A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Nature versus Nurture in Mary Wollstonecraft
The centuries-long debate over the influence of nature versus nurture is not only a prominent theme in psychology, but also the historic roots of modern day feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of famous author Mary Shelly and wife of prominent anarchist William Godwin, was also the first liberal feminist theorist to propose that women should be regarded on equal footing as men. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft asserts that if a woman is not prepared by education to become the companion of man or a competent mother, she will impede the progress of knowledge and virtue in society. This paper will first establish the context of Wollstonecraft’s nature versus nurture argument and then use a contractarian model of analysis to identify some of the merits and demerits of the old and new social contract dictating marriage and family rights. Maintaining that gendered behavior was a learned experience rather than a natural occurrence, she proposes a model of marriage as friendship that holds certain expectations for both men and women to mollify arbitrary power dynamics within the domestic and social sphere. Further, these expectations are manifested in the form of duties that promote equality in the family and are mutually agreed upon in a reformed social contract. This paper will argue with reference to Mary Wollstonecraft that while the state of nature sets the foundation for gender inequality, it is nurture from a flawed social contract that perpetuates gender distinctions. Further, it will examine Wollstonecraft’s newly proposed contract for its beneficial efforts to overcome blind submission, untapped potential, and arbitrary power as well as its potential shortcomings in addressing sexual desire and the dilemma of motherhood.
Wollstonecraft asserts that the distinction between genders is a socially created phenomenon that can be overcome by adopting a new social contract that promotes marriage as a friendship. As Wollstonecraft indicates, men and women “must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in.” Indeed, the social norm at the time of Wollstonecraft’s writing was for women to be raised to be married to and economically dependent on men. And upon marriage, often relegated to menial household tasks. That is to say, girls are usually assigned the role of “gate-keepers” or “homemakers” and men the “breadwinners” in society. The division of labour was originally viewed as efficient, with men better suited for hunting and warfare, and women better suited for gathering, cooking, and caring for children near camps. Moreover, roots of patriarchy based on physical barriers were further consolidated with the growth of industry and mining under industrial capitalism, with women’s weaker frames deemed inappropriate for heavy lifting. However, these social roles are also dependent on social and economic contexts. For example, few denied women’s ability to contribute to the war effort in factories during WWI and WWII, yet once total war ended women were encouraged to return to their domestic roles so that men could resume their ‘natural’ employment patterns. Hence, while biological factors from ‘nature’ may set the foundations, social and historic forces under ‘nurture’ often have greater influence in determining the outcome of this inequality.
Embedded within Wollstonecraft’s new social contract is the idea that women are not mentally inferior to men, but have equal rational potential that has not yet been realized. Wollstonecraft argues that because “knowledge of the two sexes should be the same in nature” women should not be treated as half beings but instead educated by the same means as men to achieve their full potential. As Laura Brace notes, the old social contract under Rousseau offered women protection in return for obedience. Yet, Wollstonecraft counters Rousseau’s idea that men were born with a degree of perfection in mind, by noting early debauchery in society as well as the weakness and caprice of men who are inundated by flattery and ego service often required of women. She notes, “if the blind lead the blind, one need not come from heaven to tell us the consequence.” That is to say, the tendency for women to degrade themselves and act like they are in need of protection, all while offering unconditional support and adulation for men leaves humankind in not only a childish, but also dangerous state. Thus, similar to the divine right of kings, the “divine right of husbands” should also be challenged to promote a return to equality. While gender inequality was an appropriate solution for problems at the time of its inception in the Bronze Age, it is no longer relevant to our times. However, the gender division of labour persists in modern societies due to the socialization of ideas about certain roles and employment most appropriate for men and women. This can be seen through the concentration of women in personal service or “caring” industries, with jobs as nurses, maids, teachers and personal secretaries, while men are more likely to be doctors, managers, professors, or higher level executives. Meanwhile, Wollstonecraft offers a forward looking solution to overcome structural inequalities through the marriage as friendship model, which emphasizes equality, free choice, reason, mutual respect and concern for the other’s morality. This new social contract promotes a certain degree of interdependence that deepens bonds through the appreciation of one another’s character and individuality, thus favouring integration and social progress.
Both sides stand to benefit from the new social contract as it promotes a sense of stability by limiting the pursuit of arbitrary power. Wollstonecraft explains that, “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” Women’s education comprised of training in the art of pleasing, yet with the goal of seeking attention and admiration from men, they become “alluring mistresses” instead of “affectionate wives and rational mothers.” This emphasis on appearances and games not only promotes infidelity due to the transient nature of looks and habit of flirting, but also poor mothers who feel the tendency to compete with their daughters once their beauty is jaded and feelings of insecurity takes over. Strict gender roles under the previous social contract neither supported the right conditions for women to carry out their duties as educators nor serve in their family’s best interests. As Ruth Abbey summarizes, when they are “refused power in any larger sense, women become tyrants in small matters.” That is to say, because women aren’t permitted legitimate rights, they are forced to obtain power indirectly through illegitimate avenues such as deception and seduction. Hence, when women are taught to value beauty over smarts, they are unable pass down rationality to the next generation. Husbands are also disadvantaged in this arrangement as they are unable to find common topics with their spouse, thereby widening the gap and increasing the likelihood of an unhappy marriage. However, if men and women were to marry by choice and for companionship, there should be fewer affairs, as husbands are more likely to be at home and serve as better fathers to their children. Hence, Wollstonecraft’s new social contract underscores the importance for women to be educated in a way that prepares them to carry out educative duties as parents and allow them to cooperate with men in this role. By changing the definition of a good wife, good mother and good daughter, not only will the family prosper but also society at large.
Although the liberal notion of equality is promoted within the new social contract to allow both men and women to reach their full potential in public and private domains, Wollstonecraft’s new social contract fails to account for the passion between male-female relationships and the dilemma of motherhood. While Rousseau believes love should to be the foundation of marriage and family life, Wollstonecraft believes that love is too fleeting and emphasizes the importance of friendship in reaching equality and a mature relationship between married partners. However, Wollstonecraft fails to fully address corporal intimacy and sexual desire in her marriage as friendship solution, this is largely due to the fact that the higher friendship she envisioned was in the image of a relationship “traditionally thought of as existing between men only.” That being said, she does not completely ignore or shun the sexual dimension of personality but simply advocates moderation to focus on fulfilling familial duties. Thus, Wollstonecraft assumes priorities in the social contract between men and women by picturing marriage as an arrangement that allows love to drop to a healthy lukewarm temperature. Hence, there are some rights that must be given up in promotion of the greater good, that is to say, strong feelings of affection. Still, some may argue that the co-existence between friendship and sexual desire is difficult, especially when humans are more driven by desires than rationality in the pursuit of companionship. Moreover, society has not yet evolved to favour level-headedness and long-term planning in lieu of short-term passion and stimulus. As Abbey rightly observes, had Wollstonecraft not died while giving birth to Marry Shelly, her continued marriage with William Godwin might have been able to offer deeper insights and reflections on the place of sexuality in friendly marriages. However, a noticeable flaw still exists in Wollstonecraft’s newly proposed social contract of equality, and that is the gap between equality and difference that drives Carole Pateman’s description of Wollstonecraft’s Dilemma. In essence, Wollstonecraft’s dilemma is the double-edged argument that women must be granted rights of humanity to then fulfill traditionally feminine duties of motherhood. However, assuming women’s biological destiny and natural calling to motherhood risks confining them to the private sphere. This is an issue unaddressed by Wollstonecraft that reverberates in modern debates over work-life balance and the timing of marriage and childbirth. Thus, there exist both physical and psychological barriers in the attempt to bridge feminist rights and motherhood. While society should make women capable of fulfilling the role of motherhood through equal opportunity, men also have an obligation to marriage and fatherhood. However, workplace representation, the glass ceiling and gender wage gap are indicators that women still cannot have the best of both worlds, and subsequently men too. Hence, barriers between the public and private sphere are often borne by nature, but engrained by nurture.
