Continuing the study of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, we come to chapter three. To go back to the introduction and start from the beginning, click here.
In chapter two, Wollstonecrat begins with the idea that women should be educated at the same level as men. She makes some strong arguments that we have since seen progress on. To look back at that post, click here. She continues the discussion by asking the men to pick a side when it comes to mental and physical superiority. Phyiscal superiority is given as a merit to men over women, but then given as unnecessary for gentlemen to have. So which is it? Yeah, that’s her question.
It’s still one that’s discussed today. Honestly, physical superiority is a bit of a myth in my opinion. Our species is not physically superior in anything, so far as I can tell. Our mental capacity is what has set us apart, the whole thing about our ability to innovate and build tools is a pretty big deal. That said, dogs have superiory senses of smell and hearing, and can are even theorized to see into the infrared spectrum, eagles can see further with higher definition, gorillas can lift more heavy things, some other species can even regrow appendages. Humans are not the height of physical superiority. Our whole idea of physical superiority was always skewed to merit men to begin with (okay, I don’t have historical research on that, but as informed by my experience, feel free to challenge that one). It’s not as if pregnancy was looked at in this argument to aid in the idea that women have a physical endurance that rivals men in battle, oh wait, it’s written all over the Bible about how men suffering of their battle wounds sound and feel like women in labour. See, the many posts on Psalms for a look at that.
Wollstonecraft goes on to consider the way some women boast about their “deficiency” if physical ability is such a virtue. Why would it be amazing for women to be delicate if it is what makes us inferior? Then, of course, she brings us around to the very purpose in the recognition of attainment of power. That’s right, physical superiority itself does not garauntee a place of power as may be noticed by the fact that humans have domesticated plenty of animals far more physically strong. Power comes by other methods and those who want it, get it however they can. Some women used this delicacy as a power play over the men in their lives. Some women had it do that as is still possible by women with slightly different methods in some cases and very different in others.
Women can still use delicacy and sensuality to bend people around them to their will, but we also have the ability to obtain power in the ways that men had in Wollstonecraft’s time. But that first way is a sacrifice of virtue, as she points out, because it uses manipulation. The second way is a product of exactly what she advocates for here, the formal education of women at the same level of men (still not perfect but much better than her time so let’s not split hairs in this post) as well as the addition of women’s sports and such in schools that has grown our physical abilities as well. Being that much stronger and that much more experienced in physical play has improved our abilities to move in the world from where we were in her time.
She also gets into the ideas of how early gendered ideas show up which I found beautifully captured in the book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. The idea referenced by Wollstonecraft is that kids follow parental modeling and are rewarded for it by attention and care, so they continue to do those things. Traditional gender roles are taught from an early age and not natural. I know we like to pretend it is, but it isn’t. There is lots of cross gender behaviors in different cultures and at different points of history with few exceptions. For example, child care is predominantly female thing in most cultures, but as the only one that can care for a newborn in the days before formula, that makes sense. Men have been capable cooks just as often though whenever it was done as a profession.
Her entire point, and one that feminists still talk about, is that the defining factor is subjugation that is reinforced by these roles by the ruling men in societies where men ruled rather than were seen as equal in any facet. In contrast, some cultures took both genders to battle, though not in equal numbers probably due to the deterioration of the population with not enough women to continue having babies. If I had to guess. This isn’t exactly a problem anymore, at least not in the US.
Given this crossroads between traditional gender roles and the rise of women in power, we often find women these days dividing their attention between intellect and adornment to find the optimal level of both to maintain sanity while obtaining as much of their own power as possible. For example, an executive of any gender should probably show up to work looking professional, but that means different things depending on their gender. The requisite level one must perform femininity depends on a woman’s chosen profession. That executive probably has to have her hair, makeup, nails, and wardrobe at a higher feminine standard than what I was required to perform in the Navy. It was actually preferred, though never stated as such, that I not resemble a woman as much as possible while still conforming to women’s grooming standards that are generally designed to not interfere with the physical labour of the job. There are specifics, but the idea was for nails to be short and not noteworthy, hair to be pulled away from the face or too short to get in the way of sight or get caught in anything, no one cared if anything at all was shaved or waxed, makeup was allowed but had to look natural and most women I served with didn’t bother after their first deployment. That said, both professions still maintain that women should perform physically and mentally at the same standard the men do.
