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.
Wollstonecraft, Barbauld, and the Proto-Feminists
The Romantic period was one marked by turmoil and deep unrest within England. The morality of the slave trade was questioned, the Industrial Revolution deepened the rift between the working class and aristocracy, and the French Revolution was on the rise in France, drawing the attention of those in England who felt oppressed. In the midst of these various revolutions and uprisings, women also began to question their place in society, aligning themselves with slaves and the implications that came with being deemed property. Two women, Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Letitia Barbauld, took to writing in order to proclaim their incredibly opposing views on the topic of women’s rights. While Wollstonecraft argued for education of women in A Vindication for the Rights of Woman, Barbauld used her poem “The Rights of Woman” to outline the consequences of ambition. In A Vindication for the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft emphasizes the need for female education in order to better unite men and women.
This idea is made clear from the beginning of A Vindication for the Rights of Woman when Wollstonecraft states in her dedication, “if [woman] not be prepared by education to become the companion to man, she will stop progress of knowledge and virtue,” making the claim that both the hindrance of comprehension and moral indecency are caused by the poor education women receive (211). She also highlights the fact that women are not properly cultivated to be companions to man, but that an education would allow man and woman to better connect. The highlights of a woman’s education do little in regard to preparation to share a life together as partners, but focus on being a submissive showpiece.
Wollstonecraft describes the characteristics girls are taught to adopt: 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, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives (217). Emphasis of female education, which is passed along by an equally uneducated mother, includes shallow traits that breed girls into docile women who do not question their place in society. Furthermore, beauty is held in high regard, meaning that beautiful girls need not acquire any knowledge, but rather focus on maintaining their beauty, as it will bring them the protection and affection of a husband.
Wollstonecraft goes on to condemn the infantile education women receive and how that futile education leads to infidelity in marriage. She compares the effectiveness of the skills women learn to the passing of the seasons, indicating that they are not life skills, but a form of flattery that soon becomes ineffective. The diminishing effectiveness of charm is outlined when Wollstonecraft writes, “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,” indicating that the inability to be anything but endearing will soon be ineffective in maintaining the relationship between husband and wife (224). Once charm no longer woes the husband, women possess no other skills or intellect to keep their husband’s loyalty, and the husband may become unfaithful. The inability for a couple to communicate on a more intimate level eventually leads to infidelity by the husband and unwavering compliance by the wife, further weakening the marriage.
According to Wollstonecraft, the way to combat this phenomenon is to educate women. She gives the advice, “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavor to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a play-thing,” simultaneously advocating for the education of women and addressing the misogyny present in society (Wollstonecraft 221). In this passage, Wollstonecraft is drawing attention away from women, and to the patriarchal structure that leads to oppression, and how that structure is corrupt. The use of the words tyrant and sensualist are extremely powerful accusations because they indicate moral indecency in a society that holds virtue in such high regard.
Barbauld uses her poem “The Rights of Woman” as a response to Wollstonecraft, arguing that if women were to attain more rights, they would reign over men, causing a reversal of roles, rather than a gaining of equality. She takes an extreme stance, essentially claiming that men and women cannot obtain equality in society because male rights would diminish if women were to attain more liberties. This ideology has the implication that rights are limited in quantity, and that granting one group of people more rights would result in fewer rights of another. This belief can be seen when Barbauld writes, “Go, bid proud Man his boasted rule resign, / And kiss the golden sceptre of thy reign” indicating that men would have to forfeit their liberties in order for women to be of equal standing (7-8). This passage also addresses the way Barbauld believes Wollstonecraft views men, which is as tyrannical rulers who dominate over women rather than as people she wishes to call her equal.
Furthermore, Barbauld argues that women wishing to become educated and the counterpart of men are simply following a whim of fancy, and that the aspiration of equality will soon pass. She indicated that the nature of women is to be “Subduing and subdued, thou soon shalt find / Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way,” indicating that the longing for equality is a fleeting emotion rooted in pride (Barbauld 27-28). The use of the words subduing and subdued also imply that the negative emotions being felt by women such as Wollstonecraft are irrational and can be overcome by the comfort and convincing of other women who do not agree with movement for women’s rights.
