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Not Quite So Radical: A Modern Critique of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Feminism

Gender roles of 18th century British society have been seemingly set in stone. Men, who had been presumed to be the superior of the sexes, were to hold all the power, each politically and domestically, and they had been anticipated to exist, to some extent, in the public sphere. Ladies have been anticipated to assume inferior positions in society and in the home, and it was only acceptable for them to exist in the private sphere. There have been further divisions among the sexes concerning emotional capability, physical strength, and mental capacity, and males had been often considered the more virtuous of the sexes. As it is identified, this subjugation of the female sex impacted the capability for women to gain formal educations, seek careers, or get recognition as something other than daughters, sisters, wives, or mothers.

Primarily based on this understanding of the strictly divided gender politics that had been prevalent during this time period, it is no surprise that Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was perceived as getting a radical and progressive show of feminism when it was written. Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s function evaluates the nature of gender roles and the influence that these divisional roles have on a society, and this criticism, especially coming from a female, was not standard. Nevertheless, to the modern day feminist, Wollstonecraft’s argument is flawed. Throughout the work, Wollstonecraft perpetuates the notion of an inherent division in between the two genders and continually undermines the competences of her fellow girls, and in performing so, she reinforces ideals that have been established by the patriarchy. Despite its advocacy of women’s rights, the nature of Wollstonecraft’s argument in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman might be viewed as an example of the underlying misogynistic ideology that pervaded 18th century Britain.

Scholars have labeled Wollstonecraft a feminist primarily based on her advocacy for the education of females and her dissection of gender politics of 18th century Britain in A Vindication of the Rights of Lady. Though Wollstonecraft’s writing could have seemed progressive for the male-dominant time period, there are flaws in Wollstonecraft’s feminism. Wollstonecraft promotes equal education, but her argument is founded on patriarchally constructed concepts of gender that insist females are inherently inferior to males. Karen M. Offen, author of European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History, evaluates Wollstonecraft’s position as a feminist:

Despite the fact that Wollstonecraft might not merit her reputation as the “first” English feminist, she became ideal-remembered—and retrospectively the most maligned—advocate of women’s emancipation in her time. Her language and her arguments, as eloquent as they look in her opening volley against male tyranny, are by comparison to these of her French counterparts remarkably mild. The body of her function alternatively addressed the reforming of women’s behavior, friendship among the sexes, notions of taste, dignified domesticity, accountable motherhood, and sexual self-manage.” (73)

Regardless of her advocacy for equal education possibilities, Wollstonecraft does not desire gender equality. Rather, Wollstonecraft perpetuates ideas of male superiority, and she suggests that ladies need to seek education only so that they may much better their lives inside the confines of their prescribed gender roles. Her purpose is not to liberate ladies as an alternative, she wishes to aid them enhance upon their societal and domestic duties through education. In contrast to her French contemporary feminists and modern day feminists, Wollstonecraft does not argue for the social and domestic advancements of women.

In her evaluation of gender politics, Wollstonecraft openly accepts the idea of male superiority. Wollstonecraft believes that males are inherently stronger than ladies, and she asserts that this tends to make men physically superior. Wollstonecraft writes, “In the government of the physical globe it is observable that the female in point of strength is, in common, inferior to the male. This is the law of nature and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of woman. A degree of physical superiority can't, therefore, be denied- and it is a noble prerogative!” (214). It could be argued that Wollstonecraft denies ladies their sense of physical strength by accepting and supporting the concept of male superiority. Feminists might contemplate her position on strength to undermine the physical capacity of the female physique. Although her argument focuses on physical strength, it does not take childbirth, an extremely physically strenuous activity, into consideration. By denying girls a sense of strength, Wollstonecraft effectively renders them powerless against male dominance.