Wollstonecraft’s ideas about nature versus nurture and gender embody a very modern sense of gender identity for her time. She was one of the first to suggest the extension of the social contract into the private sphere by highlighting the idea that everyone is born equal, and that oppression from one’s environment is what creates inequality. Under the old social contract of patriarchy, women were not only required to be dependent on men but also beautiful and emotionally vulnerable. Moreover, Wollstonecraft highlights the need for a change to women’s education for dependence by uncovering the thoughtlessness behind submitting to the will of another fallible being as well as the inevitability of arbitrary power relations on both sides. Nevertheless, because men and women create social contracts out of self-interest, redefining those interests leaves considerable room for reform to the original agreement. In other words, what we value, is ultimately up to us. As liberal values of freedom, reason, and consent diffuse, women will be able to overcome their subordinate positions and achieve equality and independence in the household. Additionally, friendship based on choice, complementarity, mutual respect and concern for the other’s character will not only help wives but also husbands in fulfilling their duties of a stable and happy marriage as well as education of the next generation. Not only does Wollstonecraft note the false dichotomy between nature and nurture, she devises a new interpretation of gender relations and identity to aid both men and women in reaching their full potentials. Ultimately, Wollstonecraft’s work is fundamental in highlighting the importance of addressing the political nature of family relations before liberal political theory may progress.
Abbey, Ruth. “Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship in the Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Indiana University Press Journals 14, no. 3 (1999): 78-95.
Brace, Laura. “’Not Empire, but Equality’: Mary Wollstonecraft, the Marriage State and the Sexual Contract.” The Journal of Political Philosophy 8, no. 4 (2000): 433-455.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. London: J. Johnson, 1792.
 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (London: J. Johnson, 1792), 21.  Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 35.  Laura Brace, “‘Not Empire, but Equality’: Mary Wollstonecraft, the Marriage State and the Sexual Contract,” The Journal of Political Philosophy 8, no. 4 (2000): 434.  Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 22.  Ibid., 36.  Ruth Abbey, “Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship in the Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft,” Indiana University Press Journals 14, no. 3 (1999): 79.  Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 39.  Ibid., 10.  Abbey, “Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship,” 86.  Ibid., 82.  Ibid., 85.  Ibid., 87.  Ibid., 88.  Brace, “Not Empire, but Equality,” 436.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf(stonecraft)?
Former African-American slave Frederick Douglass wrote his memoir My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, sixty-three years after Englishwoman Mary Wollstonecraft released her Vindication on the Rights of Woman in 1792, and fourteen years before Englishman John Stuart Mill would publish his treatise The Subjection of Women. Douglass’ work describes the horrors endured by African slaves on the American plantations, and invites modern readers to consider the ways chattel slavery might still exist in societies today. Could subordination on the basis of gender be analogous to chattel slavery? If so, to what extent? Furthermore, what is so objectionable about marriage being legally similar to slavery? By looking at the institution of marriage in the aforementioned works, it is possible to interpret subordination on the basis of gender to be analogous to slavery insofar as the contemporary views are that a woman is to be bound to her husband, such that she cannot hold property and that she herself is technically property when she becomes legally one with him. The comparison of these two institutions then provides an understanding of marriage as something inherently wrong in its limiting the development of individual female potential. While not the focus of this paper, limiting female potential is also practically inefficient in its elimination of a potential workforce demographic.
To further define the development of an individual’s potential, this paper will focus on several component aspects as derived from Frederick Douglass’s descriptions of slavery. Of particular interest are the cases in which he describes the subjugation of female slaves—persons who were oppressed not only on the basis of race but on the basis of gender as well. These women lacked physical autonomy, emotional development, intellectual engagement, and personal aspirations. The latter three, while separate and clearly distinct, can also be discussed together under the idea of internal desires or functions. These four categories, as applied to married women in general, will be explored in this paper using American chattel slavery as a lens. While none of these concepts are quantifiable, they are still measurable by way of causal mechanisms. How does the patriarchy assert slave-master like control over physical autonomy or emotional development? How does the legal binding of marriage stultify intellectual engagement and the personal aspirations of women? The causal mechanism for physical autonomy is force, while the causal mechanism for the latter three is education, albeit different types of education.
Physical freedom, or lack thereof, is a characteristic of both slaves and of married women. Not only is physical freedom a concern, but so is physical wellbeing. In chattel slavery, the slave is relegated to a piece of property, akin to an object. As such, he or she can be treated however the master wishes. Chattel slavery, as seen in the American South, opened up nebulous spaces between the master and the servant which could be filled with the master’s whim. Since the slave was an object in the master’s household, he or she could be subject to punishments without justification. In one case, a woman named Nelly was accused of “one of the commonest and most indefinite in the whole catalogue of offenses usually laid to the charge of slaves, viz: ‘impudence.’ This may mean almost anything, or nothing at all…” (Douglass, 75). Nelly was given a whipping, and in front of her children, nonetheless, on unclear terms of offense. While the harsh punishments of slaves and the usage of flogging in American slavery are not directly reflective of the treatment of most women in marriages, the system of thought behind them are similar. Under a legal binding to her husband, wives, too, become property. A wife is one with her husband—they are one legal unit—she is a part of him, legally and socially speaking. As property, a wife is subject to arbitrary physical treatment by her husband. While the causal mechanism in this physical relationship is not necessarily “force,” it is on the primal level. As a slave-master or overseer utilizes the lash to control the slave, men have traditionally been able to use physical strength to assert their will over a wife who is “property.” Mill mocks his opponents who claim that “the rule of men over women differs from all these others [forms of slavery] in not being a rule of force; it is accepted voluntarily” (Mill, 484). Even when patriarchal rule is seemingly voluntary, the use of physical force strengthens a marriage’s ties and can discourage a woman from extricating herself from a damaging union. Mill also recognizes that, “In the first place, a great number of women do not accept it” (484), and furthermore that “wives, even in the most extreme and protracted cases of bodily ill usage, hardly ever dare avail themselves of the laws made for their protection: and if…they are induced to do so, their whole effort afterwards is to disclose as little as they can” (Mill, 486). Fear energizes the tightening bonds of physical force which hold a marriage together. Expectations are set up for women in the physical realm for them to be frail and domestic, to which leading feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft responds, “I do not comprehend his [Milton, who wrote of frail mothers] meaning, unless…he meant to deprive us [women] of souls, and insinuate that we were beings only designed…to gratify the sense of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation” (Wollstonecraft, 18). She refuses to accept the idea that women are to be and to act physically weaker than their male counterparts, believing that “the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart” (Wollstonecraft, 20). At the point in history when Wollstonecraft was writing, women certainly did not have the education, moral or formal, to ensure either physically strengthened bodies or fully formed internal desires.