Moreover, Barbauld accuses women that long for more freedom to be cold, which is not a quality women would wish to possess since men sought tender and affectionate women to make their wives. While Wollstonecraft used images of the home in her works, Barbauld describes violence and war throughout her poem in order to discourage readers from partaking in a potential movement for women’s rights. The third stanza of “The Rights of Woman” are particularly evident of violence when Barbauld writes, “Go, gird thyself with grace; collect thy store / Of bright artillery glancing from afar; / Soft melting tones thy thundering cannon’s roar, / Blushes and fears thy magazine of war,” depicting a battle scene in which women, plated in armor, use weaponry to demand their rights from men (9-13). Aligning the movement for a better education with war, particularly at the time, will be incredibly effective in turning people away from the movement because of the violence that occurred during the French Revolution. By aligning Wollstonecraft and the other women seeking quality education with the Revolutionaries in France, both women and men alike will be reluctant to join the movement since the Reign of Terror specifically caused many Englishman to lose support in the revolution.
As with all movements, two distinct sides surfaced, one being that of Mary Wollstonecraft, in favor of the education and empowerment of females, and one being that of Anna Letitia Barbauld who believed that a movement for women’s equality would result in a violent revolution headed by irrationality. Nearly 200 years later, women must still fight for equality in a patriarchal society. While women are better educated than they have been in the past, double standards, societal expectations of gender roles, and inequality in the workplace are dominant issues that plague females throughout the United States. On a global scale, women struggle throughout the world to gain control of their bodies, education, and to find worth in society. While women have come a long way since Wollstonecraft and Barbauld, without the unrest of Wollstonecraft, or the resentment of Barbauld, women may not be able to experience all the freedoms that they do in the twenty-first century.
Barbauld, Anna Letitia. “The Rights of Woman.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 48-49. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication for the Rights of Woman.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 211-239. Print.
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.
Men as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Ideal People
The late eighteenth century was a busy time for writers and thinkers. Affected by the French Revolution, such people routinely published their opinions for public review and comment. The entire literary community was abuzz, issuing papers and replies to papers seemingly overnight. Edmund Burke, author of “Reflections on the Revolution in France” (1790), criticized English sympathizers of the Revolution. To which Mary Wollstonecraft published a response, “A Vindication on the Rights of Men,” challenging Burke’s position and accusing him of forgetting to consider the lower class. Her essay elicited a flood of replies, most notably Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man,” which was published in 1791-92. Within an astonishing six weeks, Wollstonecraft answers with “A Vindication on the Rights of Women,” an essay defending women due to their underprivileged nature. In this essay, Mary Wollstonecraft shares her view of men and women’s roles and how they are shaped by nature, society, and education. She frequently says that if given the educational opportunity, women could find themselves on equal footing as men. She also says the goal of said education is complete independence. Therefore, since fully educated women should be equal to men as well as independent, then fully educated men should already embody her ‘ideal person.’ Through a careful reading of her text, specifically her perception of gender roles and her aspects of an ‘ideal person,’ it can be concluded that Mary Wollstonecraft’s model for her ‘ideal person’ is based upon men. Wollstonecraft places equal blame on nature, men, and women for their inferior position in life. She starts by saying man have the natural advantage because due to sheer physiological make-up, they are superior. However, just because men can lift bigger rocks does not, by itself, force women into the slump in which they find themselves. Wollstonecraft says it is a great misfortune that manners are learned before morals because women learn their social roles before they have mind enough to contest them. She continues, arguing that men place women and children in the same category, as innocent, yet mindless creatures of no practical value. With the current structure of education, women were instructed in the home, thus learning to become runners of households. Wollstonecraft feels that men can only respect a woman as one would a trusty servant, and this is unacceptable.Another great disservice to women is their lack of opportunity to exercise their mind. “The minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement,” says Wollstonecraft, adding that the same problem afflicts the upper class members of society. Education is wasted on women and rich people because they are never forced to put into practice what they learn. Women appear useless because they are not equipped with tools to develop themselves into something of society’s value; their world does not extend past the walls of their homes. However, Wollstonecraft strongly believes that women and men are equally capable; women simply need to be given the opportunity. One can see how society