Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) Publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Man in 1791 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

(1792) Wollstonecraft raises the classic question of nature vs. nurture: . . .either Nature has made a great difference between man and man, or that the civilization which has hitherto taken place in the world has been very partial (1134). She concludes that the fault has been with nurture. As she consults books on education, she comes to the conclusion that the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore, and that women , in particular,

are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion (1134). What is this hasty conclusion Wollstonecraft cites? What conclusion can you draw from the following? One cause of this barren blooming [the failure of women to develop mental strength and usefulness] I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women

than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational others (1134). Wollstonecraft argues that the education of women has focused only on making them alluring mistresses, and thus the minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement, and they are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as part of the human species

(1135). Wollstonecraft recognizes that the primacy of men has been based on a physical fact: In the government of the physical world it is observable that the female in point of strength is, in general, inferior to the male. This is the law of Nature (1135). She then argues that men have used mere physical superiority to consign women to a lower status: But not content with this natural preeminence, men endeavor to sink us still lower,

merely to render us alluring objects for a moment (1135). Next, she examines the linguistic trickery inherent in the term masculine: From every quarter I have heard exclamations against masculine women, . . . but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raises females in the scale

of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind, all those who view them with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may every day grow more and more masculine (1135). Note that talents and virtues which ennoble the human character are called manly virtues. Thus, Wollstonecraft argues that what is termed the masculine describes general human virtues, while the feminine is relegated

to attributes attractive to men, and these attributes (physical beauty, refinement, passivity and so forth) are associated with weakness. Wollstonecrafts next argument has both a religious and humanistic element: namely that we are born with faculties (or gifts) which we are intended to develop: I shall first consider women in the grand light

of human creatures, who, in common with men, are place on this earth to unfold [develop] their faculties (1135). In the sixth paragraph of the authors introduction we see a class issue: . . .the instruction which has hitherto been addressed to women,

rather has been applicable to ladies, if the little indirect advice that is scattered through Sanford and Merton be excepted (1135). Wollstonecraft makes it clear she is addressing women of the middle class. They are the ones most likely to benefit from the educational reforms she desires:

I pay particular attention to those in the middle class, because they appear to be in the most natural state. Perhaps the seeds of false refinement, immorality, and vanity have ever been shed by the great. 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! As a class of mankind they have the strongest claim to pity; the education of the rich tends to render them vain and

helpless, and the unfolding mind is not strengthened by the practice of those duties which dignify the human character (1135-6). We may infer that Wollstonecraft hopes to avoid for middle class women the false delicacies that ladies are tutored with, and wishes her middle class audience to indulge her 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 (1136). In the ninth through tenth paragraphs, Wollstonecraft brings in a linguistic and moral objection. She declares she will avoid those pretty and feminine phrases that men usually identify with femininity and elegance. She wants readers to take her argument seriously: I wish to show that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of

laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex (1136). She vows I will disdain to cull my phrases and polish my style. I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in

rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart (1136) Wollstonecraft understands how flowery language can impress and fool some readers, but for her, such language masks the truth and is vapid and insincere: Those pretty superlatives, dropping glibly from the tongue, vitiate the taste, and create a kind of sickly delicacy that turns away from simple

unadorned truth; and a deluge of false sentiments and overstretched feelings, stifling the natural emotions of the heart, render the domestic pleasures insipid, that ought to sweeten the exercise of those severe duties, which educate a rational and immortal being for a nobler field of action (1136). In the twelfth paragraph, Wollstonecraft decries the current state of womens education that renders them frivolous and

objects that strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, remarking that women raised this way are only fit for a seraglio. Para. 13: . . . the instruction which women have hitherto received has only tended, with the constitution of civil society, to render them

insignificant objects of desiremere propagators of fools! (1137). Para. 15 Wollstonecraft ends her introduction reminding men that women are degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence, and that this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize, and gives birth to

cunning, the natural opponent of strength, which leads them to play off those contemptible infantine airs that undermine esteem even whilst they excite desire 1137).

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