What of these internal desires; what of a woman’s emotional development? While literature on women extensively featured females as emotionally unstable and prone to make poor, rash decisions, men were constantly hailed as rational, disciplined superiors. (Eminent twentieth-century novelist James Joyce once wrote that “Men are governed by lines of intellect—women: by curves of emotion.” Although a generalization, his statement reflects a common conception of his time and earlier.) In comparison with the treatment of a slave’s emotional development, the case is slightly different, as “Men do not want solely the obedience of women, they want their sentiments” (486). On the other hand, emotional development for slaves was largely or completely disregarded. Owners and traders would tear families apart (Douglass, Chapter 1; 67, etc.) without considering the emotional baggage, scars, and burdens. The slaves were property and thus treated as less than human. Like married women whose emotions were catered towards their husbands, slaves’ emotions were shaped to only be pleasing towards their masters. If the master found any behavior or mood of the slave to be bothersome to him, he could subject the slave to arbitrary punishment. Wollstonecraft adds to this emotional one-sidedness in her examination of a fictional female characterization, in which the female character is essentially told “that a woman should never, for a moment, feel herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chooses to relax himself” (Wollstonecraft, 25). If women are constantly seeking to please men and shaping their emotions around pleasing a man, then she is not allowed her full range of emotions or the means to express them. In the unofficial or “moral” sense of education, “all moralities tell them [women] that it is the duty of women, and all the current sentimentalities that it is their nature, to live for others; to make complete abnegation of themselves, and to have no life but in their affections. And by their affections are meant the only ones they are allowed to have—those to the men with whom they are connected, or to the children who constitute an additional and indefeasible tie between them and a man” (Mill, 487). Affections and “natural attraction between opposite sexes” (Mill) are the primary purpose of a wife in fulfilling her husband’s full, wide range of emotive needs; later, as a mother, her affections and caring qualities are then meant to cater to her child’s desires. This is so prevalent that “it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character” (Mill, 487). She is not a woman but a wife, and thus disallowed from exploring feelings not directly linked to sufficing another’s necessities.
The stunted intellectual development of both chattel slaves and of women is another aspect brought out clearly from examples given in Douglass’s narrative. Slaves on American plantations—and indeed slaves throughout all of history—were prevented from receiving education in its knowledge-based form. Literate slaves posed an immediate threat to ruling classes, as with knowledge inevitably came power—the power to communicate, to express, and to contemplate. Likewise, women were prevented not only the moral or “emotional” education discussed above, but also a proper education in worldly, knowledge-based topics. This was due to the desired “entire dependence on the husband” (Mill, 487). The intellectual capacities of slaves on American plantations are never fully explored if they are held in their situations on the plantations, and the potential of women are also neglected when they enter marriage and their work and thoughts are devoted towards serving her husband and household.
Some may argue that women are naturally predisposed doing the sort of work they currently do, and are fully satisfied by it, but as Wollstonecraft demonstrates (as a woman), such is not the case. She questions herself, her readers, and all of womankind, asking whether “women have so little ambition as to be satisfied with such a condition? Can they supinely dream life away in the lap of pleasure, or the languor of weariness, rather than assert their claim to pursue reasonable pleasures and render themselves conspicuous by practicing the virtues which dignify mankind? Surely she has not an immortal soul who can loiter life away merely employed to adorn her person” (Wollstonecraft, 28). Personal achievement is something slaves are forced to give up, often without say and in childhood, as they dedicate their existences to say, picking cotton or doing housework. Their autonomy, their individuality, their identity as a human being is rendered nonexistent; Douglass holds that “under the whole heavens there is no relation more unfavorable to the development of honorable character [this mostly on the slaveholder’s part] than that sustained by the slaveholder to the slave” (Douglass, 66). In stripping slaves of their humanity, slaveholders gradually erode away at their own. While women only enter such an analogous slave-like state once married, they, too, are raised and educated for their entire lives to develop a character which is self-denying, placating, self-less, to the point of annihilated identity and realization of self.
Wollstonecraft encourages women to learn, practice, and consistently seek virtue. Virtue, and the possession of it, was something deeply associated with men; in fact it was thought to draw defining lines between what was “manly” behavior and what was not. Yet why should women not be allowed to practice the “virtues which dignify mankind?” Wollstonecraft includes women in this “mankind”; this shared humanity. On a different practical level, women could constitute a portion of a society’s workforce, but by forcing the wife to be the legal subordinate of her husband, relegated to domestic spheres, the contribution of labor and other virtuous pursuits on her part are swept to a side. On the subject of work, one finds that chattel slaves and women—while not engaging in the same labors—share a similar discomfort. Women are expected to do nothing, to cater to their husband’s physical, emotional, and sensual needs, while chattel slaves serve a limited population of other men at the cost of their own physicality, emotional and intellectual development, and personal existence. While one does not participate in the workforce, the other does, at terrible cost. In the end, both are forced to sacrifice the development of an individual self to something that is not greater, since it was “not [even] God, but man, that afforded the true explanation of the existence of slavery” (Douglass, 74). Certainly it was not God, and certainly it was not woman, either.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: My Bondage and My Freedom. New York: Literary Classics of the United States :, 1994. Print.
