As mentioned previously, I am beginning with this book in my reading of the feminist canon. It is the first book that I found that specifically advocates for women to have rights equal to that of men and in many ways sets up the idea of feminism for generations to come. It was written by Mary Wollstonecraft as a response to Reflections on the Revolution in France.
My copy begins with a short history of Wollstonecraft herself which includes the circumstances of her writing this work. It includes a letter to M. Talleyrand-Perigord where Wollstonecraft lines out her reasoning about women’s education, an argument still needed the world over today. She wants him to read it and study her idea, which is that women also need a good education for the benefit of all of humanity so that she can understand the world as well as men and therefore her place in it and to be better companions with men. She specifically advocates a “with” attitude in that we should all be able to realize our full humanity without being property or subjugated.
In the introduction that follows the letter, she begins to unpack her theory on how traditional femininity of her time has set women in the double bind, one that many of us still experience today despite the advances in our educations.
One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from books written on the subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers; and the understanding of the sex has been so bubbled by this specious homage, that the civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.
I’m not sure if it’s sad how much of that we’re still working on or great that we at least have come to a place where many of us exact respect from our abilities and virtues. Not that I’ve ever heard of one of us getting anywhere with our abilities and virtues that hasn’t had times tainted by those who attempt to reduce us to the alluring mistresses they think we ought to be instead. That’s the rub of sexual harassment, it’s the attempt to strip us of the education and aspirations that we have achieved since the time Wollstonecraft and to tell us that we will never be more than the alluring mistresses they would rather we be. They, of course, being the men that harass specifically and the goal with which they do it.
At one point in the introduction, she goes so far as to say that the gender roles of her time make men tyrants. Without a voice in the “participation of the natural rights of mankind” there is little else to call those who can participate, particularly when they exercise their rights over others. This doesn’t perfectly fit our modern definition, but English is a language that evolves, and that doesn’t make it an inaccurate statement. This was a big part of the American Revolution which had recently ended at the time of the writing and on which the French Revolution whose ideals she was responding to was garnering ideas.
That it took so long for white women and people of color to obtain the same rights as the men of that time is indicative of the transparency of privilege and how without seeing it for what it is, people still manage to know how to hoard it. We idealize this generation in one classroom and then learn about what they did to the Native Americans and the Africans in a dissociated way in order to preserve the reverence with which we can talk about their creation. It’s a little insane.
Wollstonecraft gets into the idea that “masculine” women are judged and sets up to question what masculine even is in this context. I love the way she did it. She asked what was meant and agreed that if it was certain behaviors that would not be acceptable but if it those things which make a woman fully human, than she hoped that there would be more. Of course, these days we probably wouldn’t use the same examples of hunting, shooting, and gaming as distinctly masculine characteristics, but her point remains as does the idea that we could separate masculinity and femininity into terms of acceptable or unacceptable behaviors.
We’ve come to a point where women engage in all kinds of activities previously considered male or masculine and made it our own. Some have said that we’ve feminized these jobs but I’ve come to believe that they were unnecessarily masculinized in the first place. Though there are jobs better suited for those capabilities traditionally associated with men, we have created tools to help us. I marvel as well at men who espouse the belief that this somehow degrades the works when we have come to this place on society due to the very use of tools to create our lifestyles. Why wouldn’t women create our own to also transform a world that wasn’t created for us?
Wollstonecraft may have been mired in her time with the perception of physical necessity and aggression as specifically masculine but her goal is to open the door for us to gain a whole new experience of which it doesn’t seem she could yet perceive on her own. I wish she could see the women of the world today.
I marvelled at the way she says things too. She beautifully lays out concepts akin to those in The Feminine Mystique:
Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegance of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, I wish to shew that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain characters as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex; and that secondary views should be brought to this simple touchstone.
Some of this is still a struggle among women, as we are still condescended to for accepting this dependence as much as for refuting it. Not everyone sees it as condescension due to the degree they believe it but it always seems to be talking out of both sides of ones mouth. If the work itself is so important why doesn’t everyone participate in it? Men are capable of being caregivers and homemakers, many have proven this out of necessity. I’ve seen it done beautifully by men. And yet there persists an idea even in America that the goal should be for them to be able to come home and kick their feet at the end of the day of work outside while the women continue the second or third shift. Even for those women who are housewives, the children don’t suddenly become silent angels when Daddy gets home and the house doesn’t begin cleaning itself. I’ve known more men to ignore this than those that have helped, though I do believe the pattern is changing.
At least I hope it is changing towards more helpful fathers, particularly as there seems to be a rise in single fathers.
She does go on to talk about how women are perceived as frivolous at the time, as many still are today, but also that the highest aim and only way to establish oneself is through marriage. This is something I didn’t understand until studying Jane Austen some years ago. Ambition is a thing in all people to varying degrees. In a time when women of ambition could best hope to gain wealth and notoriety through marriage or independence through become a governess, it is no wonder that the men around her wouldn’t understand the methods with which she obtains her goals.
I’ve recently come to a place where I’ve had to engage the sales process at a new job and find many of the things that actually help bring people in or entice them to stay as frivolous. These are sales ideals that have been studied and written about by men for ages and yet one common theme strikes me about it when it comes to these women. When done best, the sales process is transparent to the buyer. I don’t mean to be so crude as to suggest that these women were selling themselves but I am sure that the same principles apply.
So was it ever frivolity that made it necessary to get more ribbons for ones hair or was it attracting the eye to the length and beauty in order to make a man gravitate toward her? Just as a car dealership has many ways to attract you to the more expensive cars, all the frivolous seeming decor with which women have used on our bodies for centuries have attracted the male gaze in times when it was that gaze that we hoped would save us from poverty. Women were never unambitious, our goals were different due to our circumstances and I am grateful to not live in a time when marriage was more important than education and I didn’t need the “frivolous” things that I never seemed to have a knack for to begin with.
She ends this introductions with the idea that men also must grow more chaste and modest alongside women growing more intellectual for us all to be seen as equally human. If women continue to be seen as objects of allure for men, while gaining intellect, it doesn’t get us there. As we’ve seen in society today, it helps for women to gain intellect, but it is more helpful when men around us are not treating us like sex objects. It seems as much of the humanity of people is in the perceptions of each other as humans as well as our own contact as such.
The last thing I’d like to point out about this introductions is the way she has more than once talked about men and strength. It is still a struggle today to recognize women’s strength. Many women’s circles have sought to show our strength of will and such, but I don’t think that our physical strength gets enough credit. There is more to even physical strength than one’s ability to lift heavy objects. We have a tendency to underestimate pregnancy and labor as physical strength. The center of our physical strength resides in a different area of our bodies but that does not make us weaker. We cannot perform the same physical tasks in the same ways, but that’s what should make us a good, strong team rather than attributing strength to only one kind of physical accomplishment.
Continue to Chapter One here!
Get your copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft to read along.