Research Proposal: Vindication of the Rights of Woman Mary

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¶ … Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft's book a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was written as a response to the proposed state-supported system of public education that would only educate girls to be housewives, a proposal made by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, the French minister of education after the French revolution (Mellor 367). The passion with which Wollstonecraft wrote a Vindication of the Rights of Woman was derived from her personal experience of inequality as a young woman in a patriarchal society and also by the injustice she experienced in her own family growing up, an injustice experienced primarily because of her gender given that she was raised in a home where her older brother, Ned (who by law would inherit all the family wealth), was favored by their mother, leaving Mary and the rest of her siblings to compete for any affection from their mother. As a result of the English law that forbade women to own their own property (instead females were considered the property of their father's and later of their spouses), Mary was forced to take on employment that involved teaching, being a governess, and working as a "playing companion" to demanding old women, as they were the only suitable jobs for a woman of no means. These types of jobs were traditionally held by women and are an example of the conformity by which Mary Wollstonecraft was expected to live her life. It could be said that the passion with which she wrote her book was fostered by her experiences with conformity.

As an adult, Mary Wollstonecraft lived a life that very often stood outside the realm of conformity, and one could say she lived a revolutionary life, or at the very least flirted with rebellion, blurring the line between her public life and her private reality. She, like many others of her time, found that a life of conformity would only lead to a life of oppression, but even in her rebellion, she was never quite free: "It is a melancholy truth; yet such is the blessed effect of civilization. The most respectable women are the most oppressed" (Johnson 287).

It is not likely that Mary set out to change the world, but she did leave an indelible mark through her writing, most especially a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The ideas of and contrasts between conformity and rebellion are central to the discussion in a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, so an exploration of the various sections of this work shows how they reflect both principles while showing how they coexist within the work and within Mary Wollstonecraft's life. Mary Wollstonecraft is outspoken in her argument for the rights of women and for national education, and as part of this awareness, she shows throughout her argument that she is mindful of her position as a woman in a patriarchal society; she is also cunning (skillful) in her approach when asserting her opinions. Her views are rebellious and go against the laws and social practices of her community. However, she conforms to some basic norms in the assertion of her beliefs in order to assure that her thoughts will have some chance of being heard: "Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things; I have already granted, that, from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue" (Johnson 135). She here concedes that men are stronger, then moves to her message that women should "endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness" (Johnson 111).

Mary Wollstonecraft also talks a great deal about marriage and virtue in Vindication, which seems a contradiction to her private life. She writes in Vindication, "To satisfy this genus of men, women are made systematically voluptuous, and though they may not all carry their libertinism to the same height, yet this heartless intercourse with the sex, which they allow themselves, depraves both sexes" (Johnson 274). It is widely known that Mary Wollstonecraft carried on affairs and consequently had a baby out of wedlock with Gilbert Imlay. Publicly, she condemns the giving into lust, while privately, she cannot deny her own feelings. She lived in the Romantic Era and had a considerable influence on both early feminist thinking and on political thought in her time and after. She was embroiled in a number of political arguments in her day and would be cited by others in later decades. She certainly had a major influence on her daughter, Mary W. Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, and would be cited by Virginia Woolf more than a century later for her importance to feminist thinking and the ongoing battle for women's rights.

The role of women in society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries presented women in a secondary position in society at a time when they were becoming more aware of that fact. The eighteenth century was a period in which a new kind of political radicalism emerged with the American Revolution and the French Revolution. In America, which served as a model for the French Revolution to a degree, certain principles developed in the seventeenth century were put in place. It had been assumed in the seventeenth century that societies could be made by human beings and that human beings could exert control over the natural world in their own interests, and many thinkers decided that progress was natural and inherent in human society once the restrictive elements of aristocratic rule and culture were swept away:

Politically this took the form of demanding participation in government. The new reformers, however, like the puritans, tended to set limits to the scope of participation. Many of them still felt that there must be certain criteria for democratic rule, and retained qualifications of property, class and sex. (Rowbotham 19)

As men in France began to ally themselves with radical movements, women as well tried to include themselves within the scope of radical argument:

Male radicals, influenced by the idea of men controlling nature and society by science and reason, did not necessarily see that this had implications for women. They tended to assume that a man would reason for his woman and children, just as the puritans had assumed that democracy would only involve heads of households who owned property. (Rowbotham 20)

It was in the context of the French Revolution that Mary Wollstonecraft produced her work Vindication of the Rights of Woman and extended ideas about the need for all human beings to decide their fate to women. She called for women to be able to decide their own fate based on what was in their interests rather than depending on men. She saw some relationship between the oppression of women and existing property relations. She saw that in society, men had more scope for freedom than women (Rowbotham 20-21).

Both the French Revolution and Mary Wollstonecraft were influenced y the political and philosophical writings of Locke, Rousseu, and Hume. Rousseau does not see the state of nature as a state of grace and instead sees men as seeking their own advantage over others through coercion and force. However, there is a social unit in the state of nature that serves as the model for society, and that social unit is the family. He writes in Book I, Chapter II: "The most ancient of all societies, and the only natural one, is that of the family" (Rousseau 4). Even the family unit, though, is based on underlying motives and forces, since "children remain bound to their father only so long as tehy need him for their own self-preservation" (Rousseau 4). For Rousseau, self-preservation is the first and the most important function of the human being, a function he calls the first law of human nature.

This law is carried out in a world in which each individual has complete independence and sovereignty over himself. This sovereignty in the state of nature is inalienable, but it can be altered so that it becomes sovereignty for the collective mass in society rather than the individual and weaker sovereignty in presocial life. The social contract is the agreement whereby individuals come together to form a society and place their collective, corporate sovereignty in one man or group of men who then become the sovereign as the servant or the political instrument of the people. Wollstonecraft adopted much of this schema, including the idea of the family as a central unit.

The place of women in the eighteenth century was thus secondary to males and was dependent on the male, whether it was the father, a brother, or a husband. This sense of dependence continued into the nineteenth century and was indeed seen as the rightful place of women in society. These attitudes were reflected… [END OF PREVIEW]

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