Mill, John Stuart, and Alan Ryan. On Liberty; And, the Subjection of Women. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1989. Print.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
During the early years of the French Revolution, England became a place of new beginnings, where the idea of the individual emerged, the world of literature was reborn and authority was thoroughly questioned and often uprooted. Great poets and philosophers were awakened, and the ‘war of pamphlets’ began, proclaiming revolutionary theories, arguing social and political change, and urging self-examination. Mary Wollstonecraft, “pioneer of feminist thought” (Jane Moore, 1999) in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was the first to bring the subordinate attitude that society had towards women into the open, arguing that women were men’s intellectual equals and therefore affirming a woman’s right to a full education. “A profound conviction that the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore.” (Page166) Continuing on from this radical observation, Wollstonecraft states, that through the education of women, relationships between husbands and wives will be better and the children, future of society will receive a better education. By including the children into these benefits, Wollstonecraft appeals to the men, who at that time considered “females rather as women than human creature; have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers.” Wollstonecraft continues to say that women are elevated, acknowledging the “homage” that men pay to women, yet this “homage” is purely directed towards purile qualities rather than noble. She argues that this elevation does nothing but weaken the women. Wollstonecraft’s preferable woman figure is a rational and useful citizen.It is not only the attitude of men towards women that Wollstonecraft directed her arguments against. Much of her criticism was aimed at the women’s perception of themselves and their own abilities. Wollstonecraft claims in chapter two, page 170, that the only education women receive is that which is taught by their mothers, “softness of temper, outward obedience and a scrupulous attention to a purile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man…” Who, “…try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood.” (Page 170-171) Wollstonecraft continues throughout her book to refer to the “wife” as being an “overgrown child.” In connecting the way women are treated to how children are treated, emphasis is placed on the fact that as children are dependant on adults, (men), for intellectual guidance, so to do women rely on men, rather than becoming responsible for their own intellectual growth.Keeping these views of women in mind, Wollstonecraft’s ideas were revolutionary. They were the beginnings of emancipation for women.Wollstonecraft argues that men may well be more virtuous in their bodies, yet when it comes to the virtue of one’s nature, she defies any idea of virtue being different for men or women; “in fact how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard?” (Page 176) This is one of her main objectives that woman’s physical inferiority has led to false assumptions about her intellectual ability. By including God in the argument, Wollstonecraft dares to confront the church, a leader power of the time, and its opinion that it is only men who have certain Godly qualities.She alludes once again to the Christian teachings, yet this time backing up her point by using the Old Testament. In this case she is against Dr Gregory in his “Legacy to his daughters,” that girls should “give lie to her feelings, and not dance with her spirit…”continuing to advise the restraint of speech lest it make her seem immodest. Wollstonecraft fights back by quoting “the wiser Solomon” saying that the heart should be pure, abundant and natural, out of this state the mouth would speak true knowledge. Thus the heart is more important than trivial ceremonies placed on women and children, because even people with vice in their heart can perform such actions. This is a very confrontational approach, as both men and women partook of church ceremonies for no other reason than to heighten people’s opinion of themselves.Throughout the Vindication, Wollstonecraft makes clear her position that to be a good mother and responsible citizen the woman must be equal with her husband, “and not the humble dependant” (page 178) the only way to achieve this is through friendship, and a natural understanding that both are “creatures of reason.” Wollstonecraft does not however deny the passion that is felt in a marriage, she says that when this passion should subside, there should be a friendship in which to educate children and form strong morals on which society can move forward. To have a strong friendship with one’s wife would be an absurd idea to many men at that time, but because of the revolutionary awakening occurring, Wollstonecraft was able to try and change this constraining idea which men had.Rousseau is another poet that she fights against to prove her point. While he is concerned about power plays and feeling lacking in some way, Wollstonecraft states “I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.” (Chap 4, page 187) This is her main point, equality, and understanding of ones self. She is encouraging women to educate themselves, push past the false limitations which society has placed on women and begin to cultivate rationality, understanding and peace of mind. (Page 181) None of her arguments seek to make women higher than men, they are rather encouraging woman to embrace this time of new beginnings.BibliographyMoore, J Mary Wollstonecraft UK (1999)Wollstonecraft, M A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, (1792) in Norton Anthology of English LiteratureNew York (2000)
Jane Eyre: Model Feminist in the Eyes of Wollstonecraft?
Fifty years before the publication of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Mary Wollstonecraft released The Vindication of the Rights of Women, a predominate piece of feminist philosophy, and one of the first of its kind. This piece works to analyze popular enlightenment ideals and sentiments that were being discussed by leading intellectuals and apply those same ideas to women. She argues that women are rational beings capable of complex, interesting thoughts, but have faced many barriers in being able to develop those thoughts fully. She also states that if men think that women are simplistic beings it is only because society has crafted them to be simplistic and care about frivolous, shallow matters. She pays special attention to the power of education to change this pattern for the better, stating that if given the same opportunities as men within the educational sector, women would be fully capable of rising to the same intellectual capacity as men. In Jane Eyre, Bronte furthers this argument that women are capable, rational beings through the narration of Jane, the protagonist, a strong female who obtains equality through education in spite of her social class and gender.
Jane, after arriving at Thornfield, has a scene within the attic that really begins to outline her perspective on the expectations related to her gender as well her personal views about the matter. She identifies the issue that “women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do.” In this statement, she not only underlines the expectation that women cannot show passion actively, but also establishes equality between herself and her metaphoric brethren. This section also begins to show Jane’s maturation. She can think about these ideas without growing overly passionate or angry. Later within the same section, she further outlines the menial tasks women are expected. These things include “making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.” Just as Wollstonecraft in Vindication, Bronte is showing her disgust here for how men make fun of women’s folly, the same folly that they have instilled within their heads through lack of equal opportunity. This idea directly aligns with Wollstonecraft’s idea that women “acquire manners before morals and a knowledge of life before they have from reflection any acquaintance with the grand outline of human nature.” This attic section is the first time Bronte shows just how sick she is with society and its unreasonable expectations on females. She, as a female author, often faced discrimination in her line of work, and chose to use a pseudonym instead of her birth name. This makes perfect sense, for the very idea that women could be rational beings was being debated during this time period. It would be almost inconceivable for people of this time period to recognize Bronte’s genius.
Another section that directly parrots the words of Wollstonecraft is the proposal scene in the garden with Rochester. Here, he toys with her emotions in order to rouse a reaction. He tells her that he will marry Miss. Blanche and thinks it best if Jane goes to Ireland to be the governess for some other little girl. Immediately, Jane is enflamed and states “’I tell you I must go!’ I retorted, roused to something like passion. ‘Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? O you think I am an automation?—a machine without feelings? And can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup?’” Here, Jane lets passion take over her, something a proper lady within society would never think to do. It outlines the unnaturalness of Jane as a character and a woman, the type of character only a female author could have produced during this time period. She is educated in a lot of ways due to her lonely childhood, so immediately there is a distinction between her and women of the upper class who were taught domestic duties that are easily undermined because they do not apply to the public sector. This also creates a kinship between the character of Jane and Mary Wollstonecraft. She, during her time, was also considered an unnatural woman for seeking an education beyond common household duties and educating her daughter in a similar way.