has crippled women’s views of themselves and their potential. Wollstonecraft is quick to address shortcomings within the educational and societal system when it comes to women; therefore, it is implicit that she believes men succeed within these arenas. As mentioned before, Wollstonecraft believes the result of a perfect education is independence. While she does not elaborate on her meaning of independence, if the common definition is applied, men in the late eighteenth century would easily be considered independent. Men are free to pursue professions, lovers, travel, politics, and whatever else strikes their interest; marriage is rarely at the top of their list. Wollstonecraft says, “…strength of the body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves – the only way women can rise in the world-by marriage.” Once married, women no longer need to exercise their mind and bodies because the goal has been met. Men, on the other hand, have careers to keep them physically occupied and their minds sharp. Wollstonecraft declares that the woman who strengthens her mind and body will not be the humble dependant of her husband, but his friend. Without this level footing, women would never be viewed as anything but subservient. Men have strong minds and bodies and are independent, as Wollstonecraft encouraged women to become. Wollstonecraft believes that with education comes an awakening of one’s emotions, namely passion. Love can be felt by the educated and non-educated, alike, but passion only comes to those who seek it. It draws the mind out of its rudimentary ways and exalts one’s affections. Such passion, rooted in physical pursuits, offers momentary gratification once achieved, then the satisfied mind rests again. However, the educated person’s pursuit of passion is unlimited in scope and boundaries. One’s intellect is constantly evolving and growing so as never to resort back to its stationary state. As noted earlier, women’s lives presented no challenge, requiring no exertion on their part, so the mind and body wither. Men, on the other hand, had their personal careers to advance and to participate in a society that demanded much more of them. Men frequently engaged in meaningful conversations and debates, they read newspapers and essays, and they formulated their own opinions on a variety of issues relevant to life and times. Men fulfilled Wollstonecraft’s idea of the pursuit of passion in a way women did not.After reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay, “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” one might think she is a radical feminist who hates men, while the exact opposite is closer to the truth. By using men as her model of an ideal person, she is offering their gender the utmost praise. Wollstonecraft is not bitter because of man’s position in society; she is angered that her own gender does not feel more of a need to join their ranks. She feels men should not be honored, obeyed, and respected simply because they are men, but because of their contribution to the world around them. She only wants the same for women. Wollstonecraft writes, “If love be the supreme good, let women be only educated to inspire it…but if they be moral beings, let them have a chance to become intelligent; and let love to man only be a part of that glowing flame of universal love.” She does not dislike either gender; she simply wants what is best for society which she sees when women take a more active role. Repeatedly, Wollstonecraft cites a shortcoming on the part of women followed by how men surpass the expectation. She measures the progress of women against that of men, but Wollstonecraft is optimistic that her gender is capable of reaching the foothold of equality.
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.
Not Quite So Radical: A Modern Critique of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Feminism
Gender roles of 18th century British society were seemingly set in stone. Men, who were presumed to be the superior of the sexes, were to hold all the power, both politically and domestically, and they were expected to exist, to some extent, in the public sphere. Women were expected to assume inferior positions in society and in the home, and it was only acceptable for them to exist in the private sphere. There were further divisions between the sexes regarding emotional capability, physical strength, and mental capacity, and men were always considered the more virtuous of the sexes. As it is known, this subjugation of the female sex impacted the ability for women to gain formal educations, seek careers, or obtain recognition as anything other than daughters, sisters, wives, or mothers.
Based on this understanding of the strictly divided gender politics that were prevalent during this time period, it is no surprise that Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was perceived as being a radical and progressive display of feminism when it was written. Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s work evaluates the nature of gender roles and the impact that these divisional roles have on a society, and this criticism, especially coming from a female, was not conventional. However, to the modern feminist, Wollstonecraft’s argument is flawed. Throughout the work, Wollstonecraft perpetuates the concept of an inherent division between the two genders and continually undermines the competences of her fellow women, and in doing so, she reinforces ideals that were established by the patriarchy. Despite its advocacy of women’s rights, the nature of Wollstonecraft’s argument in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman may be viewed as an example of the underlying misogynistic ideology that pervaded 18th century Britain.
