Not Quite so Radical: a Modern Critique of Mary Wollstonecraft 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.
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