Feminism's first manifesto
A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN,
BY MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT
CHARLOTTE GRAY MAKES THE CASE
November 15, 2008
Globe and Mail
Watch out, here comes Mary Wollstonecraft - brilliant, bright-eyed and passionate. She's doing that "female" thing that always drives critics up the wall - arguing from the heart not the head - but her ideas are processed through a formidable and original intelligence. The polemic she published in 1792 is rooted in both her own life experience (which included poverty, servitude and a father who was both a lush and a bully) and one of the most dramatic upheavals of European history: the French Revolution. Out of this ferment she moulded the first great feminist manifesto, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Much of what Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) championed in Vindication is conventional wisdom for most of us today. She was writing in response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's tract Emile, in which the French philosopher had suggested that a girl's education should focus on making her a useful helpmeet to rational man.
Not so, roared Wollstonecraft, then a 33-year-old literary critic in London. Such an education rendered women useless parasites, whose sense of self-worth arose solely from their appearance and ability to attract men. It produced "gentle domestic brutes" who were "educated in slavish dependence and enervated by luxury and sloth." Some marriages were little more than "legalized prostitution."
What kind of companions, mothers or citizens could women be if they were regarded, both by themselves and by men, as "in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone"? Silken shackles produced the sheer frustration that transformed household angels into domestic tyrants. No, no, no. Women should be educated to think of themselves as autonomous individuals. Only when they achieved a sense of self-respect through the exercise of reason would they be able to put their capacities to good use.
It wasn't a brains-versus-body debate. Wollstonecraft also championed the importance of motherhood in a woman's life, but this made a decent education even more important. If a woman had real intellectual skills, she would be able to support herself and her children if she were widowed, and would be freed from the need to marry or remarry out of financial necessity. Society could not progress if half of its members were held back. The abstract rights of women were inextricably linked, she insisted, with the abstract rights of men that contemporaries like Thomas Paine were busy trumpeting.
Vindication is an eloquent, daring book. Within the tight little circle of thinkers in which Wollstonecraft moved, it created an uproar. It fit the new, pre-Freudian age of enlightenment, when the institutions of religion, monarchy, patriarchy and slavery were all under attack.
So what happened? Where did all that feminist energy go? Why was it nearly a century before women gained access to decent educations? Why was Nellie McClung, Canada's best-known early feminist, still raging in 1913 about women who "sit at home babbling of indirect influence and womanly charm and never doing anything for the betterment of humanity"? Why was the 20th century well advanced before women in the English-speaking world were admitted to full citizenship and given the vote?
Mary Wollstonecraft died in childbirth when she was only 37. She had been working on a book to be called The Wrongs of Women, in which she argued that the best marriages were companionate, and that women should be free to express their sexuality. She had recently married William Godwin, a fellow writer, to legitimize the child they had conceived while living together. After Wollstonecraft's death, the grieving widower wrote a tell-all biography of his beloved, revealing extramarital affairs, suicide attempts and a previous child. Scandalous! By embodying her political principles in her personal life, Wollstonecraft gave her critics the ammunition required to marginalize her. She was reviled as immoral. Fogies like Horace Walpole described whirlwind Mary and her ilk as "hyenas in petticoats." Her ideas were dismissed. Her radical manifesto was swamped by the wave of Victorian conformity.
But Wollstonecraft is not so easily forgotten. The daughter she bore to Godwin was another Mary - Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, an enduringly popular Gothic horror story with a deadly serious theme. John Stuart Mill kept Wollstonecraft's ideas in the progressive mainstream with his 1869 book, The Subjection of Women (probably co-written with his wife, Harriet Tyler Mill).
And Wollstonecraft herself has had her revenge, as Virginia Woolf would exult. "As we ... listen to her arguments ... and realize the high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way to the quick of life, one form of immortality is hers undoubtedly: ... We hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living."
Charlotte Gray is the author, most recently, of a biography of Nellie McClung in the Penguin series Extraordinary Canadians.
Men complain, and with reason, of the follies and caprices of our sex, when they do not keenly satirize our headstrong passions and grovelling vices.
Behold, I should answer, the natural effect of ignorance! The mind will ever be unstable that has only prejudices to rest on, and the current will run with destructive fury when there are no barriers to break its force.
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. ... Weakness may excite tenderness, and gratify the arrogant pride of man; but the lordly caresses of a protector will not gratify a noble mind that pants for, and deserves to be respected. Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!
Vindication of the Rights of Women, Chapter 2