In addition to denying females a sense of strength, Wollstonecraft denies females a sense of agency. Wollstonecraft argues that girls, being undereducated, are blissfully unaware of their powerless positions in society and are content with getting treated as sexualized playthings and possessions. She writes, “women, intoxicated by the adoration which guys, under the influence of their senses, spend them, do not seek to acquire a durable interest in their hearts, or to turn out to be the pals of the fellow creatures who locate amusement in their society” (Wollstonecraft 214). This presentation of girls may be viewed as problematic due to the fact it misogynistically portrays them as dim-witted and simply flattered. Wollstonecraft seems to doubt the self-awareness of women and suggests that they are superficially satisfied with their subjugate positions since they basically do not possess the capability to recognize their inferiority nor the will to advance their positions. Wollstonecraft’s willingness to depreciate her fellow girls is not a standard feminist trait. Rather, her presentation of female agency, or lack thereof, is demeaning and minimizes the significance of the oppression that girls underwent.

Philip Hicks, author of the article “Women Worthies and Feminist Argument in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” notes Wollstonecraft’s willingness to dismiss her fellow girls in favor of male superiority. He writes, “Many feminist writers, maybe starting with Mary Wollstonecraft, have either dismissed or neglected these catalogs of excellent women. Some critics have argued that such lists ignore the lives of ordinary girls and concentrate on women’s ‘manly’ qualities” (Hicks 175). Indeed, Wollstonecraft appears to disregard the value of feminine qualities and insists on the superiority of masculine traits. Wollstonecraft, asserting the preeminence of masculinity, writes:

but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, a lot more effectively speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercising of which ennobles the human character, and which raise females in the scale of animal getting, when they are comprehensively termed mankind — all these who view them with a philosophic eye must, I need to consider, wish with me, that they could every day develop far more and far more masculine. (215)

Wollstonecraft asserts that masculinity is the most valuable trait, and she advises that girls need to seek much more masculine traits in favor of their soft, feminine ways. Again, Wollstonecraft’s arguments are primarily based off of patriarchal ideas of power, and this compromises the integrity of her feminism. She holds masculinity in high esteem, and she disposes of feminine worth in a manner that demonstrates the influence of misogynistic ideology on her perception of gender.

Not only does Wollstonecraft profess that masculinity is much more beneficial than femininity, but she also suggests that femininity is a sign of weakness. She writes off feminine attributes as getting frivolous, as signs of shortcomings. In her personal words:

I wish to persuade ladies to endeavour to acquire strength, each of thoughts and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are practically synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that these beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of really like, which has been termed its sister, will quickly become objects of contempt (215).

Wollstonecraft aligns femininity with weakness, and this additional demonstrates the manner in which she perpetuates male superiority. Conventional feminism embraces femininity, and contemporary feminists demand that femininity be revered as an equally powerful force as masculinity. In sharp contrast to this, Wollstonecraft appears to discover femininity disgraceful. Alternatively of embracing femininity as its personal distinctive trait, she devalues it.

Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman may not be the exemplary piece of feminist literature that it is at times regarded to be. Even though Wollstonecraft advocates for equal education opportunity, she does so in vain. She does not advocate for the social and domestic advancements of females rather, she suggests that women must stay in the confines of their prescribed gender roles. Her feminism is not made for girls to boost for their own betterment it is meant to boost mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives—to enhance women in relation to men’s ownership and prescribed gender roles. Wollstonecraft evaluates women with a mindset that demonstrates the pervasive, deep-rooted nature of patriarchal ideology in 18th century Britain.

Works Cited

Hicks, Philip. “Women Worthies and Feminist Argument in Eighteenth-Century Britain.” [“Women’s History Review”]. Women’s History Review, vol. 24, no. two, Apr. 2015, pp. 174-190. EBSCOhost, dsc.idm.oclc.org/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=khh&AN=101501048&site=eds-reside&scope=website.

Offen, Karen M. European Feminisms, 1700-1950: A Political History. Stanford University Press, 2000.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Lady. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed., vol. D, W.W. Norton, 2012, pp. 212-239.
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