The Rights and Involved Duties of Mankind Considered, chapter one

If you missed my study of the introduction and purpose of this first feminist classic, find it here. I love that Mary Wollstonecraft named the chapters. It’s not my favorite thing in a fictional story, but I do love it in books like this that are building an argument. I had been thinking about a study like this for years and am so excited to have finally started.

Wollstonecraft begins by calling out the contradictions with which men speak and act when it comes to women. I know it sounds harsh on men, but it is rather valid. I know women can be contradictory as well, but this is a tactic used by those men in power to continue to keep women where they believed our place was. I find her point similar to Simone de Beauvior’s observation about abortion. Men have always had the luxury of being against it in public and then convincing the woman they didn’t intend to impregnate to get one without having to deal with the messy aftermath of trying to get one, having had one, or social pressures involved with having abortion accessible because no one cared who the father was so much as why a woman would feel compelled to do such a thing.

She begins asking the actual questions to which we can answer that Man is above the rest of creation because of the ability to reason, have virtue, and the experience with which we all can learn. She calls these axioms, which I had to refresh my memory on because it didn’t seem to mean what I remembered in context. Review of the definition brought me back around to the example above from de Beauvior. They are axioms because their truth appears obvious and so we just accept it without scrutiny.

Wollstonecraft scrutinizes them anyway and finds something other than truth. Specifically, she has this beautiful thing to say about reason that applies to all of us about some things:

Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace how, rather than to root them out.

We still struggle with this today, as racism and sexism continue to be problems. As the next US election heats up, I see all kinds of reasoning employed to justify all kinds of things that I simply cannot understand. Moreover, I see a lot of using reasoning that isn’t consistent when holding up what should or should not be rights. Again, we are not rooting out our prejudices so much as justifying them to each other.

Wollstonecraft goes so far as to call out those systems of her time, still present but with varying impact, that allow our worthiness to be judged on little more than the circumstances of our birth such as the status and support we inherit from our parents. She points out that though we talk a big a game about knowledge and virtue, we still allow status to be inherited rather than earned. A continuing problem to this day in many ways.

I understand wanting to give more to my child than I had and to create a way for him to be more comfortable in this world, but at what cost do we continue this system biased toward ancestral merit over that of the individual being judged? While the US was yet forming it’s ideas that walked away from the nobility she calls out, though not completely. The remaining biases of race, gender, and class have kept things more complicated than simply judging people based on individual merit. Many companies they judge on merit but there are stacks of data that suggest bias in the same ways she was experiencing it. Check out Lean In, for a start, if you are unsure about how the appearance of merit is impacted by birth factors. To her point, we still disguise these biases and justify them in our lives rather than examine and root them out.

Of course, scores of people are attempting to do just that when it comes to different birth factors, but it isn’t what our reasoning or knowledge informs us to do or what our systems implore. It isn’t even something our systems look much into, though they all want to talk about merit and the validity of choices these days. We still allow ourselves to be blinded by birth factors to see worth in different endeavors and to assign whether or not we think someone is or will be good at something. Our systems and the people in charge of them actively try to convince us of the validity of this outlook rather than employ our reason to root out prejudices.

She then makes an interesting observation about religion that is likely to roll around my head for a while.

Reared on a false hypothesis, his arguments in favour of a state of nature are plausible, but unsound. I say unsound; for to assert that a state of nature is preferable to civilization, in all its possible perfection, is, in other words, to arraign supreme wisdom; and that paradoxical exclamation, that God has made all things right, and that evil has been introduced by the creation, whom he formed, knowing what he formed, is as unphilosophical as impious.

I had to read that a few times. Is it just me, or is she saying that the idea that the Tree of Good and Evil wasn’t put in The Garden precisely so that good and evil can be known by Man doesn’t make any sense? Of course, that brings us back to the beginning where she asks what is it that makes us worthy of presiding over creation and gives virtue as an answer. All this calls into question the idea that we have virtue at all and whether or not God wanted us to know it or know evil or just to exercise virtue by placing the Tree in there and telling us not to touch it. I don’t know, as I said, I’ll be spinning in that circle for a while.

