Not Quite so Radical: a Modern Critique of Mary Wollstonecraft Feminism
Gender roles of 18th century British society were seemingly set in stone. Men, who were presumed to be the superior of the sexes, were to hold all the power, both politically and domestically, and they were expected to exist, to some extent, in the public sphere. Women were expected to assume inferior positions in society and in the home, and it was only acceptable for them to exist in the private sphere. There were further divisions between the sexes regarding emotional capability, physical strength, and mental capacity, and men were always considered the more virtuous of the sexes. As it is known, this subjugation of the female sex impacted the ability for women to gain formal educations, seek careers, or obtain recognition as anything other than daughters, sisters, wives, or mothers.
Based on this understanding of the strictly divided gender politics that were prevalent during this time period, it is no surprise that Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was perceived as being a radical and progressive display of feminism when it was written. Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s work evaluates the nature of gender roles and the impact that these divisional roles have on a society, and this criticism, especially coming from a female, was not conventional. However, to the modern feminist, Wollstonecraft’s argument is flawed. Throughout the work, Wollstonecraft perpetuates the concept of an inherent division between the two genders and continually undermines the competences of her fellow women, and in doing so, she reinforces ideals that were established by the patriarchy. Despite its advocacy of women’s rights, the nature of Wollstonecraft’s argument in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman may be viewed as an example of the underlying misogynistic ideology that pervaded 18th century Britain.
Scholars have labeled Wollstonecraft a feminist based on her advocacy for the education of women and her dissection of gender politics of 18th century Britain in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although Wollstonecraft’s writing may have seemed progressive for the male-dominant time period, there are flaws in Wollstonecraft’s feminism. Wollstonecraft promotes equal education, but her argument is founded on patriarchally constructed concepts of gender that insist women are inherently inferior to men. Karen M. Offen, author of European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, evaluates Wollstonecraft’s position as a feminist:
Although Wollstonecraft may not merit her reputation as the “first” English feminist, she became best-remembered—and retrospectively the most maligned—advocate of women’s emancipation in her time. Her language and her arguments, as eloquent as they seem in her opening volley against male tyranny, are by comparison to those of her French counterparts remarkably mild. The body of her work instead addressed the reforming of women’s behavior, friendship between the sexes, notions of taste, dignified domesticity, responsible motherhood, and sexual self-control.” (73)
Despite her advocacy for equal education opportunities, Wollstonecraft does not desire gender equality. Rather, Wollstonecraft perpetuates concepts of male superiority, and she suggests that women should seek education only so that they may better their lives within the confines of their prescribed gender roles. Her goal is not to liberate women; instead, she wishes to help them improve upon their societal and domestic duties through education. In contrast to her French contemporary feminists and modern feminists, Wollstonecraft does not argue for the social and domestic advancements of women.
In her evaluation of gender politics, Wollstonecraft openly accepts the idea of male superiority. Wollstonecraft believes that men are inherently stronger than women, and she asserts that this makes men physically superior. Wollstonecraft writes, “In the government of the physical world it is observable that the female in point of strength is, in general, inferior to the male. This is the law of nature; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of woman. A degree of physical superiority cannot, therefore, be denied- and it is a noble prerogative!” (214). It may be argued that Wollstonecraft denies women their sense of physical strength by accepting and supporting the concept of male superiority. Feminists may consider her position on strength to undermine the physical capacity of the female body. Though her argument focuses on physical strength, it does not take childbirth, an incredibly physically strenuous activity, into consideration. By denying women a sense of strength, Wollstonecraft effectively renders them powerless against male dominance.
In addition to denying women a sense of strength, Wollstonecraft denies women a sense of agency. Wollstonecraft argues that women, being undereducated, are blissfully unaware of their powerless positions in society and are content with being treated as sexualized playthings and possessions. She writes, “women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society” (Wollstonecraft 214). This presentation of women may be viewed as problematic because it misogynistically portrays them as dim-witted and easily flattered. Wollstonecraft appears to doubt the self-awareness of women and suggests that they are superficially satisfied with their subjugate positions because they simply do not possess the ability to recognize their inferiority nor the will to advance their positions. Wollstonecraft’s willingness to depreciate her fellow women is not a conventional feminist trait. Rather, her presentation of female agency, or lack thereof, is demeaning and minimizes the significance of the oppression that women underwent.
Philip Hicks, author of the article “Women Worthies and Feminist Argument in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” notes Wollstonecraft’s willingness to dismiss her fellow women in favor of male superiority. He writes, “Many feminist writers, perhaps beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft, have either dismissed or neglected these catalogs of great women. Some critics have argued that such lists ignore the lives of ordinary women and focus on women’s ‘manly’ qualities” (Hicks 175). Indeed, Wollstonecraft seems to disregard the value of feminine qualities and insists on the superiority of masculine characteristics. Wollstonecraft, asserting the preeminence of masculinity, writes:
but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raise females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind; — all those who view them with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine. (215)
Wollstonecraft asserts that masculinity is the most valuable trait, and she advises that women should seek more masculine traits in favor of their soft, feminine ways. Again, Wollstonecraft’s arguments are based off of patriarchal concepts of power, and this compromises the integrity of her feminism. She holds masculinity in high esteem, and she disposes of feminine value in a manner that demonstrates the influence of misogynistic ideology on her perception of gender.
Not only does Wollstonecraft profess that masculinity is more valuable than femininity, but she also suggests that femininity is a sign of weakness. She writes off feminine attributes as being frivolous, as signs of shortcomings. In her own words:
I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt (215).
Wollstonecraft aligns femininity with weakness, and this further demonstrates the manner in which she perpetuates male superiority. Conventional feminism embraces femininity, and modern feminists demand that femininity be revered as an equally powerful force as masculinity. In sharp contrast to this, Wollstonecraft seems to find femininity disgraceful. Instead of embracing femininity as its own unique trait, she devalues it.
Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman may not be the exemplary piece of feminist literature that it is sometimes considered to be. Though Wollstonecraft advocates for equal education opportunity, she does so in vain. She does not advocate for the social and domestic advancements of women; rather, she suggests that women should remain in the confines of their prescribed gender roles. Her feminism is not designed for women to improve for their own betterment; it is meant to improve mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives—to improve women in relation to men’s ownership and prescribed gender roles. Wollstonecraft evaluates women with a mindset that demonstrates the pervasive, deep-rooted nature of patriarchal ideology in 18th century Britain.
Hicks, Philip. “Women Worthies and Feminist Argument in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” [“Women’s History Review”]. Women’s History Review, vol. 24, no. 2, Apr. 2015, pp. 174-190. EBSCOhost, dsc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=101501048&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Offen, Karen M. European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History. Stanford University Press, 2000.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed., vol. D, W.W. Norton, 2012, pp. 212-239.
Expectations and Fruits of Hard Work
What is “normal”? We spend enough time, collectively, trying to figure out just that, but if women think it’s complicated now, what about women making their way before us? Expectations were rigid, gender roles carefully defined, and opportunities far more limited. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963), Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman (1969), and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), we quickly grasp how great societal pressure was on women, and how this pressure could — and in the case of the three female protagonists examined here, did — lead to significant emotional distress.
It’s not as if the three characters in Atwood, Plath, and Wollstonecraft aren’t aware of their struggles and the uphill battles they face, merely due to their gender — quite the contrary. It is this awareness, paired with each character’s drive to buck gender-specific expectations, that leads to a degree of instability, whether that’s paranoia, depression, or simply heightened awareness. Each of these characters tests the boundaries, but not without consequences. As they question their roles and push for independence, their struggles result in a host of insecurities and the development of significant emotional issues.
The first indications of insecurity occurs with a “triggering incident” that inspires each of the characters to question her identity, including her role as a woman and wife (or future wife). This turning point inspires a period of self-reflection that results in a major change in professional and personal motivation, personality, and even establishment of self-worth. All of these periods of self-reflection are related to men and the protagonists’ relationships with these men. The most apparent emotional distress fueled by a man is Marian McAlpin’s in The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s character is a typical mid-century modern woman, caught between career and relationship. She doesn’t adore her job, but she’s on the career girl-track nonetheless: “At times I’m certain I’m being groomed for something higher up, but as I have only hazy notions of the organizational structure of Seymour Surveys I can’t imagine what” (p. 13). Atwood demonstrates that, while Marian is responsible, she struggles with her direction. She has a steady job that pays well, but one gets the sense that she’s unsure of her next step, and not entirely satisfied with her options. She knows that she appears more put-together than she seems, commenting that when she met her fiance, Peter, “He had been quite formal and had asked me what I planned to do. I had talked about a career, making it sound much less vague than it was in my own mind, and he told me later that it was my aura of independence and common sense he had liked,” (Atwood p. 61).
Marian’s confusion about herself — how she seems and how she truly is — is enhanced by those around her. They are an exceptionally undecided lot, both male and female, single and married. Through Marian’s eyes, we witness her fiance’s distress at his last bachelor-friend getting engaged, the determination of her unwed roommate to get pregnant, the desperation of the three “office virgins” to meet men, and her college friend’s ambivalence to a steadily growing, chaotic family. Some look for love, others look for personal fulfillment, and others don’t know where to look at all. Marian’s interaction with these individuals is far from useless, however. She contrasts her experience with others’ and hears anecdotes that spur on self-examination. Everyone’s going in a different direction. From Marian, to her roommate Ainsley, we get the impression that each character struggles with self-fulfillment and meeting others’ expectations. For example, Marian’s college friend’s husband, Joe, comments that every woman needs to proceed with caution when getting married, saying “‘I think it’s harder for any woman who’s been to university. She gets the idea she has a mind, her professors pay attention to what she has to say […] when she gets married, her core gets invaded […] The centre of her personality, the thing she’s built up; her image of herself, if you like’” (p. 259). Marian’s on the crux of marriage herself, and is at first pleased, saying to her fiance, “‘I’d rather leave the big decisions up to you,’” (p. 94) and then transitioning into a nervous wreck: “All at once she was afraid she was dissolving, coming apart layer by layer like a piece of cardboard in a gutter puddle […] She was afraid of losing her shape, spreading out, not being able to contain herself any longer” (p. 240).
Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar, making her way through her bachelor’s degree at a prestigious college, also claims to be losing what defines her. She states, “The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end” (Plath p. 73). Esther laments the conclusion of her college career, and she knows that one of her options is “a husband and a happy home and children” (p. 72). She sounds confused by the prospect of it all, as well as vulnerable, and she views her life as a series of mutually exclusive choices. Like Marian, she wonders what path to take and realizes that many women are pushed out of jobs post-marriage — or remain spinsters if they refuse to give up what they love. Greenwood is equally troubled by her interactions with her boyfriend Buddy, including those related to sex. When Esther asks Buddy if he’s had an affair, he tells her that he has plenty of experience in the bedroom. Esther thinks “After that something in me just froze up. […] Actually it wasn’t the idea of Buddy sleeping with someone that bothered me […] What I couldn’t stand was Buddy’s pretending that I was so sexy and he was so pure, when all the time he’d been having an affair with that tarty waitress” (Plath ch. VI, para. 67-71). Esther has a similar period of doubt brought about by an experience with Constantin. When she contemplates sleeping with him, she begins to question the expectations and implications of her choice: “This woman lawyer said […] Of course they would try to persuade a girl to have sex and say that they would marry her later, but as soon as she gave in, they would all lose respect for her” (Plath ch. VII, para. 45). Before that pivotal moment, Greenwood considered her future: “I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story […] One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another was a brilliant professor” (ch. VII, para. 20-21). She concludes “I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest” (para. 22).
Both Marian McAlpin and Esther find snags in their relationships based on how men see them sexually, and how their experience differs from their partners’. McAlpin feels unsettled as early as her first meeting with Peter in The Edible Woman. In his apartment after he expresses remorse over his friend’s recent engagement and they make love, she wonders how he views her: “Or maybe — and the thought was chilling — he has intended [making love in the bathroom] as an expression of my personality. A new corridor of possibilities extended itself before me: […] what kind of girl did he think I was?” (Atwood p. 63).
While Esther Greenwood and Marian McAlpin question their futures, Maria in Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman knows what she wants, and she understands the expectations foisted onto women. She’s socially aware, and in many ways, she’s more confident in her role than Esther or Marian. Perhaps, as a woman of a certain standing (arguably in a more socially elevated class than the other two), she’s simply more confident. Perhaps it’s also because she has so much more time to think, imprisoned in an asylum. Nevertheless, Maria is comfortable with her voice and her opinions — comfortable enough to become intimately involved in a legal case. As Wollstonecraft notes in chapter 17, “Maria took the task of conducting Darnford’s defence upon herself. She instructed his counsel to plead guilty to the charge of adultery; but to deny that of seduction” (para. 1). Maria is not only taking part in what Colleen Fenno in “Testimony, Trauma, and a Space for Victims: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria: Or the Wrongs of Woman” calls a “participatory justice system,” but she is taking part in a new movement of legal reforms, including a refinement of criminal justice (para. 6). And yet, in Wollstonecraft, Maria opens with questions. As early as chapter one, Maria “endeavoured to brace her mind to fortitude, and to ask herself what was to be her employment in her dreary cell? Was it not to effect her escape, to fly to the succour of her child, and to baffle the selfish schemes of her tyrant — her husband?” (ch. 1, para. 5). Despite her supreme confidence shown through her appeal to the courts at the end of the unfinished book, Maria wasn’t always so confident.
Characters in Plath, Atwood, and Wollstonecraft speak out against the status quo. Each woman is introspective, aware, and highly intelligent: Marian in The Edible Woman has a bachelor’s degree (only approximately 138,000 women had bachelors degrees in 1960, in contrast to 254,000 men in the United States, as noted on Statista.com). In The Bell Jar, Esther Greenwood is finishing her degree in the late 1950s, while Wollstonecraft’s Maria is multilingual and self-educated. These women are trained to question and to examine — and they do. Part of this questioning is whether or not they are “normal,” one that ultimately causes serious concerns in their own minds about their sanity. In The Edible Woman and The Bell Jar, the female protagonists question their stability after going through a period of self-exploration. For one, Marian, it’s brought on by an engagement; for the other, Esther, it’s sparked by new relationships and change. While both characters aren’t viewed as unusual by the general public, they question whether or not they “deserve” this description. One gets the sense that the two characters believe they are hiding their deep flaws, almost as if they are “tricking” the general public. In The Edible Woman, Marian becomes preoccupied with her faults and continues to ask her peers whether or not they view her as unusual. In it, she perceives others to be steady, healthy individuals, while seeing herself as flawed in a deep and unchangeable manner. In the book, Marian asks Ainsley, her roommate, Peter, her fiance, Clara, her college friend, and Duncan, her unstable acquaintance, whether or not she is “normal” — and when nobody states that she isn’t, she becomes convinced that they are, in some way, mistaken: “She had gone over in her mind the other people she might talk to. The office virgins would be intrigued and would want to hear all about it, but she didn’t think she would be able to give her any constructive advice” (Atwood p. 224).
Marian is further disturbed when she discovers that, even when describing her problems to Clara, she is unable to feel entirely satisfied with the answer: “Though she was sure Clara’s explanation [of bridal nerves] wasn’t the right one, she had felt better” (Atwood p. 226). In Jinal Sanghavi’s piece, “Madness In The Edible Woman,” the author asserts that Marian’s struggles are actually caused by her “struggle to assert her identity and identify her role in society” (Sanghavi, Abstract, para. 3).
This is not only the case in The Edible Woman, but in The Bell Jar and Maria. In each of the novels, the female character, is battling an internal change. That internal change is viewed as abnormal by the characters themselves, while the resulting “normality” and equilibrium experienced during their transformative period is seen as abnormal by their friends and family. Marian realizes that her relationship with Peter is unhealthy, but after telling him “‘You’ve been trying to destroy me […] you’ve been trying to assimilate me’” (p. 299), he retreats in fear — and Marian feels better than she has in some time. Esther Greenwood comes to terms with “cadavers and Doreen and the story of the fig-tree” (Plath p. 226) and, instead of forgetting, finds an inner peace despite Dr. Nolan telling her that “a lot of people would treat me gingerly, or even avoid me, like a leper” (p. 226). Maria’s court involvement would have seemed highly unusual, and yet it appears to be cathartic.
In each of the books, the characters question their sanity further as the books continue and interactions with men become more numerous. Each of the novel’s protagonists wavers through a trigger event and then becomes more unsure after unfulfilling relationships continue. For Marian, her relationship with Peter, and her engagement, continues to affect her negatively. Instead of her feeling the “normal” excitement over the engagement, Marian begins to question her relationship, Peter’s intentions, and if what the future holds in store for them is what she truly wants: “If that’s who Peter really is, she thought, walking along one of the corridors, will he have a pot-belly at forty-five?” (Atwood p. 267).
Maria’s relationship with Darnford also provokes certain questions. The young woman has been abandoned by her husband, and despite hearing Jemima’s horrific tales of mistreatment and anguish at the hands of men, still finds herself drawn to her companion at the asylum. Wollstonecraft writes: “To Darnford she had not shown a decided affection; the fear of outrunning his, a sure proof of love, made her often assume a coldness and indifference foreign from her character” (ch. 4, para. 5). Maria struggles with her wants as a woman, to marry Darnford, and her urge to live with him in what individuals of that period would consider “sin.” In chapter 16, Wollstonecraft reflects: “She wished to avow her affection to Darnford, by becoming his wife according to established rules; not to be confounded with women who act from very different motives, though her conduct would be just the same without the ceremony as with it, and her expectations from him not less firm” (para. 20).
Both authors Plath and Atwood are said to have based their books on their lives, and it is interesting to imagine how their struggles with men’s sexual freedom (and women’s lack thereof) impacted their views of themselves. In Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion, the author asserts that the character of Peter is based on Atwood’s boyfriend (and fiance), Jay Ford (Cooke p. 50). While she told him not to “‘take this personally,’” part of Atwood’s appeal is her ability to identify discomfort in a relationship where power and equality shifts and change as the relationship matures.
Plath’s real-life relationship with Dick Norton, who inspired the character of Buddy Willard in The Bell Jar, is a fascinating look into the writer’s real-life relationships. She was both drawn to and repelled by Norton, a medical student with an eerie insistence on accuracy and a lack of the emotion necessary for a stable relationship. Harold Bloom notes in his guide to The Bell Jar that “The eligible woman is recognized by her education, accepted as a professional for the equal-partners companionate marriage. […] Her sexual identity is denied before marriage, accepted after. Now you see her; now you don’t” (p. 118).
Wollstonecraft may have also used her life as inspiration for some of the background in Maria. The author was incredibly independent for her time and sought to support herself as a writer. Her struggle for independence led her to pen A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798, and she received a good deal of criticism for her work — interestingly, from women. Critics included Hannah More and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who disagreed with Wollstonecraft’s view on education. In Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, Wollstonecraft laments the fate of well-educated women sans independent means, titling her chapter “Unfortunate Situation of Females, Fashionably Educated, and Left Without a Fortune” (Wadewitz).
While each character experiences some sort of “break” — Marian leaving her own engagement party, Esther attempting suicide, and Maria despairing over her husband’s mistreatment — they do find a way to go on. All three authors remind us that all is not lost, no matter how far our lives seem to go off track. Marian breaks off her engagement and begins to eat again; Esther finalizes her relationship with Dick Norton and prepares to “graduate” from her program. While Maria was never completed, we see Maria gathering strength as the novel goes on, making efforts to change her present circumstances and the lives of those around her. All three protagonists are motivated, and despite their issues, we know that they have learned a great deal about themselves. We can all relate to that, and ultimately, each novel concludes with a bittersweet, resonating strength.
Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. New York: Anchor, 1998. Print.
Bloom, Harold. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. New York: Infobase, 2009. Print.
Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004. Print.
Fenno, Colleen. “Testimony, Trauma, and a Space for Victims: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria: Or the Wrongs of Woman.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 8.2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <http://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue82/fenno.htm>.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. N.p.: Amazon Digital Services, n.d. Kindle Book.
Sanghavi, Jinal. Madness In The Edible Woman. N.p.: Amazon Digital Services, 2012.
“U.S. Higher Education – Number of Bachelor’s Degrees 1950-2024 | Timeline.” Statista: The Statistics Portal. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014. <http://www.statista.com/statistics/185157/number-of-bachelor-degrees-by-gender-since-1950/>.
