Feminism Enlightenment Essay
In two cеnturiеs whеrе womеn havе vеry littlе or no rights at all, Mary Wollstonеcraft appеarеd as a claiming voicе of fеminism. In thеsе malе- dominatеd sociеtiеs Wollstonеcraft еducatеd womеn and triеd to vindicatе thеir rights through onе of thе fеw arеas whеrе thеy could show thеir intеlligеncе: litеraturе. Scornеd in hеr own day and for gеnеrations aftеrward duе to thе illеgitimacy of hеr daughtеr, hеr frее lifеstylе, and hеr unorthodox opinions, Vindication of thе Rights of Womеn (1792) is today a fеminist classic and shе is honourеd as an еarly Еnglish fеminist forеmothеr.
In Vindication Wollstonеcraft appliеd thе languagе of thе Frеnch Rеvolution to womеn, scornеd thе inconsеquеntial training of womеn common in hеr timе, and advocatеd a rеal еducation for womеn, shе appliеd radical principlеs of libеrty and еquality to sеxual politics.
Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical in the sense that she desired to bridge the gap between mankind’s present circumstances and ultimate perfection. She was truly a child of the French Revolution and saw a new age of reason and benevolence close at hand. Mary undertook the task of helping women to achieve a better life, not only for themselves and for their children, but also for their husbands. Through her many struggles within society, Wollstonecraft would most definitely be regarded as the founder of feminist thinking. Mary Wollstonecraft deserves the title of “enlightened despot” because of her ability to promote women’s rights through the use of her critical understanding of society, and writings which used enlightenment ideas stressing progress, new values of freedom, individual rights and equality. (Wardle, 43) During the 18th century there was little argument for civil and educational rights for women. There was more concern about racial matters than about women status and rights. When Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Right of Woman, she tried to fulfil this lack of civil and educational rights for women; this was a plea to give equality of opportunity to women. The education she promoted was a mixture of information and rational skills. She stressed the importance of educating both sexes together, something that was nearly impossible for that era: “ My observation on national education are obviously hits; but I principally wish to enforce the necessity of educating the sexes together, to perfect both…” (Wollstonecraft 293)
She thought that men and women should be educated to a great degree by the opinions and manners of the society in which they live. Men and women were educated by their mother so the concession made in favour of education was not a privilege afforded to women but a way of control. Education was not intended to prepare women for professional and public life but it was meant to give children a good base for life. This was one of the best arguments to Wollstonecraft for educating women. She looked for educated woman who would not be humble and dependent of their husbands; but friends, better educators, wives, mothers and individuals if they had access to education. She challenged the view that the subjection of women is also the subjection of men, and that the progress of civilization as a whole is deterred when women are deprived of liberty and equality. Mary was very unlike the vast majority of the women of her day, and objected defiantly to their views and their actions. Wollstonecraft said that women-hood has got on radically wrong lines and she had come to set crooked straight. A feminist theory is too often about men, who are stereotyped, categorized, and castigated; at the same time; all women are described as the powerless and virtuous victims in this cruel environment. In other words, the current versions of feminist theory are sexist. (Tomalin, 56)
Mary Wollstonecraft had anticipated all of the modern theories and issues; she understood all the ways that men exclude women and complained bitterly about them. That is to say that Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist theory was mostly about women, and about how they should be educated to fulfill their aspirations and potentials. To her, there was a context in which the male and female roles are complementary rather than one and the same. Also, she believed that the male-female relationship could be improved upon and that was an important goal. Differently, many people of the 18th century may argue that Mary Wollstonecraft “stepped over the line” by trying to introduce her views and opinions to the world. It was uncommon for women of that time to have a “voice” in which can be heard. Yet, regardless of what the consequences may have been, Wollstonecraft demonstrated her power and her ability to be heard, and better yet to be understood. She recognized the constraints imposed on women in education and occupation. She had a realistic view of marriage and a hatred of tyranny. (Wardle, 71)