She comes back around to those women who obtained power by less than virtuous means and the less than virtuous way they wielded it. These women are compared to the men of the time, corrupted by the power they have obtained in a system that doesn’t value virtue or capability over some circumstance of birth whether it is beauty or rank. Women are just as susceptible to corruption, particularly when not educated on the suffering of those not born into the same place. Altogether, this is a privilege problem that we are still unpacking today and one that will take much more than equality among sexes to deconstruct. Decolonization is also going to be in there somewhere when we go back and look at the power grab and how much of it isn’t merit or virtue.
I love that she specifically points out this problem that we still struggle with today:
Still I know that it will require a considerable length of time to eradicate the firmly rooted prejudices which sensualists have planted; it will also require some time to convince women that they act contrary to their real interest on an enlarged scale, when they cherish or affect weakness under the name of delicacy, and to convince the world that the poisoned source of female vices and follies, if it be necessary, in compliance with custom, to use synonymous terms in a lax sense, has been the sensual homage paid to beauty: to beauty of features; for it has been shrewdly observed by a German writer, that a pretty woman, as an object of desire, is generally allowed to be so by men of all descriptions; whilst a fine woman, who inspires more sublime emotions by displaying intellectual beauty, may be overlooked or observed with indifference, by those men who find their happiness in the gratification of their appetites.pg. 66
Women are capable of a lot more than society gives us a credit for despite that it has been proven a hundred times over because people just continue downplaying and then erasing the history we’ve made. There have been shining examples of women who get their due, such as Marie Curie who was married to a man that put her name next to his on their combined research rather than take all the credit. There have also been women whose names were later discovered in association with crucial discoveries. A great place to start with that is Headstrong by Rachel Swaby. That said, women doing such work have been assaulted by other women as unfeminine or lacking in some virtue or another that is distinguished by delicacy. When I say that this still happens, I mean that it just happened to me at my last command as well by women who did not want me to be on deployment with their husbands out of fear that something untoward would happen. Though such fears are not entirely baseless, treating all women serving our country, or whatever profession one feels is threatening to their marraige, as succubi only furthers the social control that men collectively have over us. It also doesn’t protect your marriage.
The final point is yet another that I feel has been proven as on the nose in this generation. It is that a woman who is educated has a far better ability to continue taking care of her family after unfortunate circumstances, such as being widowed, as a woman who is not educated. A woman who is not educated or capable or socially authorized to go out on her own and make a solid living will have to find another benefactor, which is harder to do with a whole family from a husband who has either left her or passed away. She will suffer. Her children will suffer. The memory of her marriage, even if it was good, will become sour. A woman who educated or capable and socially authorized to support what is left of her family on her own has a far better chance of things. It is not garaunteed but her prospects are better.
The example was a widowed woman but it also made me wonder about women whose husbands are somehow incapacitated instead. It’s one thing to have to find another benefactor, especially if one is still mourning a dead husband. I would imagine that it’s entirely different to try to support a husband one loves when he is unable to do so for himselfe. What did they do? Was the family expected to starve? I’ll have to do some research on that some other time.
The call to action here is to get out there and get your education, find a profession, and support yourself! I mean, it’s not required forever as I have nothing against housewives or at home moms, but knowing that you can make up for financial windfalls is huge. At least, it always has been for me and I know that it was essential at some points in my family as a child. Being a financial partner is a part of being a partner. Aside from work itself, there are plenty of women who have done remarkable things in stretching the family money when they aren’t working, and even found inroads to passive incomes with the educations they’ve received. Women (and men but that’s not what this is about) have also homeschooled and been involved in their children’s education which isn’t possible when they don’t have an equal education of their own, or at least have been given the tools to use good reasoning and decision making. That’s what this is all about after all, women’s ability to have rights in decision making for their homes, families, cities, and countries. The first thing we need for that is an equal education and the ability to reason that comes from it. Okay, some people have an ability to reason that outshines their formal education, but reasoning to make decisions is the goal here and education is the most consistently viable pathway.
This means that for men, the call to action is to encourage and enable women’s equal education everywhere.
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