OverviewMary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) has been, and is, celebrated
as the mother of modern feminism. Wollstonecraft was “a brilliant thinker and conversationalist, a prolific polemical writer, [and] a commanding social presence” but attacks on her personal conduct and moral character persisted well into the 20th Century (Damrosch 302). Wollstonecraft was criticized for her amorous pursuit of Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist, her affair with Gilbert Imlay, her daughter out-of-wedlock with Imlay, assisting her sister in escaping an abusive marriage, attempted suicides, and affair and premarital pregnancy with William Godwin (Tomaselli). Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792 in response to 18th Century educational and political theorists. Her Vindication serves as a treatise on the oppression of women, their denial of voice in public and political arenas, and reform of women’s education. It is within women’s education that Wollstonecraft grounds her theory that a lack of education for girls’ is to blame for the current condition of adult women.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is often credited as being “the founding text of Anglo-American feminism” (Taylor 197). In A Vindication Wollstonecraft criticizes men and the education of women as the key factors which keep women in a state of oppression. While she does not use the same language or arguments for gender equality that later 19th and 20th Century feminist would employ; she does argue that men and women are equal in the eyes God and therefore subject to the same moral laws. Wollstonecraft draws on Adams expostulation to God in Milton’s Paradise Lost when he claims:
Hast thou not made me here they substitute,
And these inferior far beneath me set?
Among unequals what society
Can sort, what harmony or true delight?
Which must be mutual, in proportion due
Giv’n and receiv’d; but in disparity
The one intense, the other still remiss
Cannot well suit with either, but soon prove
Tedious alike: of fellowship I speak
Such as I seek, fit to participate
All rational delight – (Wollstonecraft 47)
Her argument follows the idea that if God made women with the ability for rational thought they in turn have the same capacity for reason as men. In denying women the opportunity for education and thus reason, men are essentially placing women on the same level with brute animals. She calls to
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 sensualist 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. The sensualist, indeed, has been the most dangerous of tyrants, and women have been duped by their lovers, as princes by their ministers, whilst dreaming they reigned over them (Wollstonecraft 50).
Wollstonecraft appears critical of her own sex at times; acknowledging common criticisms of female behavior. However, she places the blame for this on women’s education since they “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 (Wollstonecraft 45). It is in her educational reforms, her appeal for women’s ability for reason and rational thought, that without claiming gender equality, Wollstonecraft set the foundation for the feminist movements that would follow.
Wollstonecraft’s argument is based from, and to, a middle-class female readership. In her introduction she states that “addressing my sex in a firmer tone, I pay particular attention to those in the middle class, because they appear to be in the most natural state” (Wollstonecraft 31). Wollstonecraft chooses middle-class women, and places them as most natural, because they are not tainted by extreme wealth or poverty. She criticizes the aristocracy of “false –refinement, immorality, and vanity” claiming they are “weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner, [who] undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society” (Wollstonecraft 31). Wollstonecraft viewed the aristocracy as a morally depraved “society devoted to the acquisition of property and its conspicuous display rather than to the pursuit of reason and the protection of natural rights” and works out these arguments by placing her emphasis for education, reason, and rational thought within the bounds of middle-class womanhood (Tomaselli). While she encourages middle-class women to search for knowledge, expand their reading, and become interested to the politics and the public sphere, little is said about the poor. In fact, “rather than politicizing class and family in a way that challenges the separation of public and private spheres, her programme for female emancipation assumes these institutions are necessary, good and, indeed, natural” (Ferguson 432). In so doing, her arguments for education reform and feminism become class based, leaving no room for the liberation of working-class women. In some ways, “Wollstonecraft ends up advocating the very oppressive conditions working-class women must struggle against” (Ferguson 432). Wollstonecraft argues that men have been more concerned with making women “alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers” who spend their time doting and educating their children, tracing her feminism “back to her commitment to the middle-class family, and specifically to her belief that motherhood should form the vital center of female cultural identity, with motherhood usually understood in these arguments in opposition to embodied feminine sexuality” (Ford 190). This further excludes the working-class mother who has no time to focus on the education of her children, but must work just to keep them alive. While not giving access to the freedom she advocates for middle class women, she does place the poor in a better position than the aristocracy when she states:
Happy is it when people have the cares of life to struggle with; for these struggles prevent their becoming prey to enervating vices, merely from idleness! (Wollstonecraft 82)
Happy, indeed, but not privileged to, or advocated for, in her treatise for the revolution of women’s rights.
