Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Seminar Paper - Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was, and still is, considered one of the key thinkers in the world of feminism. She was referred to as “the mother of feminism”, attempting to prove that woman were not born inferior to men, yet it was in fact the state and society as a whole that placed them as inferior beings. 'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' was not only revolutionary, but thoroughly controversial.

In the passage, Wollstonecraft attempts to explore the idea that society has enslaved women through gender oppression. Women were in a world where men had been placed as superior, yet Mary argued this should not have been the case at all. She argues: “She was not created merely to be the solace of man”. Mary is often referred to by many as a liberal, [a demand for progression], due to the nature of her writings and themes such as a desire for gender equality.

Rousseau and Wollstonecraft have very conflicting opinions towards women's role in society. Whereas Rousseau argues that women must go about their duties maintaining the home, Mary argues that women have the ability to do this and also be of use to society. In Mary's eyes, it is society that has limited women's capability to be of further use. She supports Locke's idea of the blank slate, which shows that women are not at a natural disadvantage. From this we can assume it is society that has shaped the role of women, not nature.

Rousseau also argues that education for women must be related to their so-called 'duties as a woman'. The things they are taught must be of practical use in the home. It's possible to draw a link to reason here, which is something Mary goes into throughout the passage. In Mary's mind, a woman's view of the world she lives in is limited as it is primarily dominated by men. It could easily be argued that education is a way of allowing women to develop reason.

The theme of gender equality completely contrasts with the idea that women are seen as slaves, which is a theme that is repeated throughout the passage. For example, she likens woman to caged birds, writing: “Confined, then, in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves”. This quote portrays woman as very simple beings, which is perhaps what society has shaped them to become. Obviously, this is something Wollstonecraft is against. Mary goes on to describe societies idea of the ideal woman, including terms such as 'patient', 'docile', 'good humoured' and 'flexible'.

The links between woman and slavery are furthered. Mary writes, “Yet, to their senses, are women made slaves, because it is by their sensibility that they obtain present power”. I feel that here Wollstonecraft has identified a vicious circle in terms of the relationship between society and women. Women are slaves to their nature, as Mary says, yet it is this nature that society shapes. Mary has shown that not only are woman slaves to society and its expectations, but also their own emotions. It's almost as If women are bound by something they don't even recognise. Mary defends women in this matter yet not all matters. It's easy to see that Wollstonecraft is fairly critical of women in the passage and it's almost as if she is frustrated that women aren't more willing to alter their role in society. Obviously, society is stuck in its ways, which makes change and progression in terms of gender equality hard to kick-start. She writes: “Pleasure is the business of woman's life, according to the present modification of society; and while it continues to be so, little can be expected from such weak beings”, which is particularly critical of woman and the idea they are slaves to societies expectations of themselves.

Mary also talks about how women are denied an education, writing: “...the very constitution of civil governments has put almost insuperable obstacles in the way to prevent the cultivation of female understanding”. Here she essentially blames the government for gender inequality in terms of education. She goes on to say: “Men, in their youth, are prepared for professions […] whilst women, on the contrary, have no other scheme to sharpen their faculties”. Wollstonecraft seems to suggest that society has placed woman in the shadow of men, in a world where they are judged merely on superficial things. This theme of superficiality is supported well by what Mary says later in the passage, where she writes: “His authority and her sex ever stand between them and rational converse”. This quote raises the point that it's very easy for a man to fail to see past a woman’s looks. But do women question why their looks are so important? Wollstonecraft argues no. A link with reason, another key concept in the passage, can be drawn here. If a woman has beauty does she necessarily need much reason?

Despite stating that the government fail to give women a decent education, Mary describes how women still conform to their archetypal roles. A question is raised from this argument: Would women question their role in society if they were provided with a proper education? Personally, I do think education would lead woman to question their position in a world that had become dominated by men.

Another theme explored in the passage is that of cultivated emotion and the danger of the power of this emotion. Mary describes how woman are “consequently […] the prey of their senses”, yet also brings forward a counter-argument that this emotion is actually encouraged. She writes, “The passions thus pampered, whilst the judgement is lest unformed, what can be expected to ensure? Undoubtedly, a mixture of madness and folly!”. Fear, for example, is another emotion Mary discusses. Fear in a man is seen as a weakness but in a woman it's almost taken as being sweet and in line with their gender. For example, Mary writes: “Fragile in every sense of the word, they [women] are obliged to look up to man for every comfort”.

Mary describes how men’s behaviour towards women can be somewhat degrading and patronising. She writes, “I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority”. Men think they're being respectful to women when in fact they're reinforcing the idea that Wollstonecraft is against – the idea that women and men are completely different. Women are women and men are men. Women should require and long for the desire and love of men, and men should be brave, strong protectors. This links back to my previous point about the difference in how fear is seen in men and women.

