By Rachel Totten Keith
A little over a century after Mary Wollstonecraft publishes her Vindication, Virginia Woolf picks up the pen, and writes, “[t]hus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write” (Woolf, ch. 4). Although Woolf is referencing Jane Austen, the Brontë’s, and George Eliot, the point is clear: women of very little means and little education were writing, albeit in male pseudonym. This also included the woman named Mary Wollstonecraft, a lower-middle class woman from London, England, who, after enduring many hardships in childhood, questions the value of the patriarchy, decides to live life on her own terms, and publishes several books under her own given name.
Wollstonecraft was born into an abusive home with an alcoholic father who squandered away what little money the family had. She would lay outside her mother’s bedroom door at night to protect her mother from her violent father and becomes the protector of her sisters. To prevent further harm from her sister’s husband, Wollstonecraft helps her sister Eliza and new-born child flee another dark situation and helps her secure a divorce, which was unheard of at that time. This led to a difficult life for her sister, as no one wanted to marry her and Eliza was relegated to a life of poverty and struggle. There is no doubt that Wollstonecraft’s life experiences helped shape her revolutionary ideals, as detailed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and influenced her radically progressive life choices (Todd 119).
Religion is a necessary part of overcoming estrangement and inequality.
During this era, the United States had thrown off the yoke of the English monarchy and France had begun its revolution. Women had only recently received official confirmation from the church that they, too, had souls, just like the men. Wollstonecraft took advantage of this era of post-Enlightenment and French Revolution to compare her appeals for the equality of women to equality for humans everywhere, and used reason and logic to construct her argument. Interestingly, she does not shelve the idea of religious doctrine to substantiate claims of reason, but uses them as her basis. Wollstonecraft states, “[f]or if it be allowed that women were destined by Providence to acquire human virtues, and by the exercise of their understandings. . . they must be permitted to turn to the fountain of light” (85). In essence, she concludes that since women have been endowed with a soul by their Creator, then they must be allowed to learn and exercise reason, to make better decisions, in order to acquire virtue—in fact, her salvation depends on it! Eighteenth century women were coached in table manners and fashion, neither of which enabled them to make good decisions. God’s gift of the soul requires the ability to reason and women needed educating on how to do so, in order to attain true virtue. She states that because they were trained only in etiquette, their obedience to Deity was not real, but merely for show: “[i]n fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason” (86). In this way, Wollstonecraft begins her feminist treatise, and at the same time negates any rebuttal that her revolutionary ideas are too extreme, and, therefore, heathenly. Grounding her ideas in Providence could prevent accusations of sedition towards the status quo and imprisonment, or worse yet, death by guillotine, as was Olympe de Gouges sentenced for challenging male authority and rebel-rousing by the French Jacobins in 1793.
If conventional inequalities were abolished, estrangement would disappear.
Wollstonecraft believes that our gender roles are imposed by society. She argues that if both genders were educated at the same level, men and women would be equal and could perform similar functions in society. However, Wollstonecraft states that gender inequality is so ingrained in their culture that until “the manners of the times are changed, and formed on more reasonable principles, it may be impossible to convince [women] that they must return to nature and equality, if they wish to secure. . . satisfaction” (87). In direct rebuttal to Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education, Wollstonecraft states that children are taught how to act and behave, and to mimic the parent of the same sex. Rousseau believes that women should be “passive and weak,” “put up little resistance,” and are “made specially to please man,” to which Wollstonecraft offers this direct response,
I have, probably, had an opportunity of observing more girls in their infancy than J. J. Rousseau—I can recollect my own feelings, and I have looked steadily around me. . . I. . . affirm, that a girl, whose spirits have not been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always. . . romp, and the doll will never excite attention unless confinement allows her no alternative. Girls and boys, in short, would play harmlessly together, if the distinction of sex was not inculcated long before nature makes any difference. (110)
The state of nature, according to A Vindication, is one of equality; men and women may differ physically, but both are born with the same mental capacities. Without social constructs, men and women are essentially equal in virtue and reason, both being made by the Creator and both possessing the gift of their souls.
