Written for a college class, spring 2005
When Mary Wollstonecraft said that “ It would be an endless task to trace the variety of meannesses, cares, and sorrows, into which women are plunged by the prevailing opinion […]” she was a woman who was thinking ahead of her time (Bartelby). Her ideas transformed public opinion on the subject, and inspired generations of women to follow. Wollstonecraft showed the world that animosity was building between men and women, and that the only solution to put an end to it was to change the way society viewed and treated women, particularly under the rule of law. The concept of allowing women to hold property or serve on a jury was, before she published her “Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, foreign to the 18th century world. The movement for equality for women might have died before it ever began without her powerful writings on the subject. Wollstonecraft’s unique position as the first writer to discuss the issue of equality for women makes her material vital to the learning objectives of a course on women in literature.
Wollstonecraft had the unique position of being a woman who lived outside of the normal boundaries set for her gender. This allowed for her to write on the subject from an objective point of view. At the time of her writings, women were expected to marry and raise families and live under the rule of their husbands. In her own words, she defines the status quo for women of the 18th century: “[… T]he minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement, that the books of instruction written by men of genius have had the same tendency as more frivolous productions; and that, in the true style of Mahometanism, they are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, not as a part of the human species” (Gilbert 259). Women were treated as lesser beings than men and because of this state of society women were being characterized by their gender, rather than for their human potential. Popular books of the time also “advise[d] an innocent girl to give the lie to her feelings, and not dance with spirit, when gaiety of the heart would make her feel eloquent” (Gilbert 267). The advice given to young women of the period shows us what was expected of them. This expectation was something that Wollstonecraft found to be ludicrous: “I hope, that no sensible mother will restrain the natural frankness of youth by instilling such indecent cautions” (Gilbert 267). It is clear that Wollstonecraft was encouraging mothers to allow their daughters to speak as they wished, rather than as society would have them speak. She further explains that women of the period were “only fit for a seraglio!” (Gilbert 261). This belief rose from an idea that marriage changes women from the reasonable adults they were designed by nature to be: “when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act” (Gilbert 261). The childlike nature of women at the time was something that Wollstonecraft found appalling and she chose to live her life apart from this expectation. Her belief that women of her day were no more than common whores and children to be seen and not heard gave rise to her cause of living outside of that societally acceptable norm. Wollstonecraft was in France during the revolution when she fell in love with an American and registered as his wife to get protection from the revolutionaries, “Yet she refused the legal claim of marriage.” (Gilbert 257). Her refusal leads us to the conclusion that marriage was not an institution that she approved of, nor desired to have any part in. This choice allowed her to make claims about the state of women who lived in that world, from a place that was entirely on the outside of their lives.
Wollstonecraft’s objective perspective on the lives of women, gave her the unique opportunity to be a forerunner for the cause of equality for women. Rather than take on a traditional role as a wife and mother, “Mary Wollstonecraft made a powerful case for liberating and educating women; at the same time she lived out her theories” (Todd). In living out her theories, she gave credence to her argument that women were reasonable beings that were equally deserving of the same rights afforded to men. The cornerstone of her argument was based on the damage done to society when women are not afforded equal rights, “All their thoughts turn on things calculated to excite emotion; and feeling, when they should reason, their conduct is unstable, and their opinions are wavering” (Wollstonecraft). In this way, women did not contribute positive results to society. Rather their “cultivation of mind has only tended to inflame its passions” (Wollstonecraft). Ruled by their emotions, with no intellectual interests to draw upon, women were unable, and ill-equipped to contribute to society in a meaningful way. These arguments contributed to Wollstonecraft’s thoughts on the education of women. Not only were women deserving of the rights afforded to men in Wollstonecraft’s mind, they were also deserving of the same education. Many argued that this idea was ludicrous, that an educated woman would lose her virtue, but Wollstonecraft answered them as follows: “Women ought to endeavor to purify their heart; but can they do so when their uncultivated understandings make them entirely dependent on their senses for employment and amusement” (Gilbert 268). This argument, that women had little to entertain themselves with other than what they could see and feel was the foundation for her theory that it was dangerous to leave women uneducated. Wollstonecraft explains that because women have their attention drawn away from the community, they turn to “the minute parts, though the private duty of any member of society must be very imperfectly performed when not connected with the general good” (Gilbert 273). This disconnection from the community served to make women little more than painted dolls, rather than healthy contributors to society. At the time, this concept was considered to be incredibly radical. For many, “[i]t was the most immodest emergence of a woman’s voice in memory” (Bentley). The radical nature of her commentary failed to stop the demand for equality by women around the globe.
As one of the earliest, objective works that proclaimed a genuine need for equality for women, Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” is a vital piece in the study of women in literature. Her concepts “on public versus private life, politics and domestic spheres, and men and women, were […] important influences on the thought and development of philosophy and political ideas that resonate even today” (Johnston).The fact that people who read her work over 200 years after it was written can still identify with the ideas presented in it, makes this work a powerful piece to understanding the history of women writers. Many would argue that to attempt to discuss the history of women without discussing Wollstonecraft is impossible, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a classic of feminist thought, and a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the history of feminism” (Johnston). Indeed, it would seem impossible given that her work is so highly acclaimed as one of the first works to express any view of feminine freedom from male domination. The need for freedom from masculine rule is an important idea that carries through to the work of other women in literature. Many other women writers were influenced by Wollstonecraft’s work, “Virginia Woolf, writing in 1929, paid her a resounding tribute as one of the most influential feminist thinkers” (Literary Encyclopedia). This influence on the work of others is vital to understanding where these women writers came from.
In understanding where women writers come from, we gain a greater understanding of the material presented in a class on women writers. Without knowing the roots of their ideas, we wander into unknown territory without a guide to lead the way. Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” is that guide. The ideas and concepts that she portrayed in this work were completely new to the time, and because they were so forward thinking, they resonate with modern audiences very well. Her work also paints a picture for us of a world that is in our past, but not of our making. Only by understanding the past, can we hope to attain a greater appreciation for the rights and freedoms that we have, and this appreciation gives us the strength to continue to fight against oppression. It is difficult for a contemporary audience to grasp historical material without an understanding of the history that surrounds the work. Wollstonecraft’s work gives us that understanding and as such, is vital to the understanding of the history of women in literature.
Bartelby.com “Wollstonecraft, Mary” 7. June 2005.
Bentley, Toni “A Hyena in Petticoats” The New York Times 29. May 2005. Late Edition Final, Section 7, Column 1, Page 5.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Gilbert-Gubar 255-275
Gilbert, Sandra M. Gubar, Susan., ed. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. New York: New York, 1996.
Johnston, Jone. “Beliefs” First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa. 12. June 2005. http://www.uuottawa.com/mary_wollstonecraft.htm
Literary Encyclopedia. “Wollstonecraft, Mary” 12. June 2005 http://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=5180
Todd, Janet. “Mary Wollstonecraft: A Speculative and Dissenting Spirit” BBC.CO.UK. 10. June 2005. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/protest_reform/
Wollstonecraft, Mary “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” Bartelby.com: Great Books Online 15. June 2005.