Wadewitz, Adrianne. (2005, March). “Sermonizing Women: Christian Civic Virtue and the Public Sphere” American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. 10 Nov. 2014.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. (2002, September 1). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/3420/pg3420.html
Wollstonecraft, Mary. (2002). Mary and Maria/Mathilda (J. Todd, Ed.). London: Penguin Books. Kindle edition. Word count: ~3000
Nature Versus Nurture in Mary Wollstonecraft
The centuries-long debate over the influence of nature versus nurture is not only a prominent theme in psychology, but also the historic roots of modern day feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of famous author Mary Shelly and wife of prominent anarchist William Godwin, was also the first liberal feminist theorist to propose that women should be regarded on equal footing as men. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft asserts that if a woman is not prepared by education to become the companion of man or a competent mother, she will impede the progress of knowledge and virtue in society. This paper will first establish the context of Wollstonecraft’s nature versus nurture argument and then use a contractarian model of analysis to identify some of the merits and demerits of the old and new social contract dictating marriage and family rights. Maintaining that gendered behavior was a learned experience rather than a natural occurrence, she proposes a model of marriage as friendship that holds certain expectations for both men and women to mollify arbitrary power dynamics within the domestic and social sphere. Further, these expectations are manifested in the form of duties that promote equality in the family and are mutually agreed upon in a reformed social contract. This paper will argue with reference to Mary Wollstonecraft that while the state of nature sets the foundation for gender inequality, it is nurture from a flawed social contract that perpetuates gender distinctions. Further, it will examine Wollstonecraft’s newly proposed contract for its beneficial efforts to overcome blind submission, untapped potential, and arbitrary power as well as its potential shortcomings in addressing sexual desire and the dilemma of motherhood.
Wollstonecraft asserts that the distinction between genders is a socially created phenomenon that can be overcome by adopting a new social contract that promotes marriage as a friendship. As Wollstonecraft indicates, men and women “must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in.” Indeed, the social norm at the time of Wollstonecraft’s writing was for women to be raised to be married to and economically dependent on men. And upon marriage, often relegated to menial household tasks. That is to say, girls are usually assigned the role of “gate-keepers” or “homemakers” and men the “breadwinners” in society. The division of labour was originally viewed as efficient, with men better suited for hunting and warfare, and women better suited for gathering, cooking, and caring for children near camps. Moreover, roots of patriarchy based on physical barriers were further consolidated with the growth of industry and mining under industrial capitalism, with women’s weaker frames deemed inappropriate for heavy lifting. However, these social roles are also dependent on social and economic contexts. For example, few denied women’s ability to contribute to the war effort in factories during WWI and WWII, yet once total war ended women were encouraged to return to their domestic roles so that men could resume their ‘natural’ employment patterns. Hence, while biological factors from ‘nature’ may set the foundations, social and historic forces under ‘nurture’ often have greater influence in determining the outcome of this inequality.
Embedded within Wollstonecraft’s new social contract is the idea that women are not mentally inferior to men, but have equal rational potential that has not yet been realized. Wollstonecraft argues that because “knowledge of the two sexes should be the same in nature” women should not be treated as half beings but instead educated by the same means as men to achieve their full potential. As Laura Brace notes, the old social contract under Rousseau offered women protection in return for obedience. Yet, Wollstonecraft counters Rousseau’s idea that men were born with a degree of perfection in mind, by noting early debauchery in society as well as the weakness and caprice of men who are inundated by flattery and ego service often required of women. She notes, “if the blind lead the blind, one need not come from heaven to tell us the consequence.” That is to say, the tendency for women to degrade themselves and act like they are in need of protection, all while offering unconditional support and adulation for men leaves humankind in not only a childish, but also dangerous state. Thus, similar to the divine right of kings, the “divine right of husbands” should also be challenged to promote a return to equality. While gender inequality was an appropriate solution for problems at the time of its inception in the Bronze Age, it is no longer relevant to our times. However, the gender division of labour persists in modern societies due to the socialization of ideas about certain roles and employment most appropriate for men and women. This can be seen through the concentration of women in personal service or “caring” industries, with jobs as nurses, maids, teachers and personal secretaries, while men are more likely to be doctors, managers, professors, or higher level executives. Meanwhile, Wollstonecraft offers a forward looking solution to overcome structural inequalities through the marriage as friendship model, which emphasizes equality, free choice, reason, mutual respect and concern for the other’s morality. This new social contract promotes a certain degree of interdependence that deepens bonds through the appreciation of one another’s character and individuality, thus favouring integration and social progress.
Both sides stand to benefit from the new social contract as it promotes a sense of stability by limiting the pursuit of arbitrary power. Wollstonecraft explains that, “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” Women’s education comprised of training in the art of pleasing, yet with the goal of seeking attention and admiration from men, they become “alluring mistresses” instead of “affectionate wives and rational mothers.” This emphasis on appearances and games not only promotes infidelity due to the transient nature of looks and habit of flirting, but also poor mothers who feel the tendency to compete with their daughters once their beauty is jaded and feelings of insecurity takes over. Strict gender roles under the previous social contract neither supported the right conditions for women to carry out their duties as educators nor serve in their family’s best interests. As Ruth Abbey summarizes, when they are “refused power in any larger sense, women become tyrants in small matters.” That is to say, because women aren’t permitted legitimate rights, they are forced to obtain power indirectly through illegitimate avenues such as deception and seduction. Hence, when women are taught to value beauty over smarts, they are unable pass down rationality to the next generation. Husbands are also disadvantaged in this arrangement as they are unable to find common topics with their spouse, thereby widening the gap and increasing the likelihood of an unhappy marriage. However, if men and women were to marry by choice and for companionship, there should be fewer affairs, as husbands are more likely to be at home and serve as better fathers to their children. Hence, Wollstonecraft’s new social contract underscores the importance for women to be educated in a way that prepares them to carry out educative duties as parents and allow them to cooperate with men in this role. By changing the definition of a good wife, good mother and good daughter, not only will the family prosper but also society at large.
Although the liberal notion of equality is promoted within the new social contract to allow both men and women to reach their full potential in public and private domains, Wollstonecraft’s new social contract fails to account for the passion between male-female relationships and the dilemma of motherhood. While Rousseau believes love should to be the foundation of marriage and family life, Wollstonecraft believes that love is too fleeting and emphasizes the importance of friendship in reaching equality and a mature relationship between married partners. However, Wollstonecraft fails to fully address corporal intimacy and sexual desire in her marriage as friendship solution, this is largely due to the fact that the higher friendship she envisioned was in the image of a relationship “traditionally thought of as existing between men only.” That being said, she does not completely ignore or shun the sexual dimension of personality but simply advocates moderation to focus on fulfilling familial duties. Thus, Wollstonecraft assumes priorities in the social contract between men and women by picturing marriage as an arrangement that allows love to drop to a healthy lukewarm temperature. Hence, there are some rights that must be given up in promotion of the greater good, that is to say, strong feelings of affection. Still, some may argue that the co-existence between friendship and sexual desire is difficult, especially when humans are more driven by desires than rationality in the pursuit of companionship. Moreover, society has not yet evolved to favour level-headedness and long-term planning in lieu of short-term passion and stimulus. As Abbey rightly observes, had Wollstonecraft not died while giving birth to Marry Shelly, her continued marriage with William Godwin might have been able to offer deeper insights and reflections on the place of sexuality in friendly marriages. However, a noticeable flaw still exists in Wollstonecraft’s newly proposed social contract of equality, and that is the gap between equality and difference that drives Carole Pateman’s description of Wollstonecraft’s Dilemma. In essence, Wollstonecraft’s dilemma is the double-edged argument that women must be granted rights of humanity to then fulfill traditionally feminine duties of motherhood. However, assuming women’s biological destiny and natural calling to motherhood risks confining them to the private sphere. This is an issue unaddressed by Wollstonecraft that reverberates in modern debates over work-life balance and the timing of marriage and childbirth. Thus, there exist both physical and psychological barriers in the attempt to bridge feminist rights and motherhood. While society should make women capable of fulfilling the role of motherhood through equal opportunity, men also have an obligation to marriage and fatherhood. However, workplace representation, the glass ceiling and gender wage gap are indicators that women still cannot have the best of both worlds, and subsequently men too. Hence, barriers between the public and private sphere are often borne by nature, but engrained by nurture.
Wollstonecraft’s ideas about nature versus nurture and gender embody a very modern sense of gender identity for her time. She was one of the first to suggest the extension of the social contract into the private sphere by highlighting the idea that everyone is born equal, and that oppression from one’s environment is what creates inequality. Under the old social contract of patriarchy, women were not only required to be dependent on men but also beautiful and emotionally vulnerable. Moreover, Wollstonecraft highlights the need for a change to women’s education for dependence by uncovering the thoughtlessness behind submitting to the will of another fallible being as well as the inevitability of arbitrary power relations on both sides. Nevertheless, because men and women create social contracts out of self-interest, redefining those interests leaves considerable room for reform to the original agreement. In other words, what we value, is ultimately up to us. As liberal values of freedom, reason, and consent diffuse, women will be able to overcome their subordinate positions and achieve equality and independence in the household. Additionally, friendship based on choice, complementarity, mutual respect and concern for the other’s character will not only help wives but also husbands in fulfilling their duties of a stable and happy marriage as well as education of the next generation. Not only does Wollstonecraft note the false dichotomy between nature and nurture, she devises a new interpretation of gender relations and identity to aid both men and women in reaching their full potentials. Ultimately, Wollstonecraft’s work is fundamental in highlighting the importance of addressing the political nature of family relations before liberal political theory may progress.
Abbey, Ruth. “Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship in the Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Indiana University Press Journals 14, no. 3 (1999): 78-95.
Brace, Laura. “’Not Empire, but Equality’: Mary Wollstonecraft, the Marriage State and the Sexual Contract.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 8, no. 4 (2000): 433-455.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. London: J. Johnson, 1792.
 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (London: J. Johnson, 1792), 21.  Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 35.  Laura Brace, “‘Not Empire, but Equality’: Mary Wollstonecraft, the Marriage State and the Sexual Contract,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 8, no. 4 (2000): 434.  Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 22.  Ibid., 36.  Ruth Abbey, “Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship in the Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft,” Indiana University Press Journals 14, no. 3 (1999): 79.  Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 39.  Ibid., 10.  Abbey, “Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship,” 86.  Ibid., 82.  Ibid., 85.  Ibid., 87.  Ibid., 88.  Brace, “Not Empire, but Equality,” 436.