Relevance to Romanticism and Revolution
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written during the French Revolution, and as an expansion of A Vindication of the Rights of Man which was written in response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman after Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord gave his speech calling for educational reform to the National Assembly in France. She dedicates her work to him stating:
Having read with great pleasure a pamphlet which you have lately published, I
dedicate this volume to you; to induce you to reconsider the subject, and maturely
weigh what I have advanced respecting the rights of woman and national
education: and I call with the firm tone of humanity; for my arguments, Sir, are
dictated by a disinterested spirit - I plead for my sex - not for myself (21).
Couching her argument in response for Talleyrand’s education reform in revolutionary France, Wollstonecraft herself is calling for a revolution of education for women. Wollstonecraft not only engages in events taking place in France, but also to issues and concerns raised in England by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, turning their arguments against them in order to strengthen her own claims. Wollstonecraft is able to use a blend of feminine and masculine language that allows her to argue against the political and philosophical minds of her time. Her writing itself becomes revolutionary for the literary world as she blends multiple techniques, such as the essay and novel which are typically attributed to women, and meshes them with the political and philosophical discourse attributed to male authors. In her call for educational reform she frequently uses the term revolution in regards to female manners which she claims can only be improved by a rational education. She ends her treatise by claiming
That women at present are by ignorance rendered foolish or vicious, is, I think, not
to be disputed; and, that the most salutary effects tending to improve mankind
might be expected from a REVOLUTION in female manners, at least, with a face
of probability, to rise out of the observation (225).
Wollstonecraft employs several aspects common to Romanticism in her treatise. She frequently challenges gender roles, claiming that women have the same capacity for rational thought and reason as men. While she acknowledges that men are superior to women in physical strength, she claims that masculinity of the mind is something that all women should strive to achieve. She also employs elements of the sublime when she utilizes God, or a supreme Being, who created man and woman as equals. If they are not, then the supreme Being created a deficient character. In so doing, Wollstonecraft uses the sublime to not only support her argument but to also critique “the rhetorical use of religion for the purpose of mystification and bullying” (Ellison 207). As stated above, Wollstonecraft also addresses issues of class, praising the middle-class, criticizing the aristocracy, and mostly overlooking the poor, other than to view them as idyllically happy for their lack of the temptations posed by wealth and idleness.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and perhaps Mary Wollstonecraft herself, embodies both revolution and Romanticism, in their call for reform, equality, their language, and their challenge of cultural ideas.
Damrosch, David and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, Eds. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. Vol 2A. 5th ed. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.
Ellison, Julie. "Redoubled Feeling: Politics, Sentiment, and the Sublime in Williams and Wollstonecraft." Studies in 18th Century Culture 20 (1991): 197-215. Project Muse. Web. 21 April 2015.
Ferguson, Susan. "The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft." Canadian Journal of Political Science 32.3 (1999): 427-450. JSTOR. Web. 20 April 2015.
Ford, Thomas. "Mary Wollstonecraft and the Motherhood of Feminism." Women's Studies Quarterly 37.3/4 (2009): 189-205. JSTOR. Web. 22 April 2015.
Taylor, Barbara. "Mary Wollstonecraft and the WIld Wish of Early Feminism." History Workshop 33 (1992): 197-219. JSTOR. Web. 23 April 2015.
Tomaselli, Sylvana, "Mary Wollstonecraft", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta, Ed., <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/wollstonecraft/>.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. New York: Vintage, 2007. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Rethinking the Western Tradition : Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ed. Eileen Hunt Botting. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press, 2014. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 20 April 2015.