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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

HCJ Seminar Paper - Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
A Vindication of the Rights of Women

Mary Wollstonecraft published ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ towards the end of the 18th Century. She seemed to feel that women were forcibly placed into a restricted role in society. Mary’s views have lead to her being considered one of the first feminists.
‘The rights of women’ wanted then to continue to be feminine and to continue their domestic duties. But she also called for more respect, better education, as well as financial independence. She felt that education was the answer to gaining equality. She feels men and woman are human beings sharing the same potential.

During the time of her works release, America had emerged from a revolution.
At the time of the revolution, women had the freedom, as everybody was relied upon and were more equal.
However, after the war, women were expected to return to ‘their place’ in the home.
Women were ignored when forming a new government.
With the French Revolution beginning shortly after, Idealists such as Wollstonecraft felt that the revolutions coming so close to each other was proof that the cause for democracy was spreading, which lead a lot of optimism.

In Chapter IV, Mary claims that women ‘despise the freedom which they have not sufficient virtue to struggle to attain’. By this, she seems to suggest that women didn’t have enough rights or good reason to fight for more freedom.

Also in the chapter, Mary also talks about ‘reason’. She says that ‘Reason is, consequentially, the simple power of improvement’ or ‘of discerning truth’.

It is made clear throughout her work, that Mary feels it is only a better education which portrays men as superior.
During one paragraph, she states that women are ‘always represented as only created to see through a gross medium and to take things on trust’. By this, she seems to suggest that women are seen as people with little intelligence and will accept most things they are told. This provides a possible reason as to why women had yet to fight for more equality, because of their reliance on others to gain knowledge. As women were more likely to get information from men as they were seen as the more intelligent figure and therefore more trustworthy.

Mary then goes onto to say that if women do have ‘reason’, then ‘she was not created merely to be the solace of man, and the sexual should not destroy the human character’, meaning that if women can get more out of education and learn more if given the chance, they their gender shouldn’t affect who they are as a person and they should be viewed as equal.
She assumes that men saw education merely as ‘preparation for life’ and not as a way of reaching ‘perfection’. She describes this as an ‘error’. The fact that they believe it’s preparing for life, means that only men are seen to require education as they are the only people that would need it, as women don’t need it to as much for their home duties.
Mary believes that education is to aim for perfection, and therefore it should be equal among all people.

She claims that this is what has lead to women being stereotyped and placed into a certain category of expectation. It becomes impossible for women to gain a great enough education to try and achieve more. She feels that this has forced ‘even women of superior sense’ to follow the same lifestyle as all women which is restricting their full potential.

To me, it seems that Mary seems very confident in her views, and in some ways comes across as someone that believes she’s above all men. Such as using the word ‘error’ when referring to assumptions she made of men’s views to education.

Her view is that power has been denied to women. She asks men prove that women aren’t denied power just for their gender characteristics, and then she will ‘grant that woman only exist for man’.
Later in the chapter, Mary raises points of what degrade the gender, and ‘prevent women from generalizing their observations’. She claims that it ‘is sufficient to allow that she has always been either a slave or a despot’ which are quite juxtaposed. She states that the moral weakness and the trait of being stupid come from the ‘narrowness of mind’. Mary also accuses the civil governments of putting obstacles in the way, preventing women from developing their mind through education and training.

At one point, Mary describes ‘virtue’ as a ‘necessity’ and that it is ‘an acquirement to which pleasure must be sacrificed’. She then asks ‘who sacrifices pleasure when it is within the grasp...’ This is a valid point, suggesting that while women continue to get supported by their husband, they see no need to try and become something more and earn their own way through life.
She says ‘...Pleasure is the business of woman’s life...’ and that ‘little can be expected from such weak beings’. By describing women as weak, it shows that Mary is quite critical of women and seems to see herself as more superior.

She later says explains what she sees as a gullible or somewhat desperate nature of women when she says ‘that they are treated like queens only to be deluded by hollow respect’.

When men undertake a journey they have ‘the end in view’, a women thinks more of the ‘incidental occurrences’. This is another barrier that Mary sees for women
She sometimes compares women with the rich, saying that they don’t need to learn a trade as they are already provided for; there is no real need for a good education.

She also provides examples of how education can alter a women’s progression through life. Such as a wife judging whether she would marry a man not only in terms of her love for him, but also regarding his virtues.

Mary only uses the word ‘lady’ 4 times in the chapter; this suggests to me that she only sees women with a good education deserving a title of ‘lady’. This is shown when defending her view of better education. Mary argues that women receive a good education they are ’made fine ladies, brimful of sensibility...’

Mary felt the education of women would strengthen a marriage, equal knowledge among the man and women would create a more stable education for children in the home.

Mary’s reputation was ruined shortly after her death when her husband William Godwin published a book revealing she had a previous child out of wedlock, attempted suicide twice, and failed to call on God as she was dying. This affected the views on her philosophical work; it was seen as a ‘manual’ for the corruption of women. It meant that her more radical views went ignored for many years.

I feel she raises some good points, but occasionally contradicts herself. She claims that women are mistreated and not given fair opportunities, but then criticises the gender and then describes them as ‘weak’. She also refers to men as charming and full of virtue, and then complains that they are in control.


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