Values of Romanticism: Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, and Shelley
The Romantic period was a time of exceptional change, emphasising the power of imagination as a window to transcendent experience and spiritual health. Lasting from the late 18th to early 19th century, the transitory period of Romanticism challenged engraved societal paradigms, moving from a time of strict hierarchy based on rationality to a focus on individualism and idealism. The voices of the romantic zeitgeists were expressed through the arts, where the human experience, the natural world and the yearning for unity and social cohesion flourished throughout their work in a tumultuous time of shifting religious, economic and scientific views. The individuals who gave the Romantic period meaning and importance were Mary Wollstonecraft through her treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797-98) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819), and finally John Constable, creator of the extravagant artwork The Hay Wain (1821). The transformative ideas communicated through these texts challenge ways of thinking, through a plethora of techniques.
The lack of substantive education available for women was thought to be for Wollstonecraft one of the primary reasons for women’s subordination. Creative yearning for females was suppressed and the pursuit of knowledge arduous. Wollstonecraft argues in her treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that to alter this philosophical view, they must first change the way women are thought of by men, such as her influential acquaintance Rousseau: ”Once it is demonstrated that man and woman are not, and should not be constituted the same, it follows that they should not have the same education.” Wollstonecraft alludes to this comment by Rousseau in a statement dripping with sarcasm, “The knowledge of both genders should be equal… women should not be treated as some kind of fanciful half being, one of Rousseau’s wild chimeras.” The paradox of moral rights is a contextual focus of the composer as she heavily advocates the need for an education reform and conveys the importance of women’s pursuit of knowledge and purpose, thus reflecting the values of the Romantic period.
Wollstonecraft’s arguments for the importance of co-education were one of her most widely accepted topics in her treatise; however she acknowledges the many challenges women will face in working towards this goal due to constricting gender stereotypes. The composers frustration caused by the unfulfilling societal expectations and conflicting pressures of her time are evident as she paradoxically states, ‘it is strange that men aim to elevate the moral integrity of women by confining them to a childlike state’. This statement provokes the responder to consider the inequitable expectations placed upon women, as they were expected to display high morality, whilst remaining submissive and uneducated, deliberately oppressed by men. The tumultuous period of Romanticism did however bring about extensive societal change. Wollstonecraft seized this opportunity to compose her philosophical treatise, written in first person narration for the bulk of the text; alternating this with an omniscient voice to ensure detachment conveyed her arguments as being based purely on logic rather than emotion in some parts. She informs women of their value and that they must make an impact on the world through this omniscient voice, ‘But in order to render their private virtue a public benefit, they must have a civil existence in the state’. The implementation of omniscience communicates Wollstonecraft’s value for reason, and her overarching desire to portray women’s ability to reason, a quality they were denied.
A deeper appreciation of the value of nature, the supremacy of imagination, individualism and idealism expressed through surreal and mysterious settings emerges explicitly in Coleridge’s poems, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘This Lime-tree Bower My Prison’. ‘The Rime’ rapidly becomes a tale of loss and guilt at the hands of a break in the natural order and highlights the repercussions of breaking bonds between man and nature. The dramatic narrative climaxes after the mariner kills the albatross and thus violates the bond. The ramifications of this act are elucidated through a biblical allusion; “Instead of the cross, the albatross about my neck was hung.” This has a significant emotional toll revealed through the use of assonance and repetition; “Alone, alone, all, all alone… And never a saint took pity on my soul in agony. The philosophical and religious paradigms that shaped romantic society dictated that nature was a powerful and sacred force, that when tampered with brought cataclysmic punishment to the guilty individual.
Conversely, the therapeutic attributes and haunting qualities of nature are explored by Coleridge in ‘This Lime-tree Bower My Prison’. Powerful imagery is employed in this poem causing the responder to engage in a vivid psychological journey along with the composer as he follows the path of his friends through a shadowy forest; ‘The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep, And only speckled by the mid-day sun’. The composer employs a simile, likening an ash tree to a bridge, to describe his friends crossing the stream in the final part of their journey; ‘Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock flings arching like a bridge’. Coleridge’s rich recollection of the forest transports him into the setting in a metaphysical sense, thus utilising the supremacy of his imagination. There are significant tonal shifts throughout ‘This Lime-tree Bower My Prison from a disheartening mood to a euphoric revelation in the last stanza, “I now am filled with joy, as if I was with them… nor in this bower.” The composer’s ability to harness the power of his imagination to shift himself from isolation to accompanying his friends omnisciently and consequently evoke an emotional response is reflective of the nature of the Romantic period in rejecting rationalism.
Romantics fostered a deeper appreciation of the beauty of nature and used the natural world as a medium for self-expression and fulfilment. This notion challenged the ideas and values of the rationalists and allowed individuals to embrace an alternate way of expressing their emotions. Alike Coleridge, Percy Shelley explored the supremacy of nature’s ability to mirror the human condition through his poem ‘Ode to West Wind’. Symbolism is prevalent throughout the poem as the wind is personified as a preserver and destroyer of life, “wild spirit, which art moving everywhere – Destroyer and preserver – hear, O hear!”. This force of nature is an extended metaphor for the degeneration and regeneration of humankind and of the poets own mind. The sombre emotional status of Shelley is reflected metaphorically, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”; his thoughts are then transformed into ecstatic rapture as he emphasises the healing power of nature in creating new life, “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe… to quicken a new birth”. Both the form and the conflicting melancholy and euphoric tones of this lyrical poetry are reflective of the changing perspectives of humanity and the alteration of paradigms that shape society. According to Arthur Bradley, “The language is poetical through and through… it is not wrought and kneaded; it flows.”
The Romantic period represented a movement towards the picturesque, with coherence between the individual, society and the natural world. This often was expressed through a nostalgic lens, where simplicity was valued in opposition to the rapid industrialisation taking place at the time. John Constable constructed an idyllic natural landscape in his 1821 oil painting The Hay Wain, which rejects the idea of change and instead expresses the continuity and calm of the English countryside. The artist painted nature as it was in reality with loose brushwork and natural tones; this avoided over stylising his work like many other Romantic artists at the time. The many tones are complimentary of each other as the blue of the water is mirrored in the sky and the reds of the brick house are emulated in the trees. The painting is brought to life through the use of white paint to create reflections of light upon the water, which cause the painting to appear to move as the water seems disturbed by the wheels of the hay wain as the light warps. These artistic techniques employed by Constable create an aura of calm and peace in a setting many Romantics would find comforting and valuable to escape from the fear of industrialisation in a period of unprecedented change.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge stated that “Imagination is the living power and prime agent of all human perception. This idea is central to the Romantic period as the power of imagination, individualism and idealism flourished and became the prevalent themes of the texts and sources critically analysed from this period: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication Of the Rights of Woman, the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley, and the artwork of John Constable. Although this time in history was fleeting, it was one of unparalleled change, as individuals strived for independence and coherence in their lives
The Dichotomous Views on Action in Wollstonecraft and Lao-tzu
Lao-Tzu, from his work “Thoughts from the Tao-te Ching”, offers political protocols for the leader through the abandonment of action and guidelines on how people should live their lives. Although Mary Wollstonecraft, from her work “Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society”, vindicates the subject of inequality between men and women, her approach towards the sociopolitical matters offers actions to be executed. The disparity which prevails in society, according to Wollstonecraft, undermines the development for a rationalized nation, where one half of the population is neglected from male monopolized work and education, and thus would never reach the pinnacle of a virtuous nation. On the other hand, Lao-Tzu’s criterion for a successful nation is one which withholds a passive government where the commonality gets to determine their own moral values, compassing through the justification of their instincts.
Lao-Tzu also opposes the idea of intellect or progression towards an urbanized life whereas Wollstonecraft encourages women to gain percipience and be part of the highly-skilled working demographic by being educated. The correlation between inaction (Lao-Tzu) or action (Wollstonecraft) and sociopolitical order augments their perception of the world, where Lao-Tzu can be considered as an idealist while Wollstonecraft as a realist. Despite the paradoxical views both parties have against each other, they have a reciprocal end goal, which is to create sociopolitical order and morality in the society. Action is necessary to achieve certain targets.
Wollstonecraft’s entire regime towards creating sociopolitical order in society suggests the element of action. She argues over the marginalization between men and women, which she finds inimical towards the well-being of a rational society. She elaborates: There must be more equality established in society or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride (656). For a society to be virtuous, they must be filled with rational beings who know how to make the right decisions. However, for that to happen, half of the population (women) is unable to make decisions based on their own autonomy because they are constantly degraded, and considered as a conjoined unit with her husband. “The laws respecting a woman, … make an absurd unit of a man and his wife” (661). Wollstonecraft controverts women’s invalidation as they should be perceived as one unit themselves even without the presence of her husband.
In contrast, Lao-Tzu believes that inaction provides solace from any wrongdoings by allowing society to subside their own morals values. He elucidates, “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place” (206). Lao-Tzu ponders upon the concept of letting situations take its natural course, with no government interventions. He further expanded his statement, “Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing” (207). This suggests how Lao-Tzu hypothesizes that inaction leads to sociopolitical order, where people use the justification of their instincts to determine what is morally right and wrong. Lao-Tzu and Wollstonecraft both present solutions on sociopolitical order, however, from different temperaments. Wollstonecraft engages on a prominent controversy (gender discrimination) while suggesting pragmatic actions (specific to specific).
On the other hand, Lao-Tzu streamlines society’s problems into a fitting solution which imposes certain philosophies on how the government and the general populace should act, which is inaction (general to specific). Gender discrimination falls into Lao-Tzu’s general category of societal problems. In this case, Lao Tzu’s philosophy is flawed because there has never been a law to intervene the undermining of women, yet society has gradually synthesized marginalization between men and women, placing the latter on the bottom of all social distinctions. Intellect should not be dismissed as a negligible factor contributing towards morality in society. Wollstonecraft regards intellect as the first building block towards equality. She clarifies, “[S]peaking of women at large, their first duty is to themselves as rational creatures” (661). In favor of becoming “rational creatures”, women need to be allowed to get formal education to attain the qualification of jobs, to be independent from men. In fact, she encourages women to practice in highly skilled jobs. “Women might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses.” (664). She further elaborates why: How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect… instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility… (665). Women have the potential to be a greater influence in their socioeconomic sphere, however, their paths towards highly skilled jobs have been barricaded by the impertinent gender roles. This results into women being subjected as subordinates in terms of intellect, a notion in which Wollstonecraft hopes to abolish. Lao-Tzu’s take on intellect is antithetical of Wollstonecraft’s. He expounds, “Throw away… and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier” (207). Lao-Tzu creates a correlation between knowledge and happiness, suggesting that the less the population knows, the better it is for the whole. This statement deviates from the sake of the general populace, instead, implies a negative connotation where the government is wary about the knowledge people gain, fearing they someday may rebel against. What good is there to bring to society by being apathetic?