She uses this point to say that evil was also created by God and set in front of humans so that we may choose it so that we can learn and grow in the way He intended, that He said not to do it precisely so that we can defy Him and be taken out of the protection of The Garden when we chose it. It would sound crazy, but as a parent, I totally get this line of thought and I know I’m not the only one. We tell our children not to do things that we know they’ll do precisely so that they can learn two things from it

  1. Mom (in my case) has the experience to know that some things aren’t a good idea, you should probably start listening to her about it.
  2. That’s not a good idea no matter how tempting it looked.

Is it so far-fetched that God would have been the first to use such a tactic? To her point, Wollstonecraft insists that He did and that these evils were created by Him intentionally and put in the world so that we may reflect on them and improve ourselves, so that we might grow. It sounds great from a theological perspective in my mind, but I can’t come around when it comes to the specific difficulties of birth and suffering of children without end. I mean, I get it, but it’s still terrible and I understand how so many of us turn away from God at this notion rather than toward Him, as she does at the end of that point. It comforts her that these things are here because God put them here and that we are to learn from them.

Much of this section specifically cites Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his belief in the “state of nature” denouncing civilization as a good thing. Wollstonecraft just can’t get with him on the idea that we were all better off before we began societies, believing instead that these issues are “vestiges of barbarism” rather than created by civilization. I tend to agree with her, having read about other civilizations and societies that did not have the same social contract that Rousseau and Wollstonecraft denounce. Well, sort of. Wollstonecraft is specifically calling out inheriting status and superiority, but Braiding Sweetgrass and other books I’ve read on Native American cultures have suggested there were better ways to live with the earth without harming it. The people of this time didn’t really see the Native Americans having their own civilization. The same argument can be made for many aspects of different cultures in Asia that weren’t learned from so much as torn down. The overall point is that we could do better, and we continue to learn to do better and I agree with Wollstonecraft that this a product of civilization while also agreeing that what we do now isn’t the best way to do things.

Likewise, she points out that much of the power that has been inherited was not gained through civilized means and therefore proves that it is not virtue or reason that puts people into positions of superiority at all.

Having sufficiently made the point about inheriting the monarchy specifically, Wollstonecraft moves to looking at the ways the standing military of the time furthers this issue. Nowadays and in the US specifically, things are done differently but not for the reasons she espouses. Biases on worth still linger, but rank itself is not inherited and there must at least be the appearance of worthiness to ascend ranks, even though such biases may work against some of us into being equally or more worthy and yet still passed up. What I mean is, the type of person we assume with our biases who would be best for a job may not be the most qualified but will be promoted and capable. At the same time, the most qualified person may be passed up because of the biases that work against them like race and gender. This is the whole purpose of affirmative action, though many believe in that has been corrupted or was corrupt to begin with.

The overall point being made, however, is about how the ranks within professions, as clergy are also called out, do not always benefit those in the jobs. To her point, any place where the lower ranks are meant to have “blind submission” to the higher ranks in the same way the English nobility she previously discussed do will not help society or civilization practice virtue or reason. Blind submission is also a practice that has been bleeding out of modern militaries as well as Christian denominations in the last two hundred years. There has been virtue and reason imposed upon these groups and progress has happened.

Walking out this line of thought, Wollstonecraft reasons how these systems were started and the role they played in creating society, but also sees where they are in this progression in her time. I love the way she says it:

But such combustible materials cannot long be pent up and, getting vent in foreign wars and intestine insurrections, the people acquire some power in the tumult, which obliges their rulers to gloss over their oppression with a shew of right. Thus, as wars, agriculture, commerce, and literature, expand the mind, despots are compelled, to make covert corruption hold fast the power which was formerly snatched by open force.

Is it just me or does this sound like the state of the US right now?

This all goes back to the idea that it may have made sense at one time for things to be ordered the way they are but we will evolve to need different things through those processes and the old systems will try to hold on. A good example is actually women and World War II. It was necessary to introduce women into the work force and even the military because the men were fighting the war. Even though women did go back to the home at first, they set a precedent that couldn’t be undone. Less than a hundred years later, women are in all facets of the US military, newly integrating professions that many of thought they would forever be banned from. Many opposed it and the women have faced challenges as their arrival was resisted but that corruption can’t last. It’s happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and the realization of the New Jim Crow as it had with the original Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement.

Though we’ve come a long way from Wollstonecraft’s time, we aren’t there yet and the lingering rulers are holding fast to their powers by those means available to them still.

Get your copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft to read along.

Copies also available from Indigo Books and Better World Books.

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