Mary Wollstonecraft’s Ideas on the Value of Women in Society
Mahatma Ghandi is often attributed with the thought that a society should be judged by its treatment of its weakest members. Two theorists, Rousseau and Wollstonecraft, authored radically different philosophies on a woman’s place in society as a reflection of their views on the state of civilization. Mary Wollstonecraft claimed to have been “half in love with” Jean Jacques Rousseau, though the majority of her work was in response to his chauvinistic writings, and she engaged his text in order to make a case from his theories for the value of women to society. He argued for maintenance of the status quo, for the continuation of women’s suppression. She argued for female empowerment and the opposite of everything inequitable and unfair to women in civilization. Where Rousseau saw civilization as a story of decline for the corrupt human beings, Wollstonecraft had hope for a civilization she viewed in progress towards emancipation and equality for women. Though Rousseau was able to pinpoint some of the follies of civilization, he neglected to address the subjugation of women and therefore Wollstonecraft is the superior and more compelling voice. Not only was hers the more compelling argument, Wollstonecraft spoke to universal and timeless problems that plagued the women of her time, continue to burden modern women, and will further hinder future generations of women as well.
The female sex is without question the more aesthetically pleasing. Woman’s beauty has been artistically depicted, poetically recited, melodically versed, and mythically fabled throughout humanity. From the ideas of femininity being associated with aesthetics comes the connection to the domestic realm and thus there can be made a further association to weakness. In a few short steps women are perceived as inferior. This deemed inferiority would be the basis of all further treatment and interaction with the female sex. Rousseau however takes the extreme of this to suggest that women use their beauty to gain power:
It is easy to see that the moral part of love is a factitious feeling, born of social usage, and enhanced by the women with much care and cleverness, to establish their empire, and put in power the sex which ought to obey (Rousseau).
Here he makes two key claims: that a woman can only have power through the manipulation of her looks, and that the female sex is inferior.
Wollstonecraft views love between a man and a woman as fleeting moments of passion. She deems it a “common passion” as it is a “mere appetite (that) becomes a personal and momentary gratification when the object is gained and the satisfied mind rests in enjoyment” (Wollstonecraft 29). This idea is as fundamental and prevalent today as ever and the sentiments reflect the nature of a man’s view toward intimate relations. A woman sees physical connection and affection as the ultimate sign of personal emotions. A woman wants and welcomes these outward displays because they represent an inner relationship that she truly desires. Wollstonecraft boldly asserts that on the contrary, a man looks at a woman with the passionate desire for these physical connections and with that as his end goal, employs whatever means necessary to satisfy himself.
In society, women are treated according to these inherent and innate characteristics of their sex, their beauty and their love, and the associated socially constructed meanings. The cycle is perpetuated through education. “But Rousseau, and most of the male writers who have followed his steps, have warmly inculcated that the whole tendency of female education out to be directed to one point: to render them pleasing” (Wollstonecraft 26). Wollstonecraft laments that a woman’s only education would be to make her more suitable to a man in her position as wife, housekeeper, and mother. She qualifies, “I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves” (Wollstonecraft 63). Wollstonecraft desires a world where a woman is educated with reason, in order to be the best person, citizen, mother, and wife.
A discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft would be remiss without a note on her controversial and negative comments directed at her own sex. Wollstonecraft’s syntax and language is the most obvious and is a physical dissociation between her and other women. Though she writes in the first person, referring to herself often as “I”, Wollstonecraft rarely ever refers to fellow women as “we” but rather more often as “they”. This subtle distancing subconsciously creates in the mind of the reader a distinction between her and women of her day. Additionally, when Wollstonecraft addresses specifically the female readers, her language becomes flowery and artificial as if to further muddle her connection to these women. It is these physical distinctions and the comments she makes about the rest of her gender that are a cause for hesitation among readers. The comments range from mild prodding to outright attacks on other women. She notes that fellow women have been known to “obtain power by unjust means” (Wollstonecraft 44) and that women are “cruel rivals” of one another in a competition for a “throne of beauty” (Wollstonecraft 48), to illustrate a few.
