If ever asked a question about the roots of feminism, your mind would probably wander to the early 20th century Suffragettes with their vigorous and organized struggle for women’s emancipation. Though not entirely wrong, the truth is that feminism was a concept that existed even before this time. Western feminism took a great leap with Mary Wollstonecraft, especially with her book The Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This was published in 1792 and is considered one of the first documented treaties about women’s rights.
A prolific writer, women’s rights advocate, philosopher, and intellectual, Mary Wollstonecraft was a jack of all trades. This 18th-century writer’s critique of the conventional femininity and advocacy of women’s rights played a prime role in the development of feminism. Born in London in 1759 and brought up by an abusive father, she decided to leave her home at the age of 19 and dedicate her life to writing. This was a very bold and unconventional choice, given the time she was living in. After working for a while as a governess, she distinguished herself by making history – establishing a school in Newington Green that had both men and women studying alongside each other.
Mary Wollstonecraft preached and advocated equal rights for women a long time before this could even be considered a legitimate discussion topic. A variety of progressive ideas aimed to shatter existing patriarchal norms were laid down in her infamous book The Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Wollstonecraft was a pioneer who radically deviated from the notion of feminism being biological to that of it being social. She made a lot of observations about the society she was living in. She noted that women had a different set of rules or behaviors to abide by that were different for men regarding social norms and values, cultural practices, and laws. Not living by these rules would automatically make women a witch or a monster. Therefore, women had to consent to feminine roles and hence, their subordination to them. She rightfully stated that some traits are inherently considered feminine by society, like being interested in fashion and jewelry.
The Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written as a response to a French report which stated that women should only be given domestic education. Through her writing, Wollstonecraft attacks the sexual double standards prevalent during her time, and that woman should be given education based on their position in society. Attacking male thinkers like Rousseau, who argues against women’s education, she emphasizes the communal and social benefits of educating women. Her way of thinking was based on the logic that educated women could serve as better spouses for their husbands and better mothers to their children, as they would be empowered with rationality and reason.
The brilliance of her book The Vindication of the Rights of Woman lies in the fact that the ideas laid down in it are relevant even today. The book had one simple goal: to bring to light the fact that men and women are ultimately equal beings who deserve equal rights. This, to readers of the present day, may not seem like a big deal, but during those times, just making this suggestion was considered subversive.
During the 18th century, men dominated the social, economic, and political spheres, and women were pushed towards fulfilling household responsibilities like performing day-to-day household chores and (in most cases, against their will) sex work. They were seldom admitted into educational institutions or given professional jobs, and in the rare cases that they were, respect or appropriate remuneration was never a part of it. In this kind of society where patriarchy ran deep, women were only seen as mere sex objects or child-bearers and childrearers. It is quite evident why Mary Wollstonecraft felt the need to take up the issue of women’s rights. You can get the book here! 📖
Importance Of Women’s Education
Wollstonecraft’s passion for education was evident in the establishment of her own school, which provided equal and unbiased education. Throughout the book, she constantly stresses the need for equal access to educational institutions for both genders.
She firmly believes that women’s subjugation to patriarchy arises from their lack of incisive education that is supposed to equip them with an independent thinking process, thereby making them question their oppression. She adds that due to this lack of education, women are, most of the time, not even aware that they are being undermined and silenced, and ultimately are devoid of the tools to “vindicate” their freedom and fundamental rights. Along with that, she had also urged women to be given equal opportunity in ‘male-dominated’ fields like science, trade, politics, and so on.
Beauty Standards And Gender Roles
Long before feminist critics like Judith Butler and Betty Friedan arrived on the scene, Wollstonecraft had already called out the unhealthy beauty and desirability standards the patriarchal society had, for centuries, imposed on women, like how women were required to dress up in a certain way and succumb to the harmful social conditioning. She openly talks about how women from a very young age are taught that their looks should be their utmost concern and how the only way of pleasing others is by being weak and artificial.
Shedding light on the topic of marriage too, she draws our attention to how women are socially conditioned to remain unhappy, so much so that even in abusive marriages, they do not speak up as they are always taught to indulge with and depend on men, never questioning them. This female dependence on being confined to the domestic space and never being allowed to participate in the public sphere has a negative and deep impact on female psychology, which is very harmful. Wollstonecraft wanted to bring about a “revolution in female manners” to help women learn to question and ultimately break free from the oppression.
Challenging Sexual, Moral, And Body Policing
Feminist issues such as sexual, moral, and body policing are also tackled by Wollstonecraft in her book when she talks about female “modesty.” According to the 18th-century definition, a “modest” woman is she who conforms and exhibits autonomy and desire only in the way the patriarchal society dictates – but Wollstonecraft argues against this. Being highly critical of this kind of moral, sexual, and body policing, she counterpoints that if women are expected to be chaste, men should be too.
Her revolutionary thinking that women too should be part of the public and political sphere left a mark. Hats off to her for having the courage to even speak about these issues in those conventional times. Wollstonecraft includes an excellent point in this context, that is, to involve men in the fight for equal rights as well. After demonstrating that female rights are perfectly rational and necessary, she devotes her conclusion to urge men to come forward and stand up for equality. She is indeed a firm believer in the fact that true equality cannot be achieved without both genders’ participation.
Mary Wollstonecraft apprehended a variety of feminist issues long before they were even discussed legitimately. Much before the suffragettes and feminist slogans like “We Can Do It!” and “The Personal is Political!”, Mary dropped numerous truth bombs, smashing patriarchy right in its face. She can be credited with laying down the foundation for Women’s Studies and Feminist theories as we know it today, which became the starting point for studying Western Feminism.
It can never be denied that her work received a lot of backlash from the straight white men of the society, and people were somehow more interested in how she gave birth to two children out of wedlock. Like the determined, strong, and confident woman that she was, Mary did not let her legacy fade away and chose to lead an unveiled life. Her works have greatly inspired the Suffragette movements, both in Europe and the United States.
This article contains affiliate links. BookWritten may earn a commission when you buy using these links.