My intentions for this column have been not just to analyze the new voices of feminist writing, but also to delve into the older teachings of the movement. It’s difficult to evaluate where we are without first checking out where we’ve been. Hopefully the distances between the two be great. When I picked up Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication for the Rights of Woman, I’m not sure I expected much of anything. What I found, though, was an enlightening treatise on the treatment of women and their deserved place in society that could have easily been written in the past twenty years. Enlightening, and also kind of sad.
The preservation of modesty, the importance of reputation, and the differences in single sex education are those practices that Wollstonecraft cries against. Because these things do not apply to men, she questions the bearing they have on women and calls upon women themselves to enact a change in the way they are treated. Her tone can be biting, sarcastic, and unapologetic as she acknowledges women as the cause of these problems as much as men: “My own sex, I hope,” she writes, “will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.” Wollstonecraft’s writing is passionate –- she speaks in the first person, which lends an authenticity to her words that reinforces her study as not just one of the subjugation of women, but a personal duty she feels she must fulfill. To not fall in love with that voice is to disagree with the belief that women have a say in their own standing and ought to take charge of what it is. Her point is not to make women like her, but to call them out for the own foibles and steer them in the right direction.
Modesty, she claims, is not innocence, but ignorance and something considered to be obtained solely by chastity. As women were most often more chaste than men, chaste women may have been termed modest, but Wollstonecraft believes that this should not be all that is required to earn the title. Modesty, instead, she unites with a respect for all things that go on in the world, knowledge of which cannot be gained by the keeping of a neutral slate that was thought to be desirable in women. In that vein, modesty itself was not what was valued in women, but the preservation of their reputation as such. An unmarried woman may cause permanent damage to reputation by becoming “a prey to love,” but a married woman may truly be immodest when her own ignorance causes her to be a poor mother and wife. Greater education, then, is what she turns to for the preservation of women’s minds, opposing the idea that education is the limitation of it. Education, “is not, I assert, a bold attempt to emulate masculine virtues; it is not the enchantment of literary pursuits, or the steady investigation of scientific subjects, that leads women astray from duty. No, it is indolence and vanity -– the love of pleasure and the love of way, that will reign paramount in an empty mind."
At the time, there were few actual differences in education between the sexes, but merely a difference in the advantage men have in learning. Because they were freer to learn, they did so, while women were kept shielded, unable to form their own opinions and training their attentions on trivial matters. She attributes the discrepancy in education to books written by men who would rather consider females as “women” than as fellow “human creatures,” more interested in making them “alluring mistresses” than thinking, rational beings. To this end, women spent the majority of their pre-marriage lives learning to be “agreeable” to men, hoping to draw them to their beauty rather than enriching their own mind. This behavior is passed on from mothers to their daughters, along with the belief that obedience and beauty are the female’s greatest tools in obtaining a husband. Women are taught to cling to their husbands and turn to them to assuage their every fear, essentially degrading them by keeping them from harboring their own thoughts. Sadly, that belief is still in effect today as television shows like The Swan promote the idea that women can achieve everything, including a man, if only they ascribe to society’s notions of beauty. There is something to be said for satisfaction with one’s physical appearance, but to place all facets of life upon it is no different than what Wollstonecraft condemns here.
Wollstonecraft does take the physical difference between men and women into consideration, but only in the sense that it physically exists. That men are often able to lift more weight than women does not give them a natural superiority over the opposite sex, but, in effect, does as women are not considered by their moral and rational propensities. “But if strength of body be with some show of reason the boast of men, why are women so infatuated as to be proud of that defect?” The question that Wollstonecraft asks here, remains today. Why are women so willing to place themselves below the worth of men? Though this is less obvious now that it once was, every time a woman blames an impassioned thought on PMS, refuses to look inside the hood of her car, and desires marriage solely for the societal approval it will grant her, this question necessitates asking.
How can something written in 1792 still have so much bearing on us today? Is it that we have changed so little? My guess is that though we have significantly evolved, the change hasn’t been so much that the endeavors of these foremothers of feminism have become obsolete. They continue to serve their purpose and until equality is fully achieved, their words deserve to be remembered and revered. As I’m writing this, I’m watching Jessica Simpson perform on Good Morning America, a pop culture icon who, however different she may be behind the cameras, has made it vogue for women to cop to their own stupidity. If there has ever been a question that we are in need of Wollstonecraft, this is our answer.
I encourage all women, whether college-aged or in their working thirties or mothers at forty, to delve in to Mary Wollstonecraft’s words. Not only do they provide a thorough look into the beginnings of the movement that allowed us to be lawyers, doctors, writers, or whatever else we choose to be, but in our world, where TV marriage fill the primetime hours and the birth of children spawns the never-ending debate to continue work or stay at home, this work still speaks volumes about the place women are expected to keep in society. We may only change where we are by learning where we’ve been and this is a stalwart beginning.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
Modern Library Classics