In addition, Lao-Tzu preaches counterintuitive ideologies towards the development of technology. “They enjoy the labor of their hands and don’t waste time inventing labor-saving machines” (214). He eulogizes over his ideal society, which has a stagnant development in terms of intellect and urbanization where no new knowledge or technology should pierce the sphere of the population. Conversely, Wollstonecraft encourages women to study and be employed in the tertiary sector. She believes the state of having sociopolitical order is when the satisfaction from men and women coincide, where both men and women are free to do what they aspire to do, and not be constricted under the mold in which shapes a discriminatory society. She explains, “Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters… in a word, better citizens” (666). The phrase “better citizens” infers a mutually beneficial relationship between both men and women, where the liberation of women allows the disposition for a greater good to create them as human beings with depth in perception.
Wollstonecraft evokes parallelism between African American slavery and women: Why subject her to propriety- blind propriety, if she be capable of acting from a nobler spring, if she be an heir of immortality? Is sugar to be produced by vital blood? Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subjected to prejudices that brutalize them, when principles would be a surer guard, only to sweeten the cup of man? Is not this indirectly to deny women reason? (660) This speculates that women’s roles in society have only existed to please men, which in turn denies women from rationalization. Being “better citizens” essentially prompts freedom. Meanwhile, Lao-Tzu apprehends intelligence as a circumscription from his belief of “let[ting] go of fixed plans and concepts” (211). He acclaims a moderate lifestyle, where intellect is an unremarkable factor, “The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas… he has no destination in view and makes use of anything life happens to bring his way” (212). The phrase “no destination in view” refers to devising no fixed plans, giving the impression that his indefensible government is virtually indoctrinating the population with totalitarian regimes. A government which encourages their citizens to fixate themselves in the same country for their lifetimes, forsakes the art of being curious, denies intelligence and promotes traditional lifestyles with outdated technology.
By contrast, Wollstonecraft derives how “morality will never gain its ground” (656), if intelligence does not coexist within the society, because rationality and freedom will never be achieved for women. If the case is in retrospect to Lao-Tzu’s philosophy, whereby creating a rational society only takes inaction, it would already have reached a halcyon-like state, where discrimination among genders is nonexistent and Wollstonecraft’s arguments would not be present in the first place. Nevertheless, this infeasible society which Lao-Tzu conjectures cannot be synthesized in the real world without prescribing actions based on Wollstonecraft’s ideology, which is, by performing actions that will lead people into being more rational beings, thus defining morality, creating sociopolitical order.
In conclusion, the issues Lao-Tzu raise of are strictly imposed by his own beliefs on how the world should work. Unlike Wollstonecraft, who grasps the situation on how it is already working, presents the flaws of society based on her experiences. Their methodologies differ from the implication of their solutions towards creating a harmonious society. Lao-Tzu’s ideal nation is analogous to a totalitarian reign, in Wollstonecraft’s perspective, where there is lack of freedom due to the dismissal of knowledge or curiosity. The values that Lao-Tzu seem to oppose are a blueprint towards Wollstonecraft’s.
Wollstonecraft, Barbauld, and the Proto-feminists
The Romantic period was one marked by turmoil and deep unrest within England. The morality of the slave trade was questioned, the Industrial Revolution deepened the rift between the working class and aristocracy, and the French Revolution was on the rise in France, drawing the attention of those in England who felt oppressed. In the midst of these various revolutions and uprisings, women also began to question their place in society, aligning themselves with slaves and the implications that came with being deemed property. Two women, Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Letitia Barbauld, took to writing in order to proclaim their incredibly opposing views on the topic of women’s rights. While Wollstonecraft argued for education of women in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman, Barbauld used her poem “The Rights of Woman” to outline the consequences of ambition. In A Vindication for the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft emphasizes the need for female education in order to better unite men and women.
This idea is made clear from the beginning of A Vindication for the Rights of Woman when Wollstonecraft states in her dedication, “if [woman] not be prepared by education to become the companion to man, she will stop progress of knowledge and virtue,” making the claim that both the hindrance of comprehension and moral indecency are caused by the poor education women receive (211). She also highlights the fact that women are not properly cultivated to be companions to man, but that an education would allow man and woman to better connect. The highlights of a woman’s education do little in regard to preparation to share a life together as partners, but focus on being a submissive showpiece.
Wollstonecraft describes the characteristics girls are taught to adopt: Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives (217). Emphasis of female education, which is passed along by an equally uneducated mother, includes shallow traits that breed girls into docile women who do not question their place in society. Furthermore, beauty is held in high regard, meaning that beautiful girls need not acquire any knowledge, but rather focus on maintaining their beauty, as it will bring them the protection and affection of a husband.
Wollstonecraft goes on to condemn the infantile education women receive and how that futile education leads to infidelity in marriage. She compares the effectiveness of the skills women learn to the passing of the seasons, indicating that they are not life skills, but a form of flattery that soon becomes ineffective. The diminishing effectiveness of charm is outlined when Wollstonecraft writes, “the woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms are oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on her husband’s heart when they are seen every day, when the summer is passed and gone,” indicating that the inability to be anything but endearing will soon be ineffective in maintaining the relationship between husband and wife (224). Once charm no longer woes the husband, women possess no other skills or intellect to keep their husband’s loyalty, and the husband may become unfaithful. The inability for a couple to communicate on a more intimate level eventually leads to infidelity by the husband and unwavering compliance by the wife, further weakening the marriage.
According to Wollstonecraft, the way to combat this phenomenon is to educate women. She gives the advice, “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavor to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a play-thing,” simultaneously advocating for the education of women and addressing the misogyny present in society (Wollstonecraft 221). In this passage, Wollstonecraft is drawing attention away from women, and to the patriarchal structure that leads to oppression, and how that structure is corrupt. The use of the words tyrant and sensualist are extremely powerful accusations because they indicate moral indecency in a society that holds virtue in such high regard.
Barbauld uses her poem “The Rights of Woman” as a response to Wollstonecraft, arguing that if women were to attain more rights, they would reign over men, causing a reversal of roles, rather than a gaining of equality. She takes an extreme stance, essentially claiming that men and women cannot obtain equality in society because male rights would diminish if women were to attain more liberties. This ideology has the implication that rights are limited in quantity, and that granting one group of people more rights would result in fewer rights of another. This belief can be seen when Barbauld writes, “Go, bid proud Man his boasted rule resign, / And kiss the golden sceptre of thy reign” indicating that men would have to forfeit their liberties in order for women to be of equal standing (7-8). This passage also addresses the way Barbauld believes Wollstonecraft views men, which is as tyrannical rulers who dominate over women rather than as people she wishes to call her equal.
Furthermore, Barbauld argues that women wishing to become educated and the counterpart of men are simply following a whim of fancy, and that the aspiration of equality will soon pass. She indicated that the nature of women is to be “Subduing and subdued, thou soon shalt find / Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way,” indicating that the longing for equality is a fleeting emotion rooted in pride (Barbauld 27-28). The use of the words subduing and subdued also imply that the negative emotions being felt by women such as Wollstonecraft are irrational and can be overcome by the comfort and convincing of other women who do not agree with movement for women’s rights.
Moreover, Barbauld accuses women that long for more freedom to be cold, which is not a quality women would wish to possess since men sought tender and affectionate women to make their wives. While Wollstonecraft used images of the home in her works, Barbauld describes violence and war throughout her poem in order to discourage readers from partaking in a potential movement for women’s rights. The third stanza of “The Rights of Woman” are particularly evident of violence when Barbauld writes, “Go, gird thyself with grace; collect thy store / Of bright artillery glancing from afar; / Soft melting tones thy thundering cannon’s roar, / Blushes and fears thy magazine of war,” depicting a battle scene in which women, plated in armor, use weaponry to demand their rights from men (9-13). Aligning the movement for a better education with war, particularly at the time, will be incredibly effective in turning people away from the movement because of the violence that occurred during the French Revolution. By aligning Wollstonecraft and the other women seeking quality education with the Revolutionaries in France, both women and men alike will be reluctant to join the movement since the Reign of Terror specifically caused many Englishman to lose support in the revolution.
As with all movements, two distinct sides surfaced, one being that of Mary Wollstonecraft, in favor of the education and empowerment of females, and one being that of Anna Letitia Barbauld who believed that a movement for women’s equality would result in a violent revolution headed by irrationality. Nearly 200 years later, women must still fight for equality in a patriarchal society. While women are better educated than they have been in the past, double standards, societal expectations of gender roles, and inequality in the workplace are dominant issues that plague females throughout the United States. On a global scale, women struggle throughout the world to gain control of their bodies, education, and to find worth in society. While women have come a long way since Wollstonecraft and Barbauld, without the unrest of Wollstonecraft, or the resentment of Barbauld, women may not be able to experience all the freedoms that they do in the twenty-first century.
Barbauld, Anna Letitia. “The Rights of Woman.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 48-49. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication for the Rights of Woman.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 211-239. Print.
Mary Wollstonecraft and Malala Yousafzai: Time’s Up for Gender Injustice
Born to wash clothes, take care of the kids, make sure there is food on the table for the family and please their husband were the expectations for women. Women have been trained by society to serve their husband and family. Mary Wollstonecraft in her writing, “Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society” argues that women are capable of doing so much more than house duties. She believes women are not inferior to men; women can be just as intellectual as them. Wollstonecraft was a writer from the 18th century who fought for women’s rights; to this day, women around the world are fighting to get the same respect as men. Malala Yousafzai in her book, I Am Malala is an example of women in Pakistan being robbed of their education, denied freedom of expression, and forced into being dependent on men. Malala and Wollstonecraft are very similar women, in which they both come from harsh environments where women are despised. Malala builds upon Wollstonecraft ideas by bringing forth the reality of women being seen as inferior to men to this day. Malala is the more effective writer because she uses logos, ethos, and pathos to get the world’s attention that women are living in enslavement. While Wollstonecraft uses more of a symbolic and metaphorical style to tell the readers how unjust the women are being treated.
Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the essay “Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society”, addresses many different issues with the 18th century. Wollstonecraft notes that wealth ruins moral excellence of women because they become ornaments on a Christmas tree. They don’t have to cook, clean the house, or take care of the kids because they can afford maids to do their house duties. Wollstonecraft believed that women should be able to strive for themselves and be independent but because women are only seen to have the role of pleasing and breeding it makes nearly impossible for women to break from the chains society that holds them. Wollstonecraft uses strong visual examples and symbolic language to effectively persuade an audience that criticizes women. She brings attention to the British Empire that, “slavery which chains the very soul of woman, keeping her forever under the bondage of ignorance”. Wollstonecraft defines how women are in a mental state of slavery; they have been born into a society, which enforces limitations on women. For example, women not being able to qualify to work in certain career fields, such as in medicine or politics, due to the lack of education. This makes it hard for women to be independent of men because it would be a vigorous task for women to find a job that will support her with simple living cost by giving herself a roof over her head and daily bread. One can see how the chains symbolize the limitations that hold women down from exerting herself vigorously. This underlines that women should not be deprived of their natural rights but given the same opportunity as men like education. Wollstonecraft also uses metaphoric language when she illustrates how African American was used to please white men as to how women as well are being used to please men; “Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subject to prejudices that brutalize them, when principles would be a surer guard, only to sweeten the cup of man?”. Wollstonecraft was metaphorically saying that women in her time are similar to African Americans, whose only role in life was to obey and follow how society portrays them, live. This is noteworthy because slaves were considered property, not people; they were also very looked down upon and treated poorly. This comparison that Wollstonecraft uses about slaves and women really makes the reader reconsider how their wives and mothers are seen in society. Wollstonecraft was very bold for speaking out about the mistreatment that was placed on women because many criticized the way she viewed women’s roles in society should be like. One can compare Malala Yousafzai to Wollstonecraft since they are women who are standing up for the natural rights that women are entitled.
Malala Yousafzai, the girl who spoke out about the brutality happening in Pakistan, brought attention to the nations through the media by pointing out the injustice that was happening to women. Yousafzai was born in Pakistan and not only witness the hostile environment women lived in but also experienced the discrimination women faced. This builds her credibility by showing the reader how Yousafzai does not research on the unjust of women in Pakistan but has lived amongst the women who have been discriminated. This is significant because the reader gets a first-person view of what Yousafzai saw, felt, and thought about the unjust occurrences to women. In her book, “ I am Malala” Yousafzai wastes no time in telling the reader how from birth girls are adulterated in Pakistan society but when boys are born, “ rifles are fired in celebration of a son, while daughters are hidden away behind a curtain”. Yousafzai uses pathos in these quotes by making the reader feel empathy because a girl is not welcomed in the Pakistani culture rather they are concealed as if the parents are ashamed of having a girl. This articulates how women are looked down upon because of the roles they have to follow in Pakistan, which is breeding and feeding. This reminds the reader that inequality for women still exists today in Pakistan. Women are very limited in what they can choose as a profession; they can’t even walk on the streets alone. On top of that, they have to wear shalwar kameez and be covered up from head to toe every day. This emphasizes how hard it is for a woman to be independent of men because they do not have the same opportunities and liberty as men have. Yousafzai explains how a group of five religious parties named the Muttahida Majlis e-Amal wanted to abolish the women’s face from society. Yousafzai points out,“ MMA activists launched attacks on cinemas and tore down billboards with pictures of women or blacked them out with paint. They even snatched female mannequins from clothing shops”. This exemplifies that women in Pakistan are not seen as humans rather as an object or property. This is significant because women are not any better than a stray dog on the street that can easily be picked up and taken away. Not only are women seen as objects but they are also blamed for catastrophes that happen in Pakistan. Yousafzai claims, “Mullahs from the TNSM preached that the earthquake was a warning from God. They said it was caused by women’s freedom and obscenity”. Yousafzai uses logos in this quote by introducing a Pakistani militant group that is known to fight violently for their objective to enforce Sharia law in the country. With this quote, one can see that the TNSM, also known as the Movement for Law Enforcement of Islamic, are taking advantages of natural catastrophes to instill fear in the Pakistani citizens. This is noteworthy because the Law Enforcement of Islamic wants to manipulate citizens into thinking women who don’t follow their role in life, such and preparing food, giving birth to children and staying away from schools, will bring catastrophes to their lands because women were solely being disobedient. From these two analyses, one can see how Malala Yousafzai and Mary Wollstonecraft both want to bring attention to the injustice that women have been facing but in different rhetorical styles.
The difference between Malala Yousafzai and Mary Wollstonecraft are the ways they brought up the issues of the injustice brought upon women. Yousafzai introduces her family and many aspects of her life. In these the first chapter of the book, Yousafzai builds on her credibility by illustrating her own first-hand experiences in Pakistan. On the contrary Wollstonecraft right off the bat starts using symbolic language by illustrating how even the most “polished society” has venomous serpent lurking around and sultry air. One other example of how these two authors differ is how Yousafzai gives nothing but cold facts and even goes to the extreme by providing photos in her book that depicted the debris of a school that has been bombed down and people getting publicly whipped. On the other hand, as mentioned before, Wollstonecraft compares the mistreatment that has been placed upon the African American by white men to the maltreatment that women have received from society. From these two examples, one can see how both women get the same message across with different rhetorical styles.
Even with both Malala Yousafzai and Mary Wollstonecraft powerful writings the world somehow keeps making the same mistake of mistreatment of many different races, sex, and religion. These two writings really make different parts of the world consider how women are being treated. Some parts of the world will consider not taking for granted how well they are respected, other parts of the world might get inspired to not stay silent to the mistreatment women are experiencing. The most noteworthy part of the essay is to inform how injustice is still happening to women and society must speak up.
Men as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Ideal People
The late eighteenth century was a busy time for writers and thinkers. Affected by the French Revolution, such people routinely published their opinions for public review and comment. The entire literary community was abuzz, issuing papers and replies to papers seemingly overnight. Edmund Burke, author of “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790), criticized English sympathizers of the Revolution. To which Mary Wollstonecraft published a response, “A Vindication on the Rights of Men,” challenging Burke’s position and accusing him of forgetting to consider the lower class. Her essay elicited a flood of replies, most notably Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man,” which was published in 1791-92. Within an astonishing six weeks, Wollstonecraft answers with “A Vindication on the Rights of Women,” an essay defending women due to their underprivileged nature.
In this essay, Mary Wollstonecraft shares her view of men and women’s roles and how they are shaped by nature, society, and education. She frequently says that if given the educational opportunity, women could find themselves on equal footing as men. She also says the goal of said education is complete independence. Therefore, since fully educated women should be equal to men as well as independent, then fully educated men should already embody her ‘ideal person.’ Through a careful reading of her text, specifically her perception of gender roles and her aspects of an ‘ideal person,’ it can be concluded that Mary Wollstonecraft’s model for her ‘ideal person’ is based upon men.
Wollstonecraft places equal blame on nature, men, and women for their inferior position in life. She starts by saying man have the natural advantage because due to sheer physiological make-up, they are superior. However, just because men can lift bigger rocks does not, by itself, force women into the slump in which they find themselves. Wollstonecraft says it is a great misfortune that manners are learned before morals because women learn their social roles before they have mind enough to contest them. She continues, arguing that men place women and children in the same category, as innocent, yet mindless creatures of no practical value. With the current structure of education, women were instructed in the home, thus learning to become runners of households. Wollstonecraft feels that men can only respect a woman as one would a trusty servant, and this is unacceptable.
Another great disservice to women is their lack of opportunity to exercise their mind. “The minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement,” says Wollstonecraft, adding that the same problem afflicts the upper class members of society. Education is wasted on women and rich people because they are never forced to put into practice what they learn. Women appear useless because they are not equipped with tools to develop themselves into something of society’s value; their world does not extend past the walls of their homes. However, Wollstonecraft strongly believes that women and men are equally capable; women simply need to be given the opportunity.
One can see how society has crippled women’s views of themselves and their potential. Wollstonecraft is quick to address shortcomings within the educational and societal system when it comes to women; therefore, it is implicit that she believes men succeed within these arenas. As mentioned before, Wollstonecraft believes the result of a perfect education is independence. While she does not elaborate on her meaning of independence, if the common definition is applied, men in the late eighteenth century would easily be considered independent.
Men are free to pursue professions, lovers, travel, politics, and whatever else strikes their interest; marriage is rarely at the top of their list. Wollstonecraft says, “…strength of the body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves – the only way women can rise in the world-by marriage.” Once married, women no longer need to exercise their mind and bodies because the goal has been met. Men, on the other hand, have careers to keep them physically occupied and their minds sharp. Wollstonecraft declares that the woman who strengthens her mind and body will not be the humble dependant of her husband, but his friend. Without this level footing, women would never be viewed as anything but subservient. Men have strong minds and bodies and are independent, as Wollstonecraft encouraged women to become.
Wollstonecraft believes that with education comes an awakening of one’s emotions, namely passion. Love can be felt by the educated and non-educated, alike, but passion only comes to those who seek it. It draws the mind out of its rudimentary ways and exalts one’s affections. Such passion, rooted in physical pursuits, offers momentary gratification once achieved, then the satisfied mind rests again. However, the educated person’s pursuit of passion is unlimited in scope and boundaries. One’s intellect is constantly evolving and growing so as never to resort back to its stationary state. As noted earlier, women’s lives presented no challenge, requiring no exertion on their part, so the mind and body wither. Men, on the other hand, had their personal careers to advance and to participate in a society that demanded much more of them. Men frequently engaged in meaningful conversations and debates, they read newspapers and essays, and they formulated their own opinions on a variety of issues relevant to life and times. Men fulfilled Wollstonecraft’s idea of the pursuit of passion in a way women did not.
After reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” one might think she is a radical feminist who hates men, while the exact opposite is closer to the truth. By using men as her model of an ideal person, she is offering their gender the utmost praise. Wollstonecraft is not bitter because of man’s position in society; she is angered that her own gender does not feel more of a need to join their ranks. She feels men should not be honored, obeyed, and respected simply because they are men, but because of their contribution to the world around them. She only wants the same for women.