The scene continues with Jane pleading “do you think because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? –You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you, and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty, and much wealth, I should make it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh: It is my spirit addressing your spirit.” This quote directly aligns with the popular notion that if a woman is not outwardly beautiful or seems disadvantaged, she must lack in some type of virtue. This aligns with the religious convention of the elect and the idea that members of the elect will make themselves obvious due to earthly blessings such as beauty and grace. Wollstonecraft tackles the idea of virtue within Vindication as well, stating that virtue is universal and not relative. She argues that become of men’s standing within society, it makes virtue an easier property to obtain; men are autonomous and not bent to the will of their father’s and husband’s like women are. Wollstonecraft argues that without choice, one cannot be virtuous, so women cannot be virtuous. This is the main reason Wollstonecraft is so adamant about educating women: she believes that her salvation and chance at heaven may be threatened by her standing within society. Jane, who practices her own type of Christianity founded in equality under God, would likely share the same views as Wollstonecraft, though to a less extreme extent. She believes that men and women are equal in virtue, but she herself has been disadvantaged within society due to her economic status and gender. This quote states that under God, Rochester is her undeniable equal. When talking to him from her spirit, her essence, she is not talking through the mouth of a female, but through the mouth of a fellow human being. Her passion is so strong that it causes her to disregard social and gender barriers heaved upon her and address him through her spirit.
This quote also brings up an important idea about class. Jane, in many ways, is unsuitable for marriage. Despite being raised by a family of some wealth, she herself is an orphan with no clear lineage of affluence. She is working as a governess, so a woman that must take on all of the social expectations of a lady, but is not regarded as one. She describes herself as “plain” and “poor” putting an emphasis on the absurdity that Rochester would ever share the same feelings that she holds. Being that marriage during this time was primarily an exchange of wealth and status, not something done for love or even fondness (especially on the side of the female), the idea that a woman could love and would marry for love was preposterous. While Wollstonecraft did not believe that love was something to be trifled with (she often uses love and lust synonymously within Vindication and describes the passion in less than favorable terms) she did believe an equal partnership rooted in a strong friendship was something to strive for within a marriage. She did not think this type of friendship could be obtained though without women acquiring a proper education on things other than domestic responsibilities. Women focused solely on domestic matters would not be able to keep their husbands’ attention and friendship. Unlike Jane and Bronte by affiliation, Wollstonecraft would rather take indifference to love, though her ideas of what constituted love were probably quite skewed by her social status and her fervent religiousness.
The last quote and perhaps the most iconic of the feminist quotes from Jane Eyre occurs at the very end of the proposal scene. Rochester is still tricking Jane into believing that he will marry Blanche instead and says “Jane, be still; don’t struggle so like a wild, frantic bird, that is rending its own plumage in its desperation.” To this comment, Jane responds “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being, with independent will; which I now exert to leave you.” This line is Bronte’s legacy, her manifesto. This is her assertion that she will be autonomous, and she is a rational, living, breathing human, not a romanticized fancy. This aligns with the ensnarement imagery present throughout the piece’s entirety and answers Wollstonecraft’s essential message: yes, women are rational human beings and deserve to be treated as such. Wollstonecraft, who stated “if they be really capable of acting like rational creatures, let them not be treated like slaves” would state that this is a new beginning for women, a time where they can exert their autonomy and shake off the shackles that had been imposed upon them for so long. Wollstonecraft would say that this is the way a woman can reach virtue, by choice. If Jane had stayed linked to Rochester’s side, Wollstonecraft would have argued her to be not virtuous. She would have been bound Rochester, who would be married to another woman.
Overall, it is clear the Bronte was well versed in Wollstonecraft’s works. She creates the character of Jane, an arguably unnatural woman, to assert and extend the narrative of women as rational beings capable of immense passion just as men are capable of such things. She creates a dialogue where societal conventions are discussed and challenged constantly, where a woman who’s role within society should deem her absolutely powerless gains personal autonomy through education and finding her spiritual equal. With just fifty years of progress separating the works of Bronte and Wollstonecraft, many steps were taken and many barriers were broken down.
A Flaw-Ridden Marriage
One may read between the lines to conclude the Bennets’ marriage in Pride and Prejudice was an act of convenience, lacking love. As a result of this incompatibility, their relationship is fraught with flaws. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), many of Mary Wollstonecraft’s sentiments expressed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) are expressed through Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship—as seen in Mr. Bennet’s finding humor in his wife’s actions, Mrs. Bennet’s failure to charm her husband, and the Bennets’ indifference to one another in place of love.
In A Vindication of the Rights of WomanWollstonecraft states: “[Woman] 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.” In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet finds humor in his wife’s fickle emotions and foolish actions. Mr. Bennet’s use of his wife can be seen in this excerpt: “I wish I could say…the establishment of so many of her children, produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life; though perhaps it was lucky for her husband, who might not have relished domestic felicity in so unusual a form, that she still was occasionally nervous and invariably silly” (Austen 295). This statement conveys the joy Mr. Bennet gleans from observing his wife’s insensibility. He could have easily left the house if he so wished, but instead he often casually played with Mrs. Bennet’s emotions to enjoy her reaction. Mr. Bennet’s toying with his wife’s naïve feelings in Pride and Prejudice is an example of Wollstonecraft’s sentiments expressed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
In Pride and Prejudice, Austen characterizes Mrs. Bennet as a woman with few, if any, redeeming qualities. The false sense of emotion that was once evoked from Mr. Bennet is no longer present, and she lacks charm. Wollstonecraft explains the situation: “The Woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms are oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on her husband’s heart when they are seen every day, when the summer is passed and gone.” One may assume there was some semblance of emotion from either party in the Bennets’ relationship at one time, or else they wouldn’t have married. Time has rendered Mrs. Bennet quite unattractive to her husband now that she is not as young and green as she once was. Austen candidly relates the cause of their incompatibility: “Her father captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her” (180). Once the wedding vows were said, Mr. Bennet had undoubtedly dug his grave. Wollstonecraft knew that a marriage based on physical attributes does not result in happiness, which the reader sees in Pride and Prejudice. The absence of romance and charm in Mr. and Mrs. Bennets’ relationship is justly explained by Wollstonecraft’s remarks in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
The Bennets’ marriage can be summed up in one phrase from Wollstonecraft: “Friendship or indifference inevitably succeeds love.” Austen clearly depicts the indifference Mr. and Mrs. Bennet feel towards each other. Mr. Bennet’s character is described: “Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character” (3). This description is a stark contrast to the picture the reader is given for Mrs. Bennet: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous” (3). These clashing personalities result in very little effort from either individual to breed romance. Over the course of twenty-three years, the Bennets’ have learned to live with each other, and to deal with their spouse’s respective faults. The Bennets’ choice to remain indifferent to one another is condensed by the simple choice given by Mary Wollstonecraft “Friendship or indifference.”
Overall, the reader can infer the various causes of the tense Bennet relationship as aligning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s observations. Wollstonecraft remarked, quite accurately, on the fickle nature of relationships and the frivolous upbringing of women. One may assume that Austen drew from these same concepts when characterizing Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Thus, in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, many of Mary Wollstonecraft’s sentiments expressed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman are expressed through Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship—as seen in Mr. Bennet’s finding humor in his wife’s actions, Mrs. Bennet’s failure to charm her husband, and the Bennets’ indifference to one another in place of love.
