Audio: Listen to this post | © ClassicBooks.com
Considered as the weaker sex, women often have to prove that they are just as ordinary as their male counterparts. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1792, is an all-time publication in defense of women’s rights that helped found the Feminist Movement of her time. She aptly rebels against the opinion that women are sex objects and beautiful things that could be toyed with by men. Women are unable to develop their strength and true value, especially as they are even denied an education.
She found it wasteful and silly to reduce the woman to the level of a child and that she could only feel whole when admired by the lustful gazes of men. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a direct response to male writers of the time who argued that women were incapable of rational thought and that the best they could receive was training on domestic duties.
The title gives away the book’s area of focus – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. In the book, Mary Wollstonecraft talks about women’s rights, advocating for their right to education, just as men do. She asserts that denying them such an opportunity is equivalent to raising a useless and unhappy society. One thing that makes this book outstanding is the fact that she presents women from the perspective of a human being, paying little attention to their gender. This is quite a powerful approach and one that silently yearns for women to be viewed from the same point of view as men. This style also carefully avoids making this clamor for equality a war waged by women against men.
This essay came at a time when there was a heated discussion on the validity of according a rational education to women. The author argues that the education of women is paramount given that she is directly involved in nurturing the nation’s children, both male and female, thus she is at the foundation of the future of the society. It was a direct response to educational and political theorists of the 18th century who argued that women should just be restricted to acquiring domestic skills.
There is nothing that Wollstonecraft is as passionate about like education. Her prevailing opinion is that both men and women should have the same level of access to education. An extremely educated woman herself, Wollstonecraft understood that education gives you knowledge and power that is not easy to come by. To her, if women had the same opportunities as she had, they could do far much greater things for society.
At the time of its writing, it was generally believed and agreed by most writers that women were unable to think abstractly or develop rational thought. They were deemed too fragile to do so. With the help of other women reformers like Catharine Macaulay and Hester Chapone, Wollstonecraft remained adamant that women had the same potential as their male counterparts if only they were given the same level of academic exposure.
Wollstonecraft argues that truth must be common to all lest the male gender will progress rapidly while leaving the woman behind. She explains that if literacy in the country is low, it is a problem caused by men. Since they claim to be educated, all knowledge gathered from books is written by men who do not regard women as human beings. Women have been despite themselves forced to be frivolous and so cannot meet the standards the men claim to have attained.
When this work was published, it immediately sparked a revolution in female perceptions of their status quo as they sought to set themselves free from the bondage of male chains. It continues to remain a major point of reference for modern.
Gone are the days when we used to classify children in terms of male and female brains. It is the different ways in which the boys and girls get treated that impact their attainment in school. The reason why some girls underperform in school, just like other boys do, is no longer because of gender. It is a shame for parents who still segregate their children in terms of gender. That should be living in the Stone Age era.
Marriage and friendship
Wollstonecraft considered an ideal marriage to be one that is characterized by a set of traits, including friendship, generosity, mutual esteem, and compromise. She found it paramount for husband and wife to be companions, out of which the harmony of deep friendship is born. With friendship, you get to embrace change together.
She surely realized that marriage was one of the institutions exploited by men to perpetuate their dominance over the female folk. If there is one thing that she detested, it was the dehumanizing of a woman. She was never pleased by the fact that all that men could see in the female is a sex object designed to entertain them. At one point, she creates an analogy between flowers and women. Similar to the way women in her time are seen as beautiful things which should not develop their strengths and their true value; the flowers are normally grown for beautification. These ‘beauty creatures’ allow themselves to be regarded as inferior to the male.
This kind of inferiority should not have any space in marriage. Even though society insists on man being the head of the family, marriage is a partnership in which both adults seek to be better parents to their children. For that to happen, this couple ought to have started the family out of genuine love for one another. Wollstonecraft insists and puts it as a caution or advice to women that: they should fall in love with a man’s mind and not his looks. When that fails to happen, these women stand the risk of being plunged into bitterness and resentment once their husbands grow old. Similarly, a man should choose a wife by evaluating her mind and not appearance. True to her logic, the author posits that what is good for the woman should be good for the man and vice versa.
The challenges of sensibility
In as much as Wollstonecraft stakes her all in defense of women, she does not mince her words when criticizing sensibility. She makes it pretty clear that the silliness of women disgusts her. Such stupidity includes acts like cultivating delicacy of body, reading stupid novels, finding joy in transient pleasures, attracting a man, gossiping, being pleased by men with good looks, and visiting fortunetellers. She maintains that when women allow themselves to be controlled by such choices, their minds become weak and pliant. For that reason, their ability to exercise any freedom of thought is rendered dormant and as such, exposing more to male chauvinism.
Reading this book, one can visualize Wollstonecraft’s background. The women in this era are known to have mainly focused on socializing, being enslaved to their bodies and sexuality. Only a few, the likes of Wollstonecraft, valued what they had to offer to a man other than just sex. That mainly happened because, Wollstonecraft argues, women allowed themselves to be influenced by their feelings. It is this kind of argument that has made modern feminists suggest that the writer intentionally denied women’s sexual desires. She writes that one ought to calmly allow passion subside into friendship in an ideal marriage. She goes ahead to explain the impossibility of love and friendship subsisting in the same person.
Bettering the middle-class woman
To a greater extent, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is about improving the lives of middle-class women. The lower-class woman is limited on time, and rarely does she engage in pleasuring activities or attempting to attract a man. She does not care about her looks and manners. Given that she started working at an early age, she does not have any education and never gets involved in frivolity or irrelevant rivalries. All of these are the activities that rub Wollstonecraft the wrong way.
At the same time, this work does not target the rich. Wollstonecraft openly vilifies the wealthy, describing them as useless beings that are dominated by artifice. In particular, she points out the rich’s immorality, false-refinement, and vanity. She goes on to describe them as “weak, artificial beings… who have helped in the spread of corruption in the whole society.”
These criticisms should not be construed to mean that she has sympathy for the poor. Wollstonecraft thinks that the poor are fortunate since they do not risk getting trapped by the snares of wealth. She goes ahead to castigate the idea of charity, arguing that it only has negative consequences.
All the challenges that Wollstonecraft identifies in the book are the type faced by the middle-class woman who is capable of acquiring education for the betterment of their life. These women hold the potential to achieve financial independence and get involved in politics. In as much as the writer spots several problems that all women face, one may go away, albeit wrongly, with the feeling that her work is mostly focused on the middle class.
Women’s rights have always been a thorny issue ever since time immemorial. Long before the United States was founded; struggles to give women more relevance in society had been launched. Many of these were at a mild level as they did not have much backing. Even the founding fathers of the US did not care much about enshrining more rights for the woman in the constitution. This would happen later on through constitutional amendments championed by Women’s Rights Movements.
Such movements drove their inspiration from powerful writings in the likes of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The book successfully makes a case for women to receive more education and for them to stop acting as vessels of pleasure for men. As the writer explains, when that happens, they would be able to cherish a nobler ambition and exact respect from their abilities and virtues.