Scholars have labeled Wollstonecraft a feminist based on her advocacy for the education of women and her dissection of gender politics of 18th century Britain in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although Wollstonecraft’s writing may have seemed progressive for the male-dominant time period, there are flaws in Wollstonecraft’s feminism. Wollstonecraft promotes equal education, but her argument is founded on patriarchally constructed concepts of gender that insist women are inherently inferior to men. Karen M. Offen, author of European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, evaluates Wollstonecraft’s position as a feminist:
Although Wollstonecraft may not merit her reputation as the “first” English feminist, she became best-remembered—and retrospectively the most maligned—advocate of women’s emancipation in her time. Her language and her arguments, as eloquent as they seem in her opening volley against male tyranny, are by comparison to those of her French counterparts remarkably mild. The body of her work instead addressed the reforming of women’s behavior, friendship between the sexes, notions of taste, dignified domesticity, responsible motherhood, and sexual self-control.” (73)
Despite her advocacy for equal education opportunities, Wollstonecraft does not desire gender equality. Rather, Wollstonecraft perpetuates concepts of male superiority, and she suggests that women should seek education only so that they may better their lives within the confines of their prescribed gender roles. Her goal is not to liberate women; instead, she wishes to help them improve upon their societal and domestic duties through education. In contrast to her French contemporary feminists and modern feminists, Wollstonecraft does not argue for the social and domestic advancements of women.
In her evaluation of gender politics, Wollstonecraft openly accepts the idea of male superiority. Wollstonecraft believes that men are inherently stronger than women, and she asserts that this makes men physically superior. Wollstonecraft 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; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of woman. A degree of physical superiority cannot, therefore, be denied- and it is a noble prerogative!” (214). It may be argued that Wollstonecraft denies women their sense of physical strength by accepting and supporting the concept of male superiority. Feminists may consider her position on strength to undermine the physical capacity of the female body. Though her argument focuses on physical strength, it does not take childbirth, an incredibly physically strenuous activity, into consideration. By denying women a sense of strength, Wollstonecraft effectively renders them powerless against male dominance.
In addition to denying women a sense of strength, Wollstonecraft denies women a sense of agency. Wollstonecraft argues that women, being undereducated, are blissfully unaware of their powerless positions in society and are content with being treated as sexualized playthings and possessions. She writes, “women, intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them, do not seek to obtain a durable interest in their hearts, or to become the friends of the fellow creatures who find amusement in their society” (Wollstonecraft 214). This presentation of women may be viewed as problematic because it misogynistically portrays them as dim-witted and easily flattered. Wollstonecraft appears to doubt the self-awareness of women and suggests that they are superficially satisfied with their subjugate positions because they simply do not possess the ability to recognize their inferiority nor the will to advance their positions. Wollstonecraft’s willingness to depreciate her fellow women is not a conventional feminist trait. Rather, her presentation of female agency, or lack thereof, is demeaning and minimizes the significance of the oppression that women underwent.
Philip Hicks, author of the article “Women Worthies and Feminist Argument in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” notes Wollstonecraft’s willingness to dismiss her fellow women in favor of male superiority. He writes, “Many feminist writers, perhaps beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft, have either dismissed or neglected these catalogs of great women. Some critics have argued that such lists ignore the lives of ordinary women and focus on women’s ‘manly’ qualities” (Hicks 175). Indeed, Wollstonecraft seems to disregard the value of feminine qualities and insists on the superiority of masculine characteristics. Wollstonecraft, asserting the preeminence of masculinity, writes:
but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raise females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind; — all those who view them with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine. (215)
Wollstonecraft asserts that masculinity is the most valuable trait, and she advises that women should seek more masculine traits in favor of their soft, feminine ways. Again, Wollstonecraft’s arguments are based off of patriarchal concepts of power, and this compromises the integrity of her feminism. She holds masculinity in high esteem, and she disposes of feminine value in a manner that demonstrates the influence of misogynistic ideology on her perception of gender.
Not only does Wollstonecraft profess that masculinity is more valuable than femininity, but she also suggests that femininity is a sign of weakness. She writes off feminine attributes as being frivolous, as signs of shortcomings. In her own words:
I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt (215).
Wollstonecraft aligns femininity with weakness, and this further demonstrates the manner in which she perpetuates male superiority. Conventional feminism embraces femininity, and modern feminists demand that femininity be revered as an equally powerful force as masculinity. In sharp contrast to this, Wollstonecraft seems to find femininity disgraceful. Instead of embracing femininity as its own unique trait, she devalues it.
Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman may not be the exemplary piece of feminist literature that it is sometimes considered to be. Though Wollstonecraft advocates for equal education opportunity, she does so in vain. She does not advocate for the social and domestic advancements of women; rather, she suggests that women should remain in the confines of their prescribed gender roles. Her feminism is not designed for women to improve for their own betterment; it is meant to improve mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives—to improve women in relation to men’s ownership and prescribed gender roles. Wollstonecraft evaluates women with a mindset that demonstrates the pervasive, deep-rooted nature of patriarchal ideology in 18th century Britain.
Hicks, Philip. “Women Worthies and Feminist Argument in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” [“Women’s History Review”]. Women’s History Review, vol. 24, no. 2, Apr. 2015, pp. 174-190. EBSCOhost, dsc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=101501048&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Offen, Karen M. European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History. Stanford University Press, 2000.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed., vol. D, W.W. Norton, 2012, pp. 212-239.
The Dichotomist Views on Action in Wollstonecraft and Lao-Tzu
Lao-Tzu, from his work “Thoughts from the Tao-te Ching”, offers political protocols for the leader through the abandonment of action and guidelines on how people should live their lives. Although Mary Wollstonecraft, from her work “Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society”, vindicates the subject of inequality between men and women, her approach towards the sociopolitical matters offers actions to be executed. The disparity which prevails in society, according to Wollstonecraft, undermines the development for a rationalized nation, where one half of the population is neglected from male monopolized work and education, and thus would never reach the pinnacle of a virtuous nation. On the other hand, Lao-Tzu’s criterion for a successful nation is one which withholds a passive government where the commonality gets to determine their own moral values, compassing through the justification of their instincts.
Lao-Tzu also opposes the idea of intellect or progression towards an urbanized life whereas Wollstonecraft encourages women to gain percipience and be part of the highly-skilled working demographic by being educated. The correlation between inaction (Lao-Tzu) or action (Wollstonecraft) and sociopolitical order augments their perception of the world, where Lao-Tzu can be considered as an idealist while Wollstonecraft as a realist. Despite the paradoxical views both parties have against each other, they have a reciprocal end goal, which is to create sociopolitical order and morality in the society. Action is necessary to achieve certain targets.
Wollstonecraft’s entire regime towards creating sociopolitical order in society suggests the element of action. She argues over the marginalization between men and women, which she finds inimical towards the well-being of a rational society. She elaborates: There must be more equality established in society or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance or pride (656). For a society to be virtuous, they must be filled with rational beings who know how to make the right decisions. However, for that to happen, half of the population (women) is unable to make decisions based on their own autonomy because they are constantly degraded, and considered as a conjoined unit with her husband. “The laws respecting a woman, … make an absurd unit of a man and his wife” (661). Wollstonecraft controverts women’s invalidation as they should be perceived as one unit themselves even without the presence of her husband.
In contrast, Lao-Tzu believes that inaction provides solace from any wrongdoings by allowing society to subside their own morals values. He elucidates, “Practice not-doing, and everything will fall into place” (206). Lao-Tzu ponders upon the concept of letting situations take its natural course, with no government interventions. He further expanded his statement, “Throw away morality and justice, and people will do the right thing” (207). This suggests how Lao-Tzu hypothesizes that inaction leads to sociopolitical order, where people use the justification of their instincts to determine what is morally right and wrong. Lao-Tzu and Wollstonecraft both present solutions on sociopolitical order, however, from different temperaments. Wollstonecraft engages on a prominent controversy (gender discrimination) while suggesting pragmatic actions (specific to specific).