Rhetorical Comparison of Wollstonecraft and Douglass
Aristotle’s triangle of rhetoric: ethos, pathos, and logos, is often regarded as the basis for a rhetorical argument. The argument must employ each edge of the triangle in order to be persuasive. However, sometimes it can be beneficial to purposely omit or emphasize one edge of the triangle in order to appeal to an audience. Frederick Douglass and Mary Wollstonecraft were both heroes of moral and social reform, and fought for the rights of slaves and women, respectively. Douglass’ autobiography and Wollstonecraft’s philosophy both convey their radical ideas through strong rhetorical devices, which persuade the reader of their radical views. Although both Douglass and Wollstonecraft employ parts of the Aristotelian rhetorical triangle in order to successfully convey their controversial messages, both works have distinctly opposite tones due to the time period in which they were written and which points of the triangle were emphasized. Wollstonecraft wrote her piece during the Enlightenment, when the importance of logic was emphasized in all forms of intellectual expression. Because women of Wollstonecraft’s time were thought of as irrational, Wollstonecraft purposely leaves out the pathos, or the emotional appeal of her argument, in order to prove to her audience that women can detach from emotion and be rational thinkers. She focuses on logos, and maintains a strict argument employing cause and effect examples, giving her piece an assertive, matter-of-fact, and sometimes ironic tone. In contrast, Douglass writes his autobiography during the Romantic Period, when emotions were looked at with new value. He takes on a strong expression of pathos, and appeals to his readers’ emotions through vivid imagery and heartfelt, painful personal anecdotes. This gives his autobiography an impassioned and emotive tone. The intentional use of these tones makes these authors’ works very successfully persuasive and appealing to the audience, allowing their message to be received with an open mind.
Wollstonecraft emphasizes logos and ethos in her argument for women’s’ rights, which enables her to appeal to her Enlightenment audience and prove her credibility as a woman. By purposely omitting the use of pathos, Wollstonecraft appeals to her Enlightenment audience who valued the use of logic and reason and did not find value in emotion, and who also believed that women were illogical because they were overcome with emotion. Her use of logos to create a cause and effect argument gives her piece an assertive and matter-of-fact tone. Wollstonecraft opens her introduction of her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, by stating her argument that because women do not receive adequate education, they are unable to rise to their full potential as rational thinkers. But before she does this, she tells her audience that she has “turned over various books” (697), alluding to the fact that she is well-studied and credible, demonstrating ethos. By doing this, Wollstonecraft ensures her audience that she has authority in stating her argument. She writes, “The neglected education of my fellow creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore,” stating that because women are not given education, they act irrational and are valued only to please men. By stating that lack of education is the cause of women’s behavior, Wollstonecraft presents a clear cause and effect argument using logos, which supplies her audience with a solution to the problem at hand. Throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft puts aside emotional attachment to this issue and instead emphasizes logic and reasoning to prove her argument. In addition, she offers her inquisitive and speculative Enlightenment audience concessions, by anticipating their objections to her argument. She writes, “In the government of the physical world, it is observable that the female in point of strength is, in general, inferior to the male. This is the law of nature” (698). By acknowledging the role of nature in her argument, Wollstonecraft appeals to the logical, Enlightenment thinkers of her audience, who were most likely male. By offering the opponents of her argument a concession, Wollstonecraft is able to create an even more persuasive argument. In addition, the tone created from such a logical argument is very assertive and matter-of-fact which, coming from a woman, would captivate an audience of Enlightenment men. By excluding any emotion from her argument, Wollstonecraft demonstrates that women can be rational thinkers.
Douglass’ use of ethos, pathos, and logos, allows him to successfully argue that slavery is dehumanizing. His strong use of pathos appeals to the emotional side of his audience, revealing the hardships of slavery through moving personal anecdotes and gory, vivid imagery. His credibility, ethos, is clear from his life experience as a slave. Douglass’ use of logos, where he creates an argument with multiple supporting examples, his own personal anecdotes and stories, makes it clear that slavery is a dehumanizing force to both slaves and slaveholders. This form of argument gives his autobiography an emotive, impassioned tone, which appeals to his audience of the Romantic Period. Douglass essentially “re-humanizes” slaves by proving that they have deep feelings and they are abused in slavery. He vividly describes what it was like to be sold and for families to be divided to different slaveholders. He writes, “Our fate for life was now to be decided…A single word from the white man was enough-against all our wishes, prayers, and entreaties-to surrender forever the dearest friends, dearest kindred, and strongest ties known to human beings” (266). Douglass paints a picture of the terrible emotional abuse that slaves underwent, and therefore appeals to his Romantic audience by emphasizing emotion. While working for Mr. Covey, the plantation Douglass lived on was very near the Chesapeake Bay, where he often watched the sails on the water and yearned for freedom. Overcome with emotion, Douglass describes his thoughts while watching the boats, employing a powerful metaphor comparing sailing to freedom: “You are loosed from your moorings, and are free: I am fast in my chains, and am a slave!…left in the hottest hell of unending slavery…there is a better day coming” (279-280). In this passage, Douglass expressions a deep yearning to be free, creating a highly emotionally charged tone that reflects this hope. By employing emotion, Douglass is able to appeal to his Romantic audience. Douglass’ ethos, or credibility, is clear throughout his autobiography. His experience has a slave makes him the best source to make a statement about slavery, having experienced it firsthand. By employing all three corners of the Aristotelian triangle, but with an emphasis on pathos, Douglass is able to present his powerful argument against slavery by appealing to his Romantic audience’s emotions.
Although both Douglass and Wollstonecraft employ ethos in their arguments, Wollstonecraft’s lack of pathos and Douglass’ emphasis on pathos give the pieces distinctly different tones. Wollstonecraft’s tone is assertive and logical, with little emotion, while Douglass’ tone is both poignant and shocking. The use of pathos, or lack thereof, allows both authors to present extremely persuasive arguments concerning human rights for their own kind. Wollstonecraft lived during the Enlightenment, when people valued logic and reason. By utilizing a cause and effect argument without pathos, she crafts writing that is extremely persuasive to her audience. By stating that women are only incapable because they are not educated, Wollstonecraft arrives at a solution to the problem derived from evidence. Like Wollstonecraft, Douglass had a strong grasp of who his audience was: Romantic thinkers, who valued emphasis on emotion. By using powerful personal anecdotes and dramatic, emotive tone, Douglass creates an equally efficient argument, but with a very strong emphasis on pathos.
Both authors manipulate the Aristotelian triangle to suit the needs of their audience. Douglass does this by emphasizing pathos (emotion) and appealing to his Romantic audience, while Wollstonecraft omits emotion and instead emphasizes logos with a strong cause and effect argument. This gives each piece a distinct tone. When reading Douglass, it is easy to be pulled in by his vivid, gory imagery and powerful personal anecdotes. In contrast, Wollstonecraft’s piece can seem less exciting to us, even though she was one of the most revolutionary people of her time with her ideas on women’s rights. To many, Wollstonecraft’s argument raised just as much controversy as the idea that Douglass emphasizes: the immorality of slavery. Both Douglass and Wollstonecraft demonstrate the power of written prose and rhetoric to advocate for human rights, whether it be during the Enlightenment, Romantic Period, or today.
