reflection takes place of sensation.‖ The―more important years of life‖ were those that did not includeattention based on appearance only, but on thought, reflection, andvirtue. As Mary Poovey explains, ―Wollstonecraft fears that untilwomen can transcend [trensend] their fleshly desires and fleshlyforms, they will be hostage to the body.‖If women are not interested insexuality, they cannot be dominated by men. Wollstonecraft worriesthat women are consumed with "romantic wavering", that is, they areinterested only in satisfying their lusts.Wollstonecraft was sodetermined to wipe sexuality from her picture of the ideal woman,
  15. 15. because if the lustful desires cannot be controlled how women can befree and more rational. Wollstonecraft believed that to address theseissues adequately, education must be available to both men andwomen; focused on equal development of the integrity of both mindand character of people. Yet, Wollstonecraft argued that in the courseof history men, women were never obtained a chance likethat.Wollstonecraft challenged her 18th century readers to dream ofthe possible advancements and enhancements of society shouldwomen be given the same opportunities for growth and education asthe great men of history had enjoyed, because both men and womenare rational creatures. But one concerned writer expressed that her life‗is totally inconsistent with the nature of a rational being‘ when weconsider her two illegitimate pregnancies, attempts to commit suicidetwice (almost successfully) and her letters to William Godwin full ofvanity and passion, even though she argues that rationality would stopthe passion for love. To sum up, in this aspect of her polemic, Wollstonecraft isestablishing the main guidelines for the future liberal feministmovement, which sees access, education, and the changes in the lawsnecessary to achieve those the key elements in the struggle forwomens equality. Give us a level playing field, and see if we canmeasure up. The practical program involves letting women into theexisting corridors (or some of them) occupied by men, but no radicalrestructuring of social and political institutions. Today, it may benaïve to imagine that simply equalizing educational opportunity willensure true equality for women. But the century after Wollstonecraftwas a progression of newly opened doors for womens education, andthat education significantly changed the lives and opportunities for
  16. 16. women in all aspects of their lives. Without equal and qualityeducation for women, women would be doomed to Rousseaus visionof a separate and always inferior sphere. Reading A Vindication of theRights of Woman today, most readers are struck with how relevantsome parts are, yet how archaic are others. This reflects the enormouschanges in the value society places on womens reason today, ascontrasted to the late 18th century; but it also reflects the many waysin which issues of equality of rights and duties are still with us today. Should we, like Rousseau, insist that women, because they are not like men and because they have a special social role to play, especially in marriage and family life, should be educated and treated differently from men—with a special emphasis on their lives as wives and mothers? Should we, with Wollstonecraft, insist that men and women should, in all the most important social and personal roles, think of themselves as equal? And how does our decision on this thorny point affect our sexual and family life