On the other hand, Lao-Tzu streamlines society’s problems into a fitting solution which imposes certain philosophies on how the government and the general populace should act, which is inaction (general to specific). Gender discrimination falls into Lao-Tzu’s general category of societal problems. In this case, Lao Tzu’s philosophy is flawed because there has never been a law to intervene the undermining of women, yet society has gradually synthesized marginalization between men and women, placing the latter on the bottom of all social distinctions. Intellect should not be dismissed as a negligible factor contributing towards morality in society. Wollstonecraft regards intellect as the first building block towards equality. She clarifies, “[S]peaking of women at large, their first duty is to themselves as rational creatures” (661). In favor of becoming “rational creatures”, women need to be allowed to get formal education to attain the qualification of jobs, to be independent from men. In fact, she encourages women to practice in highly skilled jobs. “Women might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses.” (664). She further elaborates why: How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect… instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility… (665). Women have the potential to be a greater influence in their socioeconomic sphere, however, their paths towards highly skilled jobs have been barricaded by the impertinent gender roles. This results into women being subjected as subordinates in terms of intellect, a notion in which Wollstonecraft hopes to abolish. Lao-Tzu’s take on intellect is antithetical of Wollstonecraft’s. He expounds, “Throw away… and wisdom, and people will be a hundred times happier” (207). Lao-Tzu creates a correlation between knowledge and happiness, suggesting that the less the population knows, the better it is for the whole. This statement deviates from the sake of the general populace, instead, implies a negative connotation where the government is wary about the knowledge people gain, fearing they someday may rebel against. What good is there to bring to society by being apathetic?
In addition, Lao-Tzu preaches counterintuitive ideologies towards the development of technology. “They enjoy the labor of their hands and don’t waste time inventing labor-saving machines” (214). He eulogizes over his ideal society, which has a stagnant development in terms of intellect and urbanization where no new knowledge or technology should pierce the sphere of the population. Conversely, Wollstonecraft encourages women to study and be employed in the tertiary sector. She believes the state of having sociopolitical order is when the satisfaction from men and women coincide, where both men and women are free to do what they aspire to do, and not be constricted under the mold in which shapes a discriminatory society. She explains, “Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters… in a word, better citizens” (666). The phrase “better citizens” infers a mutually beneficial relationship between both men and women, where the liberation of women allows the disposition for a greater good to create them as human beings with depth in perception.
Wollstonecraft evokes parallelism between African American slavery and women: Why subject her to propriety- blind propriety, if she be capable of acting from a nobler spring, if she be an heir of immortality? Is sugar to be produced by vital blood? Is one half of the human species, like the poor African slaves, to be subjected to prejudices that brutalize them, when principles would be a surer guard, only to sweeten the cup of man? Is not this indirectly to deny women reason? (660) This speculates that women’s roles in society have only existed to please men, which in turn denies women from rationalization. Being “better citizens” essentially prompts freedom. Meanwhile, Lao-Tzu apprehends intelligence as a circumscription from his belief of “let[ting] go of fixed plans and concepts” (211). He acclaims a moderate lifestyle, where intellect is an unremarkable factor, “The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas… he has no destination in view and makes use of anything life happens to bring his way” (212). The phrase “no destination in view” refers to devising no fixed plans, giving the impression that his indefensible government is virtually indoctrinating the population with totalitarian regimes. A government which encourages their citizens to fixate themselves in the same country for their lifetimes, forsakes the art of being curious, denies intelligence and promotes traditional lifestyles with outdated technology.
By contrast, Wollstonecraft derives how “morality will never gain its ground” (656), if intelligence does not coexist within the society, because rationality and freedom will never be achieved for women. If the case is in retrospect to Lao-Tzu’s philosophy, whereby creating a rational society only takes inaction, it would already have reached a halcyon-like state, where discrimination among genders is nonexistent and Wollstonecraft’s arguments would not be present in the first place. Nevertheless, this infeasible society which Lao-Tzu conjectures cannot be synthesized in the real world without prescribing actions based on Wollstonecraft’s ideology, which is, by performing actions that will lead people into being more rational beings, thus defining morality, creating sociopolitical order.
In conclusion, the issues Lao-Tzu raise of are strictly imposed by his own beliefs on how the world should work. Unlike Wollstonecraft, who grasps the situation on how it is already working, presents the flaws of society based on her experiences. Their methodologies differ from the implication of their solutions towards creating a harmonious society. Lao-Tzu’s ideal nation is analogous to a totalitarian reign, in Wollstonecraft’s perspective, where there is lack of freedom due to the dismissal of knowledge or curiosity. The values that Lao-Tzu seem to oppose are a blueprint towards Wollstonecraft’s.