Mary believed in the supremacy of reason and the crucial effect of environment. In 1789 the French Revolution began which led to the beginning of a new epoch “in which immemorial misery, injustice, and constrictions were to be eradicated, and in which man had the power to reshape the world.” Wollstonecraft, previously uninterested in politics, became inspired and radicalized by the improvements she now thought were possible for humanity. In 1790 she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men an essay expounding the humanitarian ideals brought forth by the French Revolution. This inspired her to apply the rights of man to the woman’s condition and in 1792 published the feminist social study A Vindication of the Right of Woman. This study was the first to make women’s rights into a cause. Her demand for “JUSTICE for one-half of the human race” was too revolutionary but she did find a following among radicals and educated women and succeeded in beginning the trend toward regarding women as an important social force. Wollstonecraft was also more then a women’s rights advocate, as she argued throughout her life for the rights of all people whom she felt had been assigned their roles in life according to false distinctions of class, age and gender. Mary argued that man cannot adequately represent woman and that his attempts to recreate woman as obedient and servile have resulted only in the creation of a society narrow in perspective and severely out of balance. Although her unlimited efforts to equalize the people of her time, again it could be argued that her method of expression was unacceptable. Her “inexcusable” ways to educate others about her principles caused much uproar within the male dominated society. Her opinion lead to many disagreements within society, therefore questioning the effectiveness of her methods. (Woolf, 113)
Wollstonecraft is highly regarded as the leader of the women’s suffrage movement in Britain and is best known as the woman who answered Rousseau with her philosophical treatise entitled: ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.’ Rousseau, as a philosopher, addresses the genesis of social roles and inequality as being inherently connected to the love of well being. Women, being the weaker of the two sexes, both physically and politically, are relegated to secondary status because of the male’s love of well being rather than an inherent condition of subjectivity. Mary Wollstonecraft argued that “to obtain social equality society must rid itself of the monarchy as well as the church and military hierarchies.” Her views even shocked fellow radicals. Whereas advocates of parliamentary reform such as Jeremy Bentham and John Cartwright had rejected the idea of female suffrage, Wollstonecraft argued that the rights of man and the rights of women were one and the same things. (Godwin, 88)
Mary Wollstonecraft was a supporter of educational equality and an advocate of women’s rights. She stated that women did not cultivate much of their intellectual potential because of prevailing social attitudes, equality in education was a major part of Wollstonecraft’s reform program, as she fought for a “revolution” in the social system towards both sexes. Her writings are regarded as crucial early documents in the history of feminism that realistically depict formal degradation and offer a graphic picture of the things done to women. She renounced writers such as Rousseau who have degraded women. Wollstonecraft’s lasting place in the history of philosophy rests upon A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she appealed to unrestricted social philosophy as the basis for the creation and preservation of equal rights and opportunities for women. Through her countless struggles to establish her point of view of society and the inequality within it, Wollstonecraft successfully identified and removed several aspects of women’s subordination. Her work remains as a foundation in women’s rights and laid the foundation for modern feminism. Although Wollstonecraft did not live to see her ideals in women’s rights come to fulfillment, we are still left with her vision when she states “ I have thrown down the gauntlet, it is time to restore women to their lost dignity and to make them a part of the human species.” This in itself proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Mary Wollstonecraft should most definitely be classified as an “Enlightened Despot”.
Mary Woolstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. London, J. Johnson, and Boston, Thomas & Andrews, 1792; second edition, London, J. Johnson, 1792.
Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women by William Godwin, J. Johnson, 1788, New York, Garland, 1974
A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Woman by Emma Rauschenbusch Clough, London and New York, Longmans Green, 1898
Mary Wollstonecraft by Madeline Linford, Boston, Small Maynard, 1924
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Sketch by Henry R. James, London, Oxford University Press, 1932
“Mary Wollstonecraft” by Virginia Woolf, in her The Second Common Reader, New York, Harcourt, 1932
Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography by Ralph Wardle, Lawrence, University of Kansas Press, 1951
One Woman’s Situation: A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft by Margaret George, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1970
Wollstonecraft: Her Life and Times by Edna Nixon, London, Dent, 1971
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Biography by Eleanor Flexner, New York, Coward McCann, 1972
The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft by Clair Tomalin, London, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, and New York, Harcourt Brace, 1974, revised, London, Penguin, 1992