Wealth and gender inequality cause estrangement, conflict and division.
Wollstonecraft compares wealth to gender inequality in that both are detrimental to society and cause laziness and immorality. She writes, “[s]uch are the blessings of civil governments, as they are at present organized, that wealth and [gender roles] equally tend to debase mankind” (120). Wealthy men do not have to work for a living, so they lack skill and become lazy. Women are confined to the indoors and are cultivated to care only for gossip and clothes, which dulls the mind and also encourages laziness as they do not have to work for profession or pursue an education. She also explores the relationships between women and believes that competing for men’s attentions increase bitterness and jealousy, both traits lacking in virtue. Education can only benefit women by increasing their value to their families, children, and men long after their looks have faded, and love has turned to friendship (which is what Wollstonecraft believes marriage should be based on anyway.) An educated mother also does not have to worry about finances should her husband pass before her. With an education, a woman could pursue a professional career that will support her family without resorting to criminal activity and prostitution, an institution that further erodes society’s collective virtue.
The people should rule.
It is not surprising that during the French Revolution and after the United States won its independence, that people everywhere began questioning the idea of having one infallible ruler. After all, if the divine right of kings was rejected through reason, then could not any man be capable of being king? The Reformation of the church gave each individual direct access to God whereas before, one had to approach God through the priesthood (Mazzeno 2). Reason reigned during the Enlightenment and if men could go direct with God, logic dictated he could probably govern himself, thus democracy spread throughout Europe. Wollstonecraft echoed these sentiments by saying, “how absurd and tyrannic it is thus to lay down a system of slavery; or to attempt to educate moral beings by any other rules than those deduced from pure reason, which apply to the whole species,” (99) including women. She continues,
I love man as my fellow; but his sceptre real or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man. In fact, the conduct of an accountable being must be regulated by the operations of its own reason; or on what foundation rests the throne of God? (103)
Wollstonecraft believes in rule by Reason, not an arbitrary person. She even rejects the notion of one’s power unless she can respect the person’s wisdom and intelligence, inferring that she has and wants a choice—very democratic.
Assertions of equality, corrupting power, and the abolishment of inequalities.
Although Wollstonecraft is short on specifics, she makes many other assertions about gender inequality and its effects on society, namely, that men and women have the same mental capacity and are worthy of equal educations. Society has progressed enough that survival is pretty much guaranteed and brute strength is not at as necessary to achieve stability and success as it once was. Absolute power is not something anyone should have over another human being, not between master and slave, king and pauper, or husband and wife. She goes on and states, “[b]ut for this epoch we must wait—wait, perhaps, till kings and nobles, enlightened by reason, and, preferring the real dignity of man to childish state, throw off their gaudy hereditary trappings” (87) and pursue liberty for all, so we all can “become more wise and [therefore] virtuous” (104).
While Wollstonecraft commanded respect as a philosopher and intellectual, she was never as successful as she should have been due to her progressive beliefs on marriage and sexuality. The public’s ambiguity and lukewarm reception of her works turned to an intellectual excommunication, when her lawful husband published some of her works posthumously along with a biographical account of her sexual escapades, unorthodox relationships, and suicide attempts over her first true love’s infidelity. She was always on the fringe of the circles of success and it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that her work was re-examined and appreciated for its ground-breaking perspective and innovation regarding education and equal rights. Much of her message is antiquated and no longer relevant, but sentiment still rings truth in current civil rights issues. Wollstonecraft’s belief stands today, that “[s]lavery to monarchs and ministers, which the world will be long in freeing itself from, and whose deadly grasp stops the progress of the human mind, is not yet abolished” (112).
Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own.” 1928. eBooks@Adelaide. University of Adelaide, 15 July 2015. E-text. 22 Nov. 2015.
Todd, Janet. Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000. E-text.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1792. Project Gutenberg. Web Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, 30 Sept. 2002. E-text. 19 Oct. 2015.
Mazzeno, Laurence W. Critical Survey of Literature for Students. eNotes.com, Inc., 2010. Web. 30 Nov. 2015.