Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.
There’s a lot of talk in university circles lately about feminism and women’s liberation, so I thought it was about time I looked into such things. I started all the way back in 1792 with Mary Wollstonecraft’s
proto-feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. It was pretty great.
Firstly, Wollstonecraft is nothing less than an incorrigible 18th-century sass-bomb. There’s a timeless quality to the disdain she levels at everyone, from the less enlightened women of her day (emphasis hers):
My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures instead of flattering their FASCINATING graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.
…to the wannabe-gallant gentleman (and again):
So ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me, that I am scarcely able to govern my muscles, when I see a man start with eager, and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief, or shut a door, when the LADY could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.
…to the sweet nothings he whispers:
This is not the language of the heart, nor will it ever reach it, though the ear may be tickled.
In her work Wollstonecraft rails against the immorality of all forms of hierarchical control and imposed servility, from the clergy to the military, as being repressive of the true virtue of man, views which can’t have made her too popular during the Napoleonic Wars just over a decade later, and during a period of pretty universal religious belief (not that Wollstonecraft ever claims atheism, directing as she does many of her pleas towards God, who she presumably thought would be rather more receptive to them than her fellow man and men).
The main thrust of her argument, however, is that the education of boys and girls must be co-educational to bring out the best in both. Citing a string of works by
great thinkers of the time, from Rousseau to Locke, that aimed to lay out the essential differences between hes and shes, Wollstonecraft tears down the arguments presented therein, claiming that
Men, in general, seem to employ their reason to justify prejudices, which they have imbibed, they cannot trace how, rather than to root them out.
Indeed, Wollstonecraft seemed to have predicted that some of her opposition would’ve come from her XX-chromosomed parters in crime, and devoted a number of gems to ridiculing them too:
[…] it may be impossible to convince them that the legitimate power, which they obtain by degrading themselves, is a curse, and that they must return to nature and equality […]
Considering the length of time that women have been dependent, is it surprising that some of them hug their chains, and fawn like the spaniel?These dogs,observes a naturalist,at first kept their ears erect; but custom has superseded nature, and a token of fear is become a beauty.
After laying out educational reform, Wollstonecraft turns her critical eye to marriage. In particular, the idea of a happy marriage being possible when women are taught only the arts of appearance and not of thought. When the inevitable procession of time dampens the former and there is nothing else to retain the interest of a beau, Wollstonecraft asks, is it any wonder that the man would grow resentful or seek out others?
The behaviour of many married women has often disgusted me. They seem anxious never to let their husbands forget the privilege of marriage, and to find no pleasure in his society unless he is acting the lover. Short, indeed must be the reign of love, when the flame is thus constantly blown up, without its receiving any solid fuel.
Instead, Wollstonecraft talks of an educated woman’s ability to be not just a lover, but a friend:
The most holy bond of society is friendship. It has been well said by a shrewd satirist,that rare as true love is, true friendship is still rarer.
…and in extreme cases (and probably a bit less relevant now, mortality rates being what they are), the need of a widow to be capable of being both a mother and a father to her children. She dreams of the widowed mother of five who can say to God on her deathbed
[…] behold, thou gavest me a talent, and here are five talents.
Despite Wollstonecraft’s predeliction for run-on sentences, and paragraphs of almost Tristram Shandy-esque verbosity, her insightfulness and wit hold up remarkably well a couple centuries on, whilst less pleasantly so do some of her bugbears.