What has been called “feminist misogyny” is in actuality a perfect culmination of her argument. Often, she is deemed a hypocrite for turning against her gender and because according to her own writing, they are not culpable. Concurring with her words, women have been educated to submission. By this, her argument is thus that women cannot be held responsible for their own actions because men essentially control them. How can they “despise the very weakness they cherish” (Wollstonecraft 55)? She is showing the male readers the product of their design – a defective and inadequate creation that can take no blame for its faults.
Wollstonecraft wrote with a hope that one day her words would be unnecessary. Optimistically, she saw society as an ever-progressing body that, with the help of her ideals, could develop and mature into an optimal civilization. Unfortunately, I don’t see this as possible for our immediate posterity. Fortuitously, however, I think her true value is her exceptional talent for noting and condemning the actions and activities that are the cause of female detriment.
In her day, it was made very clear to women that their ultimate goal and purpose was to produce good citizens (read: men). Their education groomed them for marriage and the culture facilitated motherhood. Today, healthy heterosexual relationships are similarly impaired. In my society, women already enjoy or are in the process of gaining increased access to education, employment, healthcare, and income (though the former two still require significant work – the landscape is far more promising). Yet the personal relationships of my society look regrettably like those of Wollstonecraft.
Premarital sex has never been as common or publically accepted as it is today. Gone are the days of courtship and notions of “going steady”. There are dozens of new statuses that fit in between “single” to “in a relationship”. The hookup culture among teens to twenty-something’s is a new phenomenon and is perplexing in that it is as palpable as it is intangible. It’s a game of sorts where each player knows the unspoken rules and everyone has a different idea about what a victory would look like. Though much more can be expounded and later blogged about there is one aspect of today’s dating scene that all would agree on: it is commitment-free.
Again I call on Wollstonecraft’s wise words that impeccably describe the current situation at hand, “Passions are spurs to action, and open the mind; but they sink into mere appetites, become a personal and momentary gratification when the object is gained, and the satisfied mind rests in enjoyment.” Who benefits from not knowing whether or not the person you have been casually seeing is your significant other or just a friend with benefits? Who wins when all it takes to get a hookup is a couple flirty texts and picking up the bar tab? A simple cost-benefit analysis would suggest the winner to be the one who can get the most pleasure out of such an association while not having to sacrifice. The man wins every time because he can have a hookup for a different night every weekend and get congratulations and praise from his friends while a woman is a slut for sleeping with anyone who isn’t her official boyfriend.
The value of Wollstonecraft’s arguments is that they remain applicable to an evaluation of our civilization today. The past two generations alone have seen remarkable successes of the feminist movement. From suffrage to equal education to an increase in female employment, comparatively speaking women are making great strides. Yet in their personal relationships, they are not respected or treated equal. To use her words, women of today continue to miss the useful fruit of society while retaining all the follies and vices. According to Wollstonecraft’s model, our civilization has not yet reached its full potential. By the indicators and the signs that she emphasizes and condemns, this civilization has failed the female sex and therefore failed itself. Like Wollstonecraft, I too hold the hope that someday humanity will see the value in complete and true equality for all but in this present moment there is much work to be done. For this reason, her words remain relevant today and will continue to serve as reminders for generations to come until her vision for civilization is realized.
To conclude, Rousseau’s views of nature are unconvincing because they are limited. He looks at the world around him, sees the evil, and condemns it. He looks at the misogynist society he lives in and perpetuates it. Where Rousseau fails, Wollstonecraft prevails. “But the nature of the poison points out the anecdote” she writes, referring to the “poison” of her civilization. Wollstonecraft looked at her world and saw hope for the salvation of humanity. Though this is has not yet come to fruition because of modern dating culture, her opinions, observations, and interpretations on a woman’s place in society continue to be applicable today in the ongoing struggle for female political, social, and economic equality through a mutual respect in male-female relationships.
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