Comparative Literature: The History of Critical Theory in Art, Aesthetics, and Accountability

Comparative Literature: The History of Critical Theory inArt, Aesthetics, and Accountability

“Let not men then in the pride of power, use the same arguments that tyrannic kings and venal ministers have used, and fallaciously assert that woman ought to be subjected because she has always been so….It is time to effect a revolution in female manners—time to restore to them their lost dignity….It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners,” Mary Wollestonecraft asserted in her book titled Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

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            The prolific British feminist writer is born on April 27, 1759 - Comparative Literature: The History of Critical Theory in Art, Aesthetics, and Accountability introduction. Mary Wollstonecraft is also a philosopher, a feminist philosopher to be exact. Her philosophy is mirrored in all of her written works. She pioneered in the feminist movement and the enlightenment of how women craved equality and voice in the society.

            She grew up in an undesirable environment of a typical “husband beats wife” scene. Wollstonecraft stood beside her mother. Born into a family with an abusive father, Wollstonecraft supported herself and her sisters by becoming a teacher and a governess in her twenties. Then, she discovered writing. The feminist also challenged the prevailing social norms during her time when she asked her sister Eliza to leave her husband and child because of the undue sufferings she received.

            Her first published works are Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; Mary, A Fiction, a novel with a lesbianism theme; and Original Stories from Real Life, a collection of short stories for children’s book.

            Living in Paris with American Gilbert Imlay during the French Revolution, she is the first to pen a response to Reflections on the Revolution in France, the famous attack on the Franch and American Revolutions by British Member of Parliament Edmund Burke. The work A Vindication of the Rights of Man immediately followed Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man as an assertion of women as a liberal being protected with rights, granted with freedom, and respect for independence as opposed to

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the assumptions of religion and superstition that women are subordinate beings destined to be men’s servants and to be a second class citizen.

            Her written works showed how women are treated in the society she belonged. Wollstonecraft stood behind the proposition for human rights, acted against slavery and the idea of monarchy, vested children with a rights to uphold such as rights to be breastfed and to be educated, and pointed out that even animals have rights as a created being.

It is sufficiently to say that the Vindication of the Rights of Woman first codifies “equality feminism,” an egalitarian refusal of the feminine. Also, it is the first feminist text written with a sense that achieving a radically egalitarian society through education and reform is possible, and thus it is the first realistically utopian feminist text.

            Wollstonecraft had a daughter named Fanny with Imlay. When she married Godwin, she bore a daughter named Mary, the writer of the masterpiece Frankenstein.

            She died on September 10, 1797 due to complications from her childbirth. Wollstonecraft lived her legacy with the advocates of women’s rights and advocacy campaigns for education and equality.

            This essay focused on how Mary Wollstonecraft used her writings and assumptions to create theories, how art is part of the social dilemmas faced by women, how she took beauty in context with her works and the mobilization of aesthetics in the society, and how an individual can be accountable in all the movements one person makes.

One particular insight that Mary Wollstonecraft had is the basic commonality of different kinds of social deprivation and societal inequality, which have a uniting feature. The relevance of feminist thinking is not confined to gender inequality only, nor only to the pursuit of perspectives that a woman’s position or a feminist commitment can bring out. It also links with problems of other types of

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deep inequality. She had seen clearly the need to separate out the particular problems of women, in addition to the general problems of disadvantaged human beings—particularly that of women. Mary Wollstonecraft’s constructive proposal is to see deprivations of every kind within a broad general framework, so that it would always be an incomplete exercise to protest about women’s inferior position, without raising questions about gross inequalities of other kinds (Sen, 2005).

Even as her persona persisted of the female sexual liberation as opposed to the view of women as dolls, sex objects, and doormat, the use of imagination deemed to be of importance. Wollstonecraft navigated the fantasy in creating a promise of liberation soon. Her philosophy became influential in the nineteenth century American political thought, as they have read her novels and other written accounts.

As female full of liberalism, moral indignation and refinement, she elaborated the cultural underpinnings of women in the newly evolving middle class domestic economy— women’s education acquired an exceptional significance. In her early educational writings, Wollstonecraft’s view of novel reading reflects the ambivalence characteristic of the conduct books of her time. Reading sets off a whirling process of inner self-cultivation that simultaneously engages the faculties of the human beings: emotional, rational and imaginative. The heart is delighted when one reads then the feelings are examining the effects of the delight encountered through reading until it reaches the human intellect and process it to regulate the imagination. The happy vision of reading as the highest branch of solitary amusement frequently gives way, however, to the usual caution: ‘productions in which give wrong account of the human passions, ought not to be read before the judgment is formed (Maassen, 2001).