Values of Romanticism: Wollstonecraft, Coleridge, and Shelley
The Romantic period was a time of exceptional change, emphasising the power of imagination as a window to transcendent experience and spiritual health. Lasting from the late 18th to early 19th century, the transitory period of Romanticism challenged engraved societal paradigms, moving from a time of strict hierarchy based on rationality to a focus on individualism and idealism. The voices of the romantic zeitgeists were expressed through the arts, where the human experience, the natural world and the yearning for unity and social cohesion flourished throughout their work in a tumultuous time of shifting religious, economic and scientific views. The individuals who gave the Romantic period meaning and importance were Mary Wollstonecraft through her treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1797-98) and Percy Bysshe Shelley (1819), and finally John Constable, creator of the extravagant artwork The Hay Wain (1821). The transformative ideas communicated through these texts challenge ways of thinking, through a plethora of techniques.
The lack of substantive education available for women was thought to be for Wollstonecraft one of the primary reasons for women’s subordination. Creative yearning for females was suppressed and the pursuit of knowledge arduous. Wollstonecraft argues in her treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that to alter this philosophical view, they must first change the way women are thought of by men, such as her influential acquaintance Rousseau: ”Once it is demonstrated that man and woman are not, and should not be constituted the same, it follows that they should not have the same education.” Wollstonecraft alludes to this comment by Rousseau in a statement dripping with sarcasm, “The knowledge of both genders should be equal… women should not be treated as some kind of fanciful half being, one of Rousseau’s wild chimeras.” The paradox of moral rights is a contextual focus of the composer as she heavily advocates the need for an education reform and conveys the importance of women’s pursuit of knowledge and purpose, thus reflecting the values of the Romantic period.
Wollstonecraft’s arguments for the importance of co-education were one of her most widely accepted topics in her treatise; however she acknowledges the many challenges women will face in working towards this goal due to constricting gender stereotypes. The composers frustration caused by the unfulfilling societal expectations and conflicting pressures of her time are evident as she paradoxically states, ‘it is strange that men aim to elevate the moral integrity of women by confining them to a childlike state’. This statement provokes the responder to consider the inequitable expectations placed upon women, as they were expected to display high morality, whilst remaining submissive and uneducated, deliberately oppressed by men. The tumultuous period of Romanticism did however bring about extensive societal change. Wollstonecraft seized this opportunity to compose her philosophical treatise, written in first person narration for the bulk of the text; alternating this with an omniscient voice to ensure detachment conveyed her arguments as being based purely on logic rather than emotion in some parts. She informs women of their value and that they must make an impact on the world through this omniscient voice, ‘But in order to render their private virtue a public benefit, they must have a civil existence in the state’. The implementation of omniscience communicates Wollstonecraft’s value for reason, and her overarching desire to portray women’s ability to reason, a quality they were denied.
A deeper appreciation of the value of nature, the supremacy of imagination, individualism and idealism expressed through surreal and mysterious settings emerges explicitly in Coleridge’s poems, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ and ‘This Lime-tree Bower My Prison’. ‘The Rime’ rapidly becomes a tale of loss and guilt at the hands of a break in the natural order and highlights the repercussions of breaking bonds between man and nature. The dramatic narrative climaxes after the mariner kills the albatross and thus violates the bond. The ramifications of this act are elucidated through a biblical allusion; “Instead of the cross, the albatross about my neck was hung.” This has a significant emotional toll revealed through the use of assonance and repetition; “Alone, alone, all, all alone… And never a saint took pity on my soul in agony. The philosophical and religious paradigms that shaped romantic society dictated that nature was a powerful and sacred force, that when tampered with brought cataclysmic punishment to the guilty individual.
Conversely, the therapeutic attributes and haunting qualities of nature are explored by Coleridge in ‘This Lime-tree Bower My Prison’. Powerful imagery is employed in this poem causing the responder to engage in a vivid psychological journey along with the composer as he follows the path of his friends through a shadowy forest; ‘The roaring dell, o’erwooded, narrow, deep, And only speckled by the mid-day sun’. The composer employs a simile, likening an ash tree to a bridge, to describe his friends crossing the stream in the final part of their journey; ‘Where its slim trunk the ash from rock to rock flings arching like a bridge’. Coleridge’s rich recollection of the forest transports him into the setting in a metaphysical sense, thus utilising the supremacy of his imagination. There are significant tonal shifts throughout ‘This Lime-tree Bower My Prison from a disheartening mood to a euphoric revelation in the last stanza, “I now am filled with joy, as if I was with them… nor in this bower.” The composer’s ability to harness the power of his imagination to shift himself from isolation to accompanying his friends omnisciently and consequently evoke an emotional response is reflective of the nature of the Romantic period in rejecting rationalism.
Romantics fostered a deeper appreciation of the beauty of nature and used the natural world as a medium for self-expression and fulfilment. This notion challenged the ideas and values of the rationalists and allowed individuals to embrace an alternate way of expressing their emotions. Alike Coleridge, Percy Shelley explored the supremacy of nature’s ability to mirror the human condition through his poem ‘Ode to West Wind’. Symbolism is prevalent throughout the poem as the wind is personified as a preserver and destroyer of life, “wild spirit, which art moving everywhere – Destroyer and preserver – hear, O hear!”. This force of nature is an extended metaphor for the degeneration and regeneration of humankind and of the poets own mind. The sombre emotional status of Shelley is reflected metaphorically, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”; his thoughts are then transformed into ecstatic rapture as he emphasises the healing power of nature in creating new life, “Drive my dead thoughts over the universe… to quicken a new birth”. Both the form and the conflicting melancholy and euphoric tones of this lyrical poetry are reflective of the changing perspectives of humanity and the alteration of paradigms that shape society. According to Arthur Bradley, “The language is poetical through and through… it is not wrought and kneaded; it flows.”