Wollstonecraft writes, “If love be the supreme good, let women be only educated to inspire it…but if they be moral beings, let them have a chance to become intelligent; and let love to man only be a part of that glowing flame of universal love.” She does not dislike either gender; she simply wants what is best for society which she sees when women take a more active role. Repeatedly, Wollstonecraft cites a shortcoming on the part of women followed by how men surpass the expectation. She measures the progress of women against that of men, but Wollstonecraft is optimistic that her gender is capable of reaching the foothold of equality.
Gender inequality has lowered the strength of women as writers
How far have we, as women, come – politically, economically, and socially? With a female nominee for president, a tightening of the gender pay gap, and a push towards more family-friendly maternity/paternity leave, a cursory glance would reveal astounding advancement in comparison to our twentieth-century female counterparts. But delving more deeply into our concerns and our futures, there’s a troubling repetition of themes that, despite our advances, haven’t evaporated, merely transformed: gender equality, identity, and motherhood. Three books examined in WNMU’s “Women as Writers” course demonstrate these concerns: The Edible Woman (1969) by Margaret Atwood, Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (1996) by Nuala O’Faolain, and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798) by Mary Wollstonecraft. These books provide an exceptional method used to compare the experiences of the characters with how contemporary women view their place in society, in the workplace, and in their personal relationships.
“Trapped” By Relationships
Gender equality concerns figure prominently in all three books. Maria: or, The Wrongs of Women, published a century-and-a-half prior to The Edible Woman, is dedicated to the struggles women face and is considered a radially feminist work (Pryce). In the book, Maria has been committed to an asylum and has lost custody of her child, not through the courts, but through an arranged abduction by her husband with no recourse. Although she left her husband on grounds of cruelty and adultery, she never managed to fully escape. She describes the experience, saying “After leaving, what the law considers as my home, I was hunted like a criminal from place to place, though I contracted no debts, and demanded no maintenance—yet, as the laws sanction such proceeding, and make women the property of their husbands, I forbear to animadvert” (Wollstonecraft ch. 17). Maria ruminates on her fate while she stays imprisoned in the asylum, and it is strictly because of her husband that she is there.
In The Edible Woman, Marian, the main character, feels a similar sensation of being “trapped,” although not literally as in Maria. Marian begins to look at her relationships differently, learning more about herself through her romantic liaisons. As her roommate Ainsley refers to her relationship with eligible lawyer-on-the-rise Peter: “He’s monopolized her” (Atwood 29). Peter, from the very beginning of the book, is shown to be self-centered and dominating, to the point where Marion actually attempts to escape two times from Peter in social settings, once at a bar and another time at a party. In the first circumstance, Marian begins to run and states: “I could hear the fury in Peter’s voice: this was an unforgivable sin, because it was public” . Her hysteria mounts as Peter takes chase in her car, but when she’s finally caught, she merely thinks: “The relief of being stopped and held, of hearing Peter’s normal voice again and knowing he was real, was so great that I started to laugh helplessly” .
Mental Instability And Relationships
The claim of mental instability has been used as one of the most common ways to control women. Divorce was highly uncommon in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in Great Britain, it wasn’t until the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 that introduced divorce through the court. At that time, only men were allowed to “petition the court” for a divorce based on their wife’s adultery. It wasn’t until 1923 that either spouse could petition the court for a divorce based on adultery (BBC). A member of the Tennessee Genealogy Society described the confusing approach to women’s mental health, stating “I was visiting a courthouse and noticed the term ‘lunacy’ on a lot of the women’s forms. I asked the court aide about this. She showed me where a woman could be quite often divorced for reasons of lunacy. Her husband would put her in the insane asylum and then file for divorce. A few months later, his marriage records to a younger bride usually showed up” (Sansone).
Maria may have been held in an institution, but for her, it’s not because she was mentally unstable or sick. Because of her role as a wife in the 1700s, she’s completely at the mercy of her husband. Her marriage was a contract – a near unbreakable one – and her commitment to an asylum was a means to an end for her husband. In Maria, the main character describes her husband’s wrongdoing: “Neglected by my husband, I never encouraged a lover; and preserved with scrupulous care, what is termed my honour, at the expence of my peace, till he, who should have been its guardian, laid traps to ensnare me” (Wollstonecraft ch. 17).
In The Edible Woman, Marian finds that her issues escalate as Peter begins to treat her more and more like a wife, and she also begins to change her day-to-day routine, eschewing steak, rice pudding, eggs, and vegetables as she questions her sanity and her relationship. Men exert power over Marian, and while she examines that relationship, she also struggles with the implications of those relationships. As she reminded herself while preparing for a dinner party: “She was becoming more and more irritated by her body’s decision to reject certain foods. She had tried to reason with it, and had accused it of having frivolous whims, had coaxed and tempted it, but it was adamant” (Atwood 193).
Nuala O’Faolain describes her breakdown in Are You Somebody? In her memoir, she discusses her father and his death. Because she was drinking heavily and unable to mend on her own, she asked a friend to help her recuperate in a hospital. Her friend agreed, and “I wept for the millions and millions of anonymous women who might never have been, for all we know of them. I wrote a sort of paean to them. I still couldn’t sleep” . Unlike Maria and Marian, however, Nuala’s instability is calmed by her primary relationship with Nell, whereas the other main characters regain composure through their secondary relationships: Marian and Duncan, and Maria and Darnford.
Today, we no longer face the same issues with divorce – in the Western World, that is. According to Life, the current cohort divorce rate, calculated through a group of people marrying at the same time, is 40 to 50 percent (Stanton). Interestingly, the same source indicates that only 27 percent of college graduates will divorce by middle age. While some women enjoy the freedom to leave an unsatisfactory marriage, we still hear stories like that of Mwende, a Kenyan woman punished for not bearing children by having both hands removed by her husband (Kyama). The L.A. Times’ Kyama noted that “Her impoverished parents advised Mwende to leave Ngila, but she didn’t want to go back home to burden them. She sought advice from her pastor, who advised her to persist and to do her best to save the marriage.” An article a few years ago highlighted the change in divorce rate, stating “In Asia, Africa, and Latin America, however, divorce is both an indicator of and force behind social changes that have improved prospects for women, reduced gender inequality, and fueled development. All of which suggests that the more people are able to get out of bad marriages, the better off their societies are likely to be” (Kenny).
While Maria views work differently than a mid-century woman in the 1960s, she does discuss the inequity of lower class labor. Through her exchanges with Jemima, she becomes intimately acquainted with the world of working women – and the complications that arise as a result. Jemima, upon her mother’s death, was forced to become a servant in her father’s house, surviving mistreatment such as physical abuse and rape. Thrown out of her own home, she became a prostitute, and later, an attendant in an asylum. Even though she experiences the “freedom” of her own wage-earning potential, she still suffers from mistreatment by men in her own profession. In some ways, ironically, the asylum is the “safest” place for her.
Marian also feels trapped by her job, describing her role at a marketing agency called Seymour Surveys. The “c-suite,” as we would call it today, is men-only, leaving her in a position in which the best she could hope for is a managerial role. She comments, “I couldn’t become one of the men upstairs; I couldn’t become a machine person or one of the questionnaire-marking ladies, as that would be a step down. I might conceivably turn into Mrs. Bogue or her assistant, but as far as I could see that would take a long time” (Atwood 14). As soon as she discusses a retirement plan, she starts to reevaluate her choices, envying her roommate, Ainsley, for her less stable, lower-paying position that offers one thing – freedom to leave because it’s not a “career.”
Now, we no longer argue whether or not women show have jobs, but rather, why more women are not leaders. In Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, published by the American Association of University Women, researchers present statistics that indicate the higher up the corporate ladder we climb, the fewer women we see. AAUW reflects, “There is no lack of qualified women to fill leadership roles. Women earn the majority of university degrees at every level except for professional degrees, and more women are in the workforce today than ever before. There must be something inherent in the system that’s working against them” (AAUW). And in middle-income countries, we see a marked gender gap in entrepreneurial activities; however, in developing countries, the gap narrows again as women choose to start their own businesses out of necessity (Minniti, Naude). Again, there’s work to be done.
Whether these women – Maria, Marian, or Nuala – were in the eighteenth or mid-twentieth centuries – they still coped through escapism, managing their circumstances by reading, writing, or simply daydreaming.
Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman, establishes the escape of a numbing identity – books. Mary Shelley Wollstonecraft states that “the books Maria had obtained, were soon devoured, by one who had no other resource to escape from sorrow” . Maria concentrates on writing letters to Darnford, which also helps her move beyond her uncomfortable current state in the asylum. Maria also daydreams, because she “was not permitted to walk in the garden; but sometimes, from her window, she turned her eyes from the gloomy walls, in which she pined life away, on the poor wretches who strayed along the walks, and contemplated the most terrific of ruins—that of a human soul” (Wollstonecraft, ch. 2).
The Edible Woman’s Marian indulges in her own escapism. Marian is a thoughtful, perceptive woman who continually analyzes what she wants out of life, how to get it, and what is in her way. Through this analysis, she identifies that she needs to escape from whatever it is that plagues her – escape from Peter, escape from her job, and, most likely, escape from Ainsley, who has made it clear that she is changing her own life direction through her single mother status. Marian begins her escape through her unusual, evolving relationship with food, humanizing it to the point where it becomes unpalatable. This occurs shortly after her engagement in the book. She describes her first meal after she becomes engaged to Peter: “I inspected my egg, which was sending out a white semi-congealed feeler like an exploring oyster” (Atwood 88). It’s also at this time that Marian begins her relationship with Duncan, escaping simultaneously into an unsustainable romance. Her unsustainable relationship, paired with her unsustainable issues with food, point towards a temporary need to leave her current self behind.
O’Faolain escapes much like her mother (and Maria) did – through reading. She states, “I must have picked it up from my mother – that reading is a defence. That ‘they’ can’t get to you when you have a book” . She describes withstanding immense tests of personal fortitude purely through her ability to weather a storm through the written word: “I lived in a hotel in Tehran for a few months in the 1970s. Men with machine-guns patrolled the lobby in front of the elevators. I didn’t care. Every evening I’d hurry back and settle with perfect happiness into wherever I’d go to in Remembrance of Things Past” .