The Vindication of the Rights of Woman leaves rhetoric of conduct books behind and inserts the critique of reading into the wider frame and scope of a feminist argument. As a counterattack on the

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book A Vindication of the Rights of Men, Wollstonecraft implied the underlying concern with issues of female as a gender and imagination as liberation. The Rights of Men described women as someone who is corrupt of the feminine eroticism, in which, the capacity of women to turn men into effeminates or turning into prostitutes belittled the standing of women in the society. In addition, the Rights of Men also had vindicated that women are believed to be dedicated in arousing the pleasing sensations of men to secure beauty, while ignoring their morality. It clearly showed that the Rights of Men treated femininity as something connected to the sense of pleasure and an entity to boost a male’s ego and masculinity.

Wollstonecraft argued that most of the burden is passed onto women since there is a conformity in the traditional values and views regarding women. She also pointed out that aesthetics are not equal to weakness and littleness women are compared into. As the Rights of Men assumed that men are created to be the Supreme Beings, it also presumed that a woman’s beauty depended on the man who commanded their existence. Indeed, it pointed out that women can never live and exist without a man, who gave her such essence of beauty. It also judged women as aesthetically pleasing when their mission to arouse the male desire is fulfilled.

To counteract the cited men’s rights, she led liberalism through imaginary participation. The human mind is capable of transcending anywhere as long as the person himself permits it. Revamping women’s power is done with her imagination and intellectual faculties. Wollstonecraft honed and persuaded women to neglect their home duties because it bound them to the reality construed by men and seek pleasure in their minds since it is something in which a woman is in control of. This became an escape to reality that women could not handle. This form of liberation is within reach as opposed to

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the society’s contradiction of a powerful and independent woman. Her novels led the reader to go beyond the encompassing reality with a fictitious happiness (Wollstonecraft, 1996);

She was so chaste, according to the vulgar acceptation of the word, that is, she did not make any actual faux pas; she feared the world, and was indolent; but then, to make amends for this seeming self-denial, she read all the sentimental novels, dwelt on the love-scenes, and, had she thought while she read, her mind would have been contaminated; as she accompanied the lovers to the lonely arbors, and would walk with them by the clear light of the moon (p. 71).

            Beauty of a woman is only regarded as superficial beauty. Men’s beauty is deeper than their superficial features. To enhance the beauty the society believed in during those times, Wollstonecraft reinforced that woman can also be as beautiful as a man with the use of their imagination. Imagination is equated to the intellect of the mind. This argument is firmly elaborated in the selection A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Wollstonecraft, 1996).

I apprehend that they reason on false ground, led astray by the male prejudice, which deems beauty the perfection of woman—mere beauty of features and complexion, the vulgar acceptation of the word, whilst male beauty is allowed to have some connection with the mind…At twenty the beauty of both sexes is equal; but the libertinism of man leads him to make the distinction, and superannuated coquettes are commonly of the same opinion…(p. 70).

            Hence, a woman’s beauty has different connotations than that of men. A woman’s beauty can either be physical beauty or beauty anchored with superiority. The latter is the one unattainable for

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women. The stereotype of a woman regarded as an object of desire and pleasure is like modern day’s “dumb blonde”.

Beauty, therefore, is regarded as a slavery of women’s existence. Women like to be aesthetically pleasing. However, beauty is not for free. Beauty confines women to a prison cell, with men as its dominating being since he is the one who will appreciate women’s beauty. Men’s pride and sensuality are boosted when women become their slaves. Intellectual beauty is regarded as something not appealing to a man’s sense. Indeed, this kind of beauty is considered something as ugly. It competes with men, for they are regarded as intellectual supreme beings.


            Art is something physical, something superficial. It does not consider the emotional and mental tolls and suffering of women. Art is a weapon to get hold of something you desire and someone who appreciates you, even if it belittles your own existence. As Wollstonecraft argued in her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:

….To gain the affections of a virtuous man, is affectation necessary? Nature has given woman a weaker frame than man; but, to ensure her husband’s affections, must a wife, who by the exercise of her mind and body whilst she was discharging the duties of a daughter, wife and mother, has allowed her constitution to retain its natural strength, and her nerves a healthy tone,–is she, I say, to condescend to use art, and feign a sickly delicacy, in order to secure her husband’s affection (p. 22)?

            Art has another other purpose—to please, and in pleasing a man one must reinforce it through weakness and fragility. Those characteristics will make men feel more powerful, thus appreciating a

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work of art as valuable as his woman. Art, just like aesthetics, is still connected with his ego and self-satisfaction.

            Art is an artificial nature that existed to contradict nature itself. Thus, art becomes a vice since we tend to oppose the law of nature—that all human beings are rational. In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, men are rational beings. Women are subordinates. As a subordinate, women are treated as an animal and not as a human since nature assumed that human beings are rational. Vices are to serve ones pleasure. This pleasure translates into the gullible man who thinks they are superior beings and yet being manipulated by women without their knowledge.

            Art is a communication unique in every mankind. It is having your own actions, conversations, and gestures to convey sentiments discreetly. Arts cultivated by women guarantee results. Thus, liberation can be a result of art. Women can boost their egos by playing weak, innocent, and incapable. With artful preparation, she can even outsmart powerful men.

