Term Paper: Feminist Reading Two Models of Feminism: Wollstonecraft

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Feminist Reading

Two Models of Feminism: Wollstonecraft and Chopin on the Social Dynamics of Female Emancipation

One of the most fundamental and profound developments in literature and literary criticism in the past century or two is the emergence of the feminist perspective, or more correctly an abundance of feminine perspectives. The plural is the proper form because there is no true cohesion in the many ideals, frameworks, and conclusions that "feminist" (even this use of the term is somewhat specious) authors and critics have brought to the creation and interpretation of literature from the dawn of the nineteenth century to the modern era. To be fair, certain strains of feminism can be found in earlier works, as well, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that the word "feminism" was even coined, therefore even establishing a timeline of feminist thoughts and perspectives is problematic. However it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century or even the tail-end of the eighteenth century that some of the explicit platforms and arguments that would contribute to the beginnings of feminism were first put forth in a clear and codified manner. The historical development of feminist thought and the different trajectories it has taken provide interesting and deeply insightful commentaries on the feminist theories and frameworks presented.

This paper will not attempt to define feminism, which would be an impossible task given its constantly morphing and developing nature in addition to certain conflicting premises and conclusions among different feminist frameworks. Instead, a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of feminism will be presented by a critical reading of two feminist texts, with each reading using the framework developed in the alternate text. Specifically, a reading of Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 treatise a Vindication of the Rights of Woman from the feminist perspective as described in Kate Chopin's 1899 novel the Awakening will provide a critique of this early example of feminist thought, and a reading of the Awakening from the perspective detailed in Vindication will demonstrate some of the key problems in the development of feminist theory and perspectives within a patriarchal society. Through an understanding of these perspectives and the manners in which they inform, explain, and ultimately digress from each other, a deeper and more comprehensive appreciation of feminist ideals and the conflicting perspectives that go by the moniker of "feminism" will be attained, and a keener appreciation for issues in feminist criticism developed.

Textual Overview

Before critical readings of the two texts in question -- and from the perspectives of these texts -- can be undertaken, a brief overview of the texts themselves is necessary. Mary Wollstonecraft's a Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the earliest texts that can be considered explicitly feminist in nature, though it appeared a century before the term "feminist" was coined, and thus was in some ways revolutionary and seen as extreme by the standards of the day (Janes, 293-4; Hammer, 2). Comparing the treatment of women to that of slaves and concluding that women are effectively brainwashed by the patriarchal society -- sometimes through explicit efforts -- to become the highly emotional and essentially irrational individuals that the patriarchy presupposes them to be, Wollstonecraft's call for greater individual respect and acknowledgement of not only the rights but the capabilities of women is definitely forthright and substantively different from the prevailing "wisdom" regarding women during the time (Wollstonecraft; Hammer, 2-3). At the same time, Wollstonecraft does not clearly insist that there exists true equality between men and women, and in fact she still holds the position of motherhood (which necessarily comes with wifehood) as the highest level of achievement for women in society -- the education and respect that she calls for will help to improve women in their fulfillment of these roles, according to Wollstonecraft. It should be clear already, then, that there are certain significant differences between Wollstonecraft's feminism and more modern versions.

Kate Chopin was a strong proponent of more modern feminist sentiments, at least insofar as the characters and situations in her novels are concerned; she clearly outlines the problems that face wives and mothers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in her novel the Awakening and in other works, but she does not suggest that there is any real hope for women in terms of achieving the independence and equality that she sees as their natural right (Worton, 106; Heilmann, 88). In this, though many have identified her work as modernist before the time of the modernist movement, it can be said that Chopin, too, has a vision of feminism too restrained by the time in which she lived and incapable of imagining the modern forms of feminism in which women are not only deserving but capable of forming identities without husbands or children (Horner, 132-3). The story Chopin tells in her novel of a wife in New Orleans' Creole society who "awakens" to her own feelings, passions, and capabilities only to find herself thwarted at every turn is at once empowering and embittering, and the ambiguous end of the novel and its heroine can alternately be seen as showing the liberation and the destruction of the independent female (Chopin, 301-4). Taking this basic view of the Awakening as a lens through which to conduct a critical reading of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman -- and vice versa -- clearly demonstrates the development of feminist thinking and the different forms that contribute to feminism as a whole.

An Awoken Vindication

That Kate Chopin was aware of and probably familiar with Wollstonecraft's a Vindication of the Rights of Woman can be stated with a fair degree of certainty, given the direct influence that other European (though primarily French) feminist authors had on Chopin and her work (Worton, 105; Heilmann, 88). That she or her protagonist from the Awakening, Edna Pontellier, would have agreed with Wollstonecraft's ultimate conclusions is, on the other hand, incredibly doubtful. The feminist view presented in the Awakening is equal parts independence and despair, with women having a need to define their own persons without their roles in society, families, etc., but as individuals that matter in and of themselves. This makes for a very interesting reading of Vindication, a text that holds a woman's position in society and family as still the highest attainment of female potential and that shies away from any mark of true equality or independence on the part of women. Though Wollstonecraft's call for a more equitable education of men and women would have rightly been applauded by Edna Pontellier, to be sure, but her insistence that "Men and women must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in" would likely have been a cause for further dismay on the part of Chopin's protagonist (Wollstonecraft, Chapter 2, par. 10).

The central argument of the early chapters of Vindication is that women have been turned into weaker and more artificial creatures than they truly are by a series of direct and indirect social and cultural pressures, expectations, and lessons (Wollstonecraft). Wollstonecraft especially attacks the writings of Rousseau regarding the nature of women and the manner in which they should be educated, and comments on many other specific authors and texts who have put forth their own patriarchal ideas regarding the state of women -- both what it is and what it ought to be. There is a definite sense of reserve in the tone and the arguments that Wollstonecraft uses, such as frequent allowances that women may indeed be weaker than men (though always with the reminder that this has by no means been empirically demonstrated), while at the same time she remains entirely steadfast in her insistence that the manner in which this view is pushed on women and on society as a whole makes women even weaker and less qualified for their feminine duties than they otherwise would be. One can sense that Wollstonecraft is very much a prisoner of her times, and is not free to say outright all that she believes to be true and that (perhaps) beyond that she is not truly free to think or imagine the full extent of her own capabilities.

Historical allowances for what would be perceived as an acceptance of and even an excuse for servitude would not have been forefront in Edna Pontellier's mind when reading a Vindication for the Rights of Woman, but instead Wollstonecraft's conciliatory tone would have been read as evidence of the impossibility of escaping the social and familial demands that existed for women. The fact that Wollstonecraft either cannot imagine or dares not express a desire for a life, personality, and identity completely undefined by familial expectations or social requirements demonstrates quite clearly the dilemma that Edna faces in the Awakening, where escape from the family is only entrance into a new hell of undefined and selfish existence (Chopin, 269). Wollstonecraft speaks out against the writings of men that relegate women… [END OF PREVIEW]

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