Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical writer and teacher whose writings have been seen, to some extent, the philosophical birth of modern feminism. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft argued primarily for the rights of women to be educated. Her text reveals her to be a radical feminist of her time. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is repetitive, passionate and holds a healthy dislike for men and women. A Vindication anticipates many of modem feminism’s themes: the power of sex, the perils of beauty and the dangerous nature of sexuality.
Wollstonecraft makes it clear that society’s views of women need reinterpretation by stating from the beginning of her Vindication that “In the present state of society it appears necessary to go back to first principles in search of the most simple truths, and to dispute with some prevailing prejudice every inch of ground”(11). Wollstonecraft explores each part of her argument logically and judiciously while pointing out the flaws of sexual politics and feminist virtue in eighteenth-century society. Initially Wollstonecraft sets out to discuss Rousseau’s influential theory of human development, specifically his ideas relating to women.
By discussing the flaws in Rousseau’s argument, Wollstonecraft is able to set up her own theory of how society needed to change in order to become more productive. Rousseau argued that women are innately weaker than men are, as well as being less prone to rational thought, and less inclined to explore, create or analyze. Their prescribed role is one of servant to their male partners or family members (Gunther-Canada 13). Rousseau’s book seeks to think through a way in which the modern middle-class marriage might be maintained in a culture of freedom.
In giving this responsibility to the woman and insisting that she be educated properly for the responsibility, Rousseau maintains that a suitable emotional and sexual life must be established if the family is to function properly. Sexuality and the various emotional states that go along with it are essential for this to occur (Gunther-Canada 14). Wollstonecraft’s exploration of sexuality is more equivocal than Rousseau’s however. She insists that women must have a chance through education to develop their rational virtue, and disputes Rousseau’s ideals of special coquettish tricks, flirtation, and charming deceptions as important for women.
She maintains that “A mistaken education, a narrow, uncultivated mind, and many sexual prejudices, tend to make women more constant than men” (30). Wollstonecraft acknowledges that women have a need for sexual passion as well. She believed that passion should be kept for marriage and instead of acting on attraction to find a suitable husband, intellectual stimulation should be the main basis on which a marriage should develop in order to maintain feminine virtue.
Wollstonecraft maintains that sexual passion doesn’t belong as a major priority. Sexual passion is unreliable, and love, in the passionate sense of the term, will not last; therefore, these should not take their place as the important priorities of life. She states that I love man as my fellow, but his scepter, real, or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.
In fact, the conduct of an accountable being must be regulated by the operations of its own reason; or on what foundation rests the throne of God? (36) Wollstonecraft recognizes the need for passion between men and women, but maintains that reason should control ones emotions rather than passion. Harriet Devine Jump believes that Wollstonecraft’s view of sexuality was timely in the way she compared women’s desires to that of slaves, mobs and prostitutes because of the events of the French Revolution and the view society had of slaves and mobs (75).
Jump argues that “discussing Rousseau’s view that women should be kept under restraint because when they are allowed to indulge themselves they do so to excess, she draws a parallel with ‘[s]laves and mobs’, who ‘have always indulged themselves in the same excess when once they broke loose from authority'”(75). Jump makes a valid comparison; however, Wollstonecraft not only compares women to mobs and prostitutes because those groups of people tend to break loose from authority and indulge excessively in ill-mannered activities, but also to strongly convey her point for the need of women to be educated.
Wollstonecraft states that “Business of various kinds, they might likewise pursue, if they were educated in a more orderly manner, which might save many from common and legal prostitution”(152). By being educated, women will have more avenues to explore, will not give into their sexual desires and be active members of society. Wollstonecraft’s images of women and their place in society are many. Not only does she connect women to slaves and prostitutes but as foolish being as well.
According to Susan Gubar Wollstonecraft repeatedly and discerningly “associates the feminine with weakness, childishness, deceitfulness, cunning, superficiality, an overvaluation of love, frivolity, dilettantism, irrationality, flattery, servility, prostitution, coquetry, sentimentality, ignorance, indolence, intolerance, slavish conformity, fickle passion, despotism, bigotry, and a ‘spaniel-like affection’. The feminine principle, so defined, threatens-like a virus-to contaminate and destroy men and their culture” (457).
For, as Wollstonecraft explains: “Weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner, undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society”(34). By portraying women in this light, Wollstonecraft encourages them to rise above the images with which society has labeled them. She also encourages women to rise above their sexuality and become educated productive members of society through impassionate marriages based on intellectual appeal rather than emotional and passionate stability.
Wollstonecraft is compelled to sacrifice sexual passion as the necessary basis for lasting marriage. In her analysis, the best basis for lasting marriage is rational friendship between equals. The most repetitive point she makes in her essay is that the present education of women focuses far too much on attempts to please men which, as far as she is concerned, is not a good basis either for the development of a morally responsible personality in men or women or for a lasting marriage. In supporting this argument, she states that.
Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time. The very reverse may be said of love. In a great degree, love and friendship cannot subsist in the same bosom; even when inspired by different objects they weaken or destroy each other, and for the same object can only be felt in succession. The vain fears and fond jealousies, the winds which fan the flame of love, when judiciously or artfully tempered, are both incompatible with the tender confidence and sincere respect of friendship.
(74) By abandoning traditional rituals in favor of principles based on reason in the interests of justice, equality, and social progress, Wollstonecraft preaches for women to create a lasting friendship before diving into marital bliss. Wollstonecraft conveys a strong sense of female empowerment and individuality and by doing so portrays the differences between men and women. She concentrates much of her writing on the need for women to take power of their own lives and changes female sexual virtue from feminine to an almost masculine identity.
Ashley Tauchert discusses Wollstonecraft’s ideas of femininity and states that, In attempting to argue that the attainment of a singular model of virtue is dependent on an individual’s degree of corporeal strength and health, a worrying over sexual difference, and a concern with the female body and desire, become inevitable. Throughout this Vindication, Wollstonecraft is interested in the nature of femininity, in what it means to have a female body, and where the borders and limitations of that body would fall, were it allowed or enabled to develop without restraints.
(77) Wollstonecraft believes that it is possible for women to become more masculine and take power over their minds, beings and souls rather than having them corrupted by men. Taking control over ones desires in marriage is one way to become an independent, strong, contributing women in society. Wollstonecraft also argues that educating women will strengthen the marriage relationship. Her concept of marriage underlies this argument. A stable marriage, she believes, is a partnership between a husband and a wife.
A woman thus needs to have equal knowledge and sense, to maintain the partnership. Wollstonecraft portrays marriage as an institution designed to channel sexual power, but sexuality can still be a disruptive force. Women should have sexual domain and men should contain sexual advances in order to preserve a healthy marriage. Institutionalizing sexual passion does not necessarily get rid of the desires, and Wollstonecraft focuses on how sexual passion should be curbed when married.
She maintains that in a mature and virtuous marriage, passion should last a short period of time and should be succeeded by friendship. Wollstonecraft repeatedly speaks of how the husband should cease to be the lover and addresses the way that sex inside marriage should take place. She states that But one grand truth women have yet to learn, though much it imports them to act accordingly. In the choice of a husband, they should not be led astray by the qualities of a lover-for a lover the husband, even supposing him to be wise and virtuous, cannot remain long.