'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' questions what the point in being intellectual is when a woman is already blessed with beauty. Later in the passage, Mary furthers discussion in this area by describing how woman have learnt to use their beauty. She writes, “These are the arts by which he proposes to make mankind more easily submit to his authority”. This could be an example of Mary questioning the behaviour of women. Do they chose to play the role society has shaped for them or do they do it because they have no other choice? Furthermore, the line 'The passions of men have placed women on the throne' raises more questions. Have these women been placed on the throne for their wisdom, or just because they're young and attractive? Mary seems to lean towards the latter conclusion, writing: “A king is always a king, and a woman is always a woman”. Obviously, she is not in support of this conclusion, but it is a conclusion that society makes impossible to alter.

Mary was a supporter of Locke's philosophical idea of a blank slate, which states that we have the tools to learn from birth, but we learn from scratch. It makes sense that Mary supports Locke's theory, because this would therefore mean both men and woman were born equal. Both are blank slates, and both have potential. If this was the case, Mary argues, why did education remain superficial to women?

'A Vindication of the Rights of Woman' raises some key points over the effect society plays on gender equality. Mary both criticises and defends women, describing how it's frustrating they are given roles to which they must follow, yet also how they don't question these roles. Effective education would perhaps go some way to fixing this issue, yet this is denied.

I feel that Mary puts across some good points, yet it seems to me she has very few solutions to offer towards the problems she identifies in the passage. I also feel that Mary has a tendency to repeat her points multiple times, sometimes even going against what she has said previously. For example, she describes how women are degraded and treated unfairly yet then goes on to criticise them for not questioning the world around them, making them seem simple and subservient.


Hi Tom. Good summation, especially the comparison of Wollstonecraft & Rousseau. In terms of solutions, I think her broad focus on education as a solution is all we can really expect, given women's limited public role at this point in history, as well as the fact that she was making an argument more on philosophy and ethics than proposing a specific political plan.

I can see your points about the repetition and the lack of concrete solutions. I suspect it might have to do with the fact that she was writing at a time when these ideas had barely been verbalised, and naming the problem as a necessary first step before deciding what to do about it. I followed my reading of Vindication with Claire Tomalin's excellent biography of Wollstonecraft, and she says that Vindication was written somewhat hastily in a matter of only a few weeks. Apparently Wollstonecraft meant to return to the topic in a second book and expand on her arguments, but she died before she had the chance. Perhaps this second part would have had more concrete suggestions for how gender equality could be reached.

I posted a blog on Sinclair Lewis, just yesterday, which I think complements your research:
What established his reputation as a first rate novelist was his novel Main Street (1920), a dramatization of realism and idealism in a provincial small middle-America town, where one can find the same pattern of cheap shops, ugly public buildings, shabby services, and feeble citizens behaving by the same rigid social conventions. Through Carol Carol Kennicott —the protagonist and emancipated woman— Lewis portrays the suffocating activities that compel an independent-minded woman to rebel and defy the norms that enchain her. In this novel one can see an incipient flourishing of the theme — “The problem that has no name”— that Betty Friedan would later develop in her The Feminine Mystique, and Simone de Beauvoir ("one is not born a woman") even before her.
I would be interested in seeing what Thomas Hobbes had to say about woman's body as a factor that marks their condition.
All in all your work is careful and lucid. However, if I might just add my two cents: the fact that you are studying journalism doesn't mean that you should write like a journalist. When you re-read some of Wollestonecraft's prose you'll see that she uses quite a bit of sentence variation; from her times to today, it is that peculiarity that keeps her writings still fresh and gripping (at times). Best regards.

Hi Tom and thanks for stopping by History and Women. I very much enjoyed reading your article on Wollstonecraft. Although my research did not delve into her life and beliefs as deeply as yours did, I am grateful to you for your research which provided me with further learning about this fascinating woman.

And, again, hi Tom - very pleased to see your comments and also to read the article above. It's always heartening to see when people take an interest in Wollstonecraft's work.

Hey Tom!

You lay out all of Wollstonecraft's main points very well, and I like how you incorporated comparisons with and against other philosophers like Locke and Rousseau. I agree with the first two commenters: it's probably unfair to expect more definite proposals for solutions past education for girls and women, given the time and place. Not that education for women is a small thing, though! And yeah, she is quite repetitive and at times contradictory, which makes for some bothersome reading. I wish that she'd taken a bit more time to organize and flesh out some of her arguments, or had lived long enough to go back and work on the second volume that she was planning.

Great write up, and thanks for visiting my blog earlier this week :)

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