Mary Wollstonecraft: Women Are People, the 1792 version

A Books post by Heather W. Reichgott

Men have increased the apparent inferiority of women till women are almost sunk below the standard of rational creatures. Let their faculties have room to unfold, and their virtues to gain strength, and then determine where the whole sex must stand in the intellectual scale.
— Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, p. 119

Wollstonecraft’s brilliant manifesto Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published a scant three years after the beginning of the French Revolution, five years after the new United States of America adopted its Constitution. Philosophically and theologically, Wollstonecraft stands squarely on the principles of the Enlightenment era. Lest anyone think that 1792 was somehow too early for anyone to have a feminist consciousness, Mary Wollstonecraft demonstrates that the inalienable rights with which we are endowed by our Creator could quite easily be understood as extending to women as well as to men.

The book begins with a few general principles which will come as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the prevailing ideas of the time: Reason is the salient human trait separating us from animals; Virtue is a sign of merit in human beings; people should strive for reason, virtue, and knowledge. Everyone should be free to pursue these goals. That freedom implies the necessity of democracy and equality before the law. Whenever artificial divisions of rank are introduced, the higher-up become tyrannical and the lower-down become resentful (and have no motive to refrain from vice when the authority figure is not around). Hierarchy inhibits the moral development of the whole human race.

Then Wollstonecraft applies these basic human-rights principles to the situation of women. She argues that there are no differences between men’s and women’s personalities and abilities. The only differences that seem to exist have been introduced by men in order to keep women in an inferior position, and women have (thus far) accepted them, because of the temporary and token benefits they receive.

“To account for, and excuse the tyranny of man, many ingenious arguments have been brought forward to prove, that the two sexes, in the acquirement of virtue, ought to aim at attaining a very different character; or, to speak explicitly, women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.” (100)

An artificial division exists between “virtue” in general and a separate set of female “virtues” which, far from being a separate path to virtue in general, lead to the development of an indolent, superficial and vain character.

“Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection are, on this ground, consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues of the sex; … She was created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused.” (118)

And this, really, is the target of Wollstonecraft’s greatest opprobrium: the construction of womanhood in which women are taught only to be beautiful, coquettish, amusing to men, with the one goal of landing the best man possible in marriage. The irony is that these skills can only even be used during a comparatively brief period in a woman’s life. Presumably she will not spend her entire life span husband-hunting. Why then make it the goal of her existence? More on this in a moment.

Wollstonecraft is arguing against a few other opponents: the contingent of writers in favor of the English aristocracy, particularly Burke; Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who was greatly respected at the time but viewed women as beautiful appendages to men; and a few writers of very silly essays on the education of young women, including a very silly Scots Presbyterian minister named James Fordyce. Reading Vindication in isolation from its context, one wonders how people could ever possibly have espoused Enlightenment ideas about liberty and equality without also espousing the liberty and equality of women. To Wollstonecraft, at least, it’s obvious.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born to a family of poor English farmers and worked her whole life, first on the farm, then as a teacher, school director, governess for a rich family, and finally was able to support herself by writing. She was part of Thomas Paine and William Godwin’s circle in London before becoming an expatriate living and working in France. Although the life of upper-class women gets the most criticism in her book (perhaps influenced heavily by the reportedly beautiful and lazy mother Wollstonecraft worked for as a governess) there is a great deal of insight into the lives of women from all class backgrounds. For women of every class are considered inferior, and barred by tyrannical hierarchies from the development of their natural abilities.

Wollstonecraft had two long-term relationships with men. The first (with Gilbert Imlay) produced a daughter, Fanny Imlay, who committed suicide as a young adult. The second (with William Godwin) produced another daughter. She died in childbirth at age 38, giving birth to this daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (who later eloped with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and wrote Frankenstein.)

Wollstonecraft herself was extremely reluctant to marry; she eventually did marry William Godwin after some years. Regardless, she has a very high view of marriage. Indeed, her treatment of (heterosexual) marriage is one of the most interesting aspects of the book. Rather than critique the institution, she critiques the way in which the current construction of womanhood actually inhibits women’s ability to be good wives.

Beauty and flirtation matter most in the early stages of marriage, maybe only during courtship in Wollstonecraft’s estimation, and they affect only a superficial level of human relationship. Once married, a woman who is still obsessed with her own beauty and her husband’s superficial admiration will not develop the character to be a hard worker, a loving caretaker of children, or an intellectual companion and friend to her husband. Indeed, a woman brought up according to prevailing standards of womanhood will not even understand most of what her husband thinks, does or cares about. Husband and wife will become bored and frustrated by one another. Meanwhile, the wife yearns for a way to exercise the only skills she knows, attracting men–and so her careful societal education has taught her to seek out affairs. Thus, the current construction of womanhood fails even at its own stated goal: to produce good wives.

Although brilliant, articulate, and well-connected, Wollstonecraft did not manage to begin or inspire any kind of women’s movement in her own time. She was rediscovered, to some extent, by women’s movements in Europe and North America in the mid-nineteenth century. However, even those groups did not fully grasp the import of her argument. American suffragettes were more likely to claim that women needed the vote because their “feminine gentleness” would make society less harsh and violent, not because women are citizens and deserve the same rights as any other citizens.

Why did Wollstonecraft’s argument fail to find traction, especially at a time when universal rights of liberty and equality made perfect sense to all those successful revolutionaries? Sadly, the only reason seems to be her unusual love life. Wollstonecraft was known in her own time, but mostly, she was known in the way that we know celebrities who appear on the front pages of supermarket tabloids. Ordinary people could give the names of her lovers and children, but no one seemed to care about the content of her book.

Today, Vindication of the Rights of Woman is partly a historical window into the conditions of eighteenth-century women, and partly an argument that continues to be relevant. Women can now vote and enjoy full civil rights, although the ERA, an employment nondiscrimination amendment proposed by the suffragettes, has still not been passed. (It will be re-introduced into Congress for this year’s go-round on Tuesday.) Girls and boys now receive the same education; the supposed discrepancy between girls’ and boys’ math and science abilities completely disappeared in the very first year that girls and boys were given equal math and science education.

However, the myth of woman as beautiful useless coquette lingers on. Media images are full of women who are beautiful, attract attention, and are good for absolutely nothing. Even women who achieve tremendous success in career and/or family life still must fight against self-doubt and humiliation if they don’t look like sex objects. Clothing marketed to six-year-old girls and fifty-year-old matrons mimics that of twenty-year-olds on the hunt for male partners. As Wollstonecraft argued over two hundred years ago, we must let women’s abilities unfold unhindered, and treat ourselves and one another as people, if we as a society are truly to benefit by the contributions of all citizens.


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