Let the husband beware of trusting too implicitly to this I servile obedience; for if his wife can with winning sweetness, caress him when angry, and when she ought to be angry, unless contempt has stifled a natural effervescence, she may do the same after parting with a lover. These are all preparations for adultery; or, should the fear of the world, or of hell, restrain her desire of pleasing other men, when she can no longer please her husband, what substitute can be found by a being who was only formed, by nature and art, to please man? What can make her amends for this privation, or where is she to seek for a fresh employment? Where find sufficient strength of mind to determine to begin the search, when her habits are fixed, and vanity has long ruled her chaotic mind? But this partial moralist recommends cunning systematically and plausibly (p. )

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Art is used as a form of ambiguity in concealment of something such as plans, disobedience, or even a precaution. Women use art to guard themselves of the possible forms of slavery, yet they themselves can be slaves of art. Too much use of it can lead to destruction of the law of nature. Destruction can also occur in their own beings since they cannot even distinguish what is true and what is a trap.

Art as a vice can be healed through knowledge—artificial knowledge. The pursuit of education is a form of art as opposed to the vices of superiority that we knew as art. Artificial knowledge is not God-given. We can hone what God gave to us, that is rationality, through education. It will give us a sense of direction—thus, a sense of self and a sense of truth is generated. Education will be our passport in determining what is reality from folly.

Art should be used with caution. Art that opposes nature can backfire. Without proper knowledge through rightful education, one can fall in their own traps and be fooled by their own creation of art.

            Women’s perception and abilities are marvelous. Yet, women must have power over themselves instead of a power over the men. To be able to fix what is out in the field, they must fix themselves first. Women must avoid being dumbfounded by their physical attributes because it can weaken their defense against tyrants in the society.


            Knowledge entails responsibilities. Knowledge permits tough competition. Knowledge permits reason to outstand. Reason is the result of education.

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Human nature is a test of our everyday existence. It is the action of every human being that contributes to the wrongful socialization and disorder in our society. Every action has a consequence, therefore, we must face how nature will retaliate in our wrongdoing, mischief, and following the tradition we are used to.

            Women are accountable for what is happening in their own selves. They are too much bound by the tradition and upbringing as a subordinate of men and as a being endowed with beauty. As a result, they become slaves of their own upbringing and culture.

            There is a world of difference between defending cultural freedom (the freedom to choose how exactly we would like to live), on the one hand, and trying to conserve, on the other, all cultural practices that we have inherited from the past – a position that many contemporary multi-culturalists have tended to adopt, without adequate scrutiny of what we want and why (Sen, 2005).

Femininity rightly understood is strength (Hust, 2001). Yet, we must take into consideration that the strength can be turned into weakness if one permits to be that way. The balance of nature is deemed to be of importance in order to create a sense of equilibrium of men and women.

Wollstonecraft is hypothesizing an identity, called the womanhood, rather than as positing a subject whose convictions hails from a female body but who nonetheless has the tremendous power to articulate its wishes. This power is not imperial or tyrannical potency, or even the fraternity that seems unable to do away with ones sovereignty, transferring it instead to the subject’s terrorstic ability to get its way. Rather, this is the power to articulate in a comprehensible artistic manner the subject’s desires within a republic composed of three: him- or herself, the nature (listener or friend, and implicitly, whoever else shares the medium of articulation). To perform desire, the prerogative constitute of subjectivity as such, is not the same as achieving gratification; it is not realizing one’s wish but uttering

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it with impact. Speaking as a subject from the position of being oppressed is tricky, for even to say, “I protest, as a woman,” inscribes victimhood by rendering self-categorization necessary. Here, a victimizing subject too powerfully issues its decrees by setting up the scene of articulation that renders the victim’s self-objectification necessary. Oppression operates, precisely, by making inaudible the desires of the historically oppressed, by reducing a subject to an identity. The decidedly not fraternal partisanship reverses this objectification by rendering the oppressed person’s articulations audible and powerful. It is another scene for speaking and, like the couch, is a scene made possible by hope (Botting & Carey, 2004, Taylor, 2003).

Fear of revolution silences complaints of injustice that friends and advocates will hear, but it does not permanently erase them. Yet not fearing a revolution may destruct human nature. Both ways, nature will be affected in every action man takes. Revolution is everywhere. Sometimes it may be too small to be recognized. Revolution may create change, but we must be accountable for the changes that might happen since we cannot predict what can really happen in the future.



Botting & Carey. “Wollstonecraft’s Philosophical Impact on Nineteenth-Century American Women’s Rights Advocates.” American Journal of Political Science. 48 (2004): 707-722.

Maassen, Irmgard. “Mary Wollstonecraft: Romance and the Anxiety of Reading.” Romanticism. 5 (1999): 172-187

Sen, Amartya. “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary!.” Feminist Economics II. (2005): 1-9


Taylor, Barbara. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination. New York: Cambridge University Press. 2003.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: Dover Publications, 1996.


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