Today, we see a similar form of escapism presented as stories surface about the Muslim world’s reading habits – it seems that the pastime has evolved to reflect a more thorough consideration of women’s rights. In The Clandestine Adventures of Alice in Saudi Land, author Jasmine Bager reflects “Public libraries supposedly exist in the country, although nobody I know has ever visited one. It’s an unspoken rule that women are forbidden inside anyway” (Bager). She describes the experience of finally having the green light to share experiences in a discreet book club, despite the fact that “The book club could be shut down and the caf?’s employees might face deportation if a person who finds the club objectionable reports its existence to the authorities.” The book club serves as the perfect method for the women to connect, and yet the participants must still proceed with the utmost caution. As one woman states, “‘We believe that book clubs are incredibly relevant. Where else would we discuss Machiavelli, The Big Bang, and Wonderland? This is the start of social change’” (Bager).
Atwood identifies women as captives, even in their own homes – a theme we see in The Edible Woman, in which Clara Bates is shown to have succumbed to a more traditional role, a role that Marian rejects for its limitations. As Marian describes when she visits Clara, “I felt now that there was nothing much I could do. I was to be only a witness, or perhaps a kind of blotter, my mere physical presence absorbing a little bit of the boredom” (Atwood 28). Marian continually depicts children as being complicated, enjoyment-disturbing creatures, making references to a child as a “leech” or “octopus” . When Marian first visits Clara, she notes “We found it difficult to talk: everyone’s attention was focused on the baby, who was whimpering, and for some time it was the only person who said anything” . When Marian later has a dinner party, it is Clara’s baby who spoils it: “Conversation had ceased. Marian hovered about, handing diaper pins but secretly wondering whether it would be bad taste to go down and get one of the many odour-killing devices from the lady down below’s bathroom” .
With this identification of child as complicated and attention-sucking, The Edible Woman pits the professional woman’s role against that of the homemaker or mother figure. Marian’s friend, Clara, has moved beyond her academic life and now dedicates her time to raising her children. Marian looks at Clara with a combination of fascination and pity, not envious of her choices. As a working woman, it makes sense that Marian is so critical of pregnancy. She looks at Clara with “a wave of embarrassed pity” and stated that, at Seymour Surveys, “pregnancy is viewed as an act of disloyalty to company”.
Marian’s relationship with Ainsley best shows her discomfort for motherhood and how it affects a woman’s options. Ainsley is set on becoming a single mother, embracing it as an alternative to Clara’s role, which seems tired, messy, and too much of a departure from the lifestyle that both Ainsley and Marian have embraced. Ainsley’s choice, while certainly looked down upon by Marian, is a stunningly modern one that fits her needs, not the needs as dictated by society. Ainsley states “How is society ever going to change if some individuals in it don’t lead the way? I will simply tell the truth. I know I’ll have trouble here and there, and some people will be tolerant about it, I’m sure, even here” . Unlike Jemima in Maria, Ainsley does not see pregnancy as an issue; she has been afforded far more freedom to make choices without the support of a man.
In Are You Somebody?, we see a similar disdain for motherhood as Nuala O’Faolain describes the struggle she has with wanting freedom versus the maternal instinct. She blames herself, and her siblings, for contributing to her mother’s downfall, stating “My mother didn’t want us. She hadn’t felt wanted herself . It wasn’t marriage that did her in it was us” (O’Faolain 213). O’Faolain emphasizes the choices women must make, and the implications of those decisions. She later discusses her yearning for children, commenting “I would have been a very bad mother, during most of my life. But I’d be a good mother now. Too late. Sometimes I have to look away from small children
They are too beautiful to bear” (O’Faolain 181). Much like Darnford strikes a chord with Maria, so does Duncan with Marian. Marian’s suffocating relationship with her finance? leads her to seek fulfillment in another place. Unconventional and unusual, Duncan provides fresh perspective to Marian’s damaged relationship with Peter. She tells Duncan “‘I’m going to get married, you know’” to which he replies “‘But you are here. You’re just another substitution for the laundromat’” (Atwood 56). Marian’s shocked response is “‘I wonder what you’re a substitute for, then’” . Duncan refers to himself as “‘very flexible’” and “‘the universal substitute’” . Marian continues to see Duncan throughout the book, eventually finding herself in a situation in which she needs to introduce Duncan and Peter. Duncan declines, disappearing as quickly and as strangely as he was first introduced, “‘One of us would be sure to evaporate,’” he comments .
O’Faolain also discusses sex as a distraction, much like Marian, stating “People say without thinking, ‘Oh what she needs is sex.’ That would be a fine distraction. But the longing is in the head as the heart as well as the body” (O’Faolain 182). Marian struggles with sex not filling the void, and Duncan’s impotence emphasizes that. After a particularly unfulfilling encounter, Marian comments “What she really wanted, she realized, had been reduced to simple safety. She thought she had been heading toward it all these months but she hadn’t been getting anywhere. At the moment, her only solid achievement seemed to be Duncan. That was something she could hang on to” .
In some ways, Maria demonstrates the feelings Wollstonecraft had about her own relationships – she once said that becoming a wife was the only way to avoid burdening her family (History.com). All three books present a similar thought. Ainsley was at first completely set on her single parenthood, and yet, by the end of the book, we see her happily engaged and moving on: “She had given me to understand in a few sentences she time for that they were going to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon and that she thought Fischer would make, as she put it, ‘a very good one’” . Maria is buoyed by thoughts of Darnford; alternate endings show Maria committing suicide after Darnford leaves her – as if the possibility of living alone yet again is too much to bear. Nuala comments “Is this what I must settle for, then? I thought. That I can have love – but the love of people I can’t see or touch?” .
In Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women, we see how pregnancy can deeply affect a woman’s opportunities. On the site’s website, the authors elaborate: “The risk of dying in childbirth in sub-Saharan Africa is 1 in 22, while in the United States it’s 1 in 4,800” (Kristof, WuDunn). Global spending in healthcare, the authors note, has long been dedicated to other sources besides maternal care, such as AIDS or malaria. Redistributing funds or shifting concentrations will save lives – and will change maternal mortality rates that mimic that of the 1700s in the Western World (Helmuth). As Helmuth states in her piece, The Disturbing, Shameful History of Childbirth Deaths, “Bearing a child is still one of the most dangerous things a woman can do. It’s the sixth most common cause of death among women age 20 to 34 in the United States.”
The Question of Compromise
It’s been said that struggle makes us stronger, and regardless of print date, Nuala O’Faolain, Margaret Atwood, and Mary Wollstonecraft show us how complicated it is to be a woman – in several different time periods. Balancing our sense of selves with what we’re told we should be or how we should act, it’s easy enough to bend to these intense pressures. But we’re strong, and in the same places we’ve struggled, we continue to define and refine our roles.
- AAUW. Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership. Publication no. 091-16 05M 03/16. Washington, D.C.: AAUW, 2016. Print.
- Atwood, Margaret. The Edible Woman. New York: Anchor, 1998. Print.
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- O’Faolain, Nuala. Are You Somebody?: The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman. New York: H. Holt, 1998. Print.
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Direct Comparison Between Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf in Feminism
8 November 2019Mary Wollstonecraft is considered one of the founders of the feminist movement and philosophy. She wrote books for children, novels, history works, and in defense of the rights of both men and women alike. She was mostly famous for her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Published in 1792, she demands gender equality between men and women. She insists on giving women the right education in order to establish a society that is prosperous and just. She also talks about marriage and how it should be a fellowship rather than just mere marriage. She also replied angrily on books of the likes of John Gregory and Jean-Jacques Rousseau who encouraged depriving women educational opportunities similar to men. Although demanding women rights, Wollstonecraft does not deny that men are superior when it comes to physical strength and valor. A lot of that have to do with the fact that she lived in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft wrote this book during the peak of the French Revolution, so clearly she was motivated with it, as the wind for change was sweeping throughout Europe, and hopefully, at that time, the change for the situation of women.In her book, Wollstonecraft rejects the idea of women being submissive and she not doesn’t want them to revolt against men, she just wants them to have power in themselves, to be able to seek independence and to have self-confidence that they can survive with their own personalities. She says “I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves”. She mocks and rejects the ideas of Rousseau who emphasizes that women should be only educated to be better domestically and in pleasure of men, saying that women are also human beings who have their own life and privacy. Both men and women granted power by God to endure all hardships and difficulties through life.
On the other hand, we have Virginia Woolf, born in 1882, regarded one of the most prominent female writers and feminist advocate in the 20th century. She was encouraged writing by her father, whom death caused a mental breakdown for her. She was well-known for her novels, short stories, and criticism. She also wrote about the first world war, arguing that the patriarchy systems are always greedy for blood and destruction. Woolf is mainly known for her A Room of One’s Own, written in 1929, which is considered as a majorwritten work in feminist literary criticism. In this book, Woolf talks about the rights of women in general, and of female writers in particular. She states that a woman must have money and own room if she’s to be a writer. This is totally against the traditions at the time she was living. Women at that time were only busy with domestic affairs, cooking, and looking after her children and the pleasure of their father. Writing with such condition is quite impossible no matter how talented the woman can be. She argues that there are many intelligent and talented women who didn’t get the chance to be successful writers because of their obligations to the house affairs. She depicts an imaginary sister of William Shakespeare, telling that what if he had a sister who was as smart as he? Would she get a chance to write? While being busy with house works? Would she have a room of her own? She says that what made Shakespeare a pioneer writer wasn’t his intelligence, it was the general circumstances that gave him space, wealth, and room to write. She says that even with a room of her own, a female writer would commit suicide at that time due to the pressure she would feel to be a female writer.
Both Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf share a magnificent sort of similarity. They are both powerful when it comes to make a statement, for instance, Wollstonecraft says: “Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind”. And Woolf says: “If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?”. They both encourage support of knowledge and education for women. They both are ready challenge for that honorable cause. Also, they were both struggle for their cause in turning points events of the history of the world. Wollstonecraft being able to write about the rights of women during the peak of the French revolution. Same goes for Woolf, her book was written during the inter-war era where a new world has started to take shape. Women gaining more rights and freedom at that period of time with the most notably, the right to vote.
When it comes to differences, the major difference between the two is their use of language. Woolf deploying personifications which was common during her era, the contemporary era and used less strict language. While on the other side, Wollstonecraft, affected by the Romantic poets during her time, used multiple emotional description in her book. Moreover, Woolf’s writing was less aggressive towards patriarchy since the limits on women’s rights were loosened at the beginning of the 20th century. Overall, Wollstonecraft saw that the independence of women first come through education, while Woolf, also calling for education, thought economic independency is very important for women to have freedom.
- Wollstonecraft, Mary. 1792. A Vindication of The Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. London :Printed for J. Johnson.
- Woolf, Virginia. 1957. A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1957.