The Romantic period represented a movement towards the picturesque, with coherence between the individual, society and the natural world. This often was expressed through a nostalgic lens, where simplicity was valued in opposition to the rapid industrialisation taking place at the time. John Constable constructed an idyllic natural landscape in his 1821 oil painting The Hay Wain, which rejects the idea of change and instead expresses the continuity and calm of the English countryside. The artist painted nature as it was in reality with loose brushwork and natural tones; this avoided over stylising his work like many other Romantic artists at the time. The many tones are complimentary of each other as the blue of the water is mirrored in the sky and the reds of the brick house are emulated in the trees. The painting is brought to life through the use of white paint to create reflections of light upon the water, which cause the painting to appear to move as the water seems disturbed by the wheels of the hay wain as the light warps. These artistic techniques employed by Constable create an aura of calm and peace in a setting many Romantics would find comforting and valuable to escape from the fear of industrialisation in a period of unprecedented change.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge stated that “Imagination is the living power and prime agent of all human perception. This idea is central to the Romantic period as the power of imagination, individualism and idealism flourished and became the prevalent themes of the texts and sources critically analysed from this period: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication Of the Rights of Woman, the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley, and the artwork of John Constable. Although this time in history was fleeting, it was one of unparalleled change, as individuals strived for independence and coherence in their lives
Wollstonecraft on Women’s “Slavery”: Perspectives from the Enlightenment and Modernity
Mary Wollstonecraft obviously wrote with the intention of raising awareness for women’s rights. She did so unflinchingly and, at times, with language that’s even shocking to us today. During Romanticism, her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman absolutely required attention. She was writing in response to the educational reforms of 1791 that only called for Enlightenment reforms to men’s education (Mellor, 33). Wollstonecraft’s comparison of the plight of women to slavery may sound exaggerated, until one looks at the facts of the time and can see how the rigid gender roles in society enslaved women to the men they were controlled by. Wollstonecraft was disgusted by the idea that the ideas of the Enlightenment were meant only for men to take advantage of. She felt that if the Western world was going to change its rhetoric to one of equal opportunity and dignity for all persons, women should be included in that category.
As Wollstonecraft states, “If women are by nature inferior to men, their virtues must be the same in quality…their conduct should be founded on the same principles and have the same aim.” (Wollstonecraft, 91). She begs the question that even if women are inferior, why do they not have the same principles and virtues guiding some kind of inferior education? Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman doesn’t just argue that women deserved education. It also argues that women were not naturally inferior, but that they had been forced into a kind of slavery, whether it be to marriage or to virtue, that had systematically made them weak and unintelligent. One of Wollstonecraft’s first critiques is of the system of marriage in the 18th and 19th centuries. She is often quoted saying: “If marriage be the cement of society, mankind should all be educated after the same model, or the intercourse of the sexes will never deserve the name of fellowship, nor will women ever fulfill the peculiar duties of their sex, till they become enlightened citizens, till they become free by being enabled to earn their own subsistence, independent of men; in the same manner, I mean, to prevent misconstruction, as one man is independent of another.” (Wollstonecraft, 250). Wollstonecraft makes it clear that within the constructs of marriage, a woman has no independence or autonomy. She urges for a change in the way that women are chosen for marriage, and explains that if women are constantly focusing on making themselves physically desirable, they will have little time to focus on their education. A woman should choose a husband who is interested in a partnership, not a position of power. Wollstonecraft acknowledges that all women are oppressed in some way, but that they should not use their repression as a reason to be harsh towards their husbands and children. Wollstonecraft is not calling for any kind of harsh or violent revolution, rather, she’s calling for a reform to society’s oppressive structures.
Ann Mellor’s book Romanticism and Gender paints a picture of how truly revolutionary Wollstonecraft’s ideas on marriage were. When it came to choosing husbands, women often chose men whom they found physically desirable. Wollstonecraft is adamant about the importance of an “egalitarian marriage” and tells women that choosing marriage based on sexual desire is bound to end in an unhappy relationship (Mellor, 35). Wollstonecraft’s own marriage was one of mutual respect, hence the extensive arguments she has on how oppressive a marriage can be without that. As a product of a equal partnership, Wollstonecraft understood that the arguments from the other side were ill-advised, and she sought to educate young women with logic and reason, just as the Enlightenment had taught her to. A common counter-argument from the other side was that a woman in a relationship that did not force her to be submissive would be unvirtuous.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s perspective on feminine virtue was unlike anything people had heard before. While most contemporary feminists would fight for sexual freedom, Wollstonecraft urged women to be modest. She knew that leading a life of sexual promiscuity was just another way for a man to enslave a woman; if she gets pregnant, then she’s responsible for the child and does not have the opportunity to go to school and become an educated citizen (Mellor, 364). “…for that the unchaste man doubly defeats the purpose of nature, by rendering women barren, and destroying his own constitution, though he avoids the shame that pursues the crime in the other sex.” (Wollstonecraft, 219). Wollstonecraft acknowledges that in situations that women are impregnated outside of marriage, the “shame” is only reflected on one party. She also recognizes that when women choose to act and dress in a seductive way, they give themselves up to the slavery that Wollstonecraft is so insistent about. Ann Mellor also breaks down Wollstonecraft’s argument on sexuality and modesty in her essay “Sex, Violence, and Slavery: Blake and Wollstonecraft”. Mellor describes the “female psychological dependence” that Wollstonecraft has no problem labeling as slavery (Mellor, 364). The history of women using sexuality to gain power was well known, but what few people really understood was how easily those women were knocked from their pegs of power and forced into the years of enslavement that was single motherhood. These women dealt with similar plights to the colonial African slaves of the time, being forced to bear children of the men who controlled them. However, Wollstonecraft’s middle class has a way out, and that was through a reform of education.
The real reason that Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was as a response to the misogynistic education reforms of 1791. They focused entirely on the education of boys and the employment of Enlightenment ideals on that education. Wollstonecraft, an avid supporter of equal education, begins her vindication with the same Enlightenment ideals being kept from young women and girls. She utilizes logic and reason to explain that the only reason women appear to be “naturally” inferior has to do with the fact that men have been systematically weakening them in order to oppress them. “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, everything else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.” (Wollstonecraft, 84). Wollstonecraft calls for a complete reform of this idea. She argues that women, just as much as men, need all kinds of education, both intellectual and physical. If the Enlightenment and its principles are going to be applied to British society, then they have to be applied to all citizens of that society, as is inherent in their makeup. If they were kept from those citizens who were by Wollstonecraft’s new definition, not naturally inferior, the reasoning behind colonial slavery being acceptable, then those citizens were being wrongfully enslaved.
Though she was not the only person arguing for the rights of women, Mary Wollstonecraft was one of the very first to use the exact same rhetoric as those arguing against her. By proving the potential of women through her own skill at reforming and writing, she was the pinnacle of the kind of intelligent and involved citizen that her reforms planned to produce. All that was left for her opponents to say was that they were afraid to lose the power that they had to women, and in turn, admit that they were not actually followers of this new egalitarian philosophy that they had so widely supported. Part of Wollstonecraft’s genius was her likening of the plight of women at the time to slavery, something done by plenty of Enlightenment thinkers and writers. By way of logic and reason, Wollstonecraft was able to pull the curtain on the horrors of female enslavement and oppression in the Romantic Age.
Ferguson, Moira. “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery.” Feminist Review, no. 42, 1992, pp. 82–102. Mellor, Anne K. “Sex, Violence, and Slavery: Blake and Wollstonecraft.” Huntington Library Quarterly 58.3 (1995): 345-70. Print. Mellor, Anne K. Romanticism and Gender. London: Taylor and Francis, 2013. Print. Walker, Eric C. Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism : Wordsworth and Austen After War. Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 2009. Print. Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Man. Ed. Janet Todd.Oxford University Press, 1994. 63-283. Print.