If women are by nature inferior to men, their virtues must be the same in quality, if not in degree, or virtue is a relative idea; consequently their conduct should be founded on the same principles, and have the same aim.

In Mary Wollstonecraft's epochal work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the reader is assailed by the first distinctive expression of feminist thought. Written in 1790 as a reaction against popular writings dictating female behavior, Wollstonecraft's treatise represents the strivings of an expanded individual mind to achieve equality for a highly marginalized portion of society. In order to do so, it was the author's intention to argue that the character of women is not determined by nature, as was the view held by many of the preeminent authors of the time, but, rather, that the popular conception of the female sex is a product of social conditioning. Therefore, the very means by which the self is constructed falls under questioning. Viewing the self as a malleable quality determined by circumstance and not as a product of nature is a uniquely postmodern idea. Wollstonecraft's theorizing deconstructs the very definition of the female sex as something inferior to man, and instead proposes her "wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society." It is the purpose of this paper, then, to summarize the assumptions that Wollstonecraft was up against and to illustrate her arguments for the rights of women.

Although several male authors of the time meet with harsh condemnation from her pen, Wollstonecraft pays special attention to the words of the famous philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau's conceptions of the female self are the product of a long line of male dominated reasoning beginning with the Biblical tale of the creation of woman from one of Adam's ribs. With this tradition in mind, the theories that Wollstonecraft will argue against were deeply entrenched in the social structure of her time. Furthermore, the prevalence of these ideas makes it easy to understand, if not agree with, Rousseau's way of thinking. Fitting snugly into the mold, he maintained that it was woman's nature to be subservient to man. In his own words:

The one should be active and strong, the other passive and weak; it is necessary the one should have both the power and the will, and that the other should make little resistance.
This principle being established, it follows that woman is expressly formed to please the man: if the obligation be reciprocal also, and the man ought to please in his turn, it is not so immediately necessary: his great merit is in his power, and he pleases merely because he is strong. This I must confess, is not one of the refined maxims of love; it is, however, one of the laws of nature, prior to love itself. (52)

Rousseau's thinking, as demonstrated here, reeks of essentialism, that line of thought descended from Plato which maintains a belief in ideal essences governing the nature of a particular thing. In order to restrict this nature from growing into something different, Rousseau recommends "the education of the women should be always relative to the men." With the fate of women imposed thusly, he then goes on to delineate the path this nature must dictate:

…girls, on the other hand, are fonder of things of show and ornament; such as mirrors trinkets, and dolls: the doll is the peculiar amusement of the females; from whence we see their taste plainly adapted to their destination. (87)

This destination that Rousseau speaks of is later revealed to be that of a living doll. As she enjoys dressing and playing with dolls, so too, does this behavior reflect the woman's only virtues of "subtility and beauty." It follows from this reasoning that women's sole reason for existing, as has been prepared by nature, is to marry a man who can support her weaknesses and frivolities, and protect her from damage to her reputation in the external world. Since the woman is naturally riddled with these weaknesses, it is the duty of the man to hold complete authority over every aspect of her life.

These, then, are the primary societal assumptions that Mary Wollstonecraft took upon herself to combat. It is important to note the admittance, at several points throughout the treatise, that if Rousseau's claims as to the makeup of the nature of women were proven true it would be logical for her to remain a slave to man. His whole argument, resting on this one foundation, makes it a relatively easy system to refute if the idea to contradict the great philosopher was only to sprout in someone's mind.

But in the education of women, the cultivation of the understanding is always subordinate to the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment. Even when enervated by confinement and false notions of modesty, the body is prevented from attaining that grace and beauty which relaxed half-formed limbs never exhibit. Besides, in youth their faculties are not brought forward by emulation; and having no serious scientific study, if they have natural sagacity, it is turned too soon on life and manners. They dwell on effects and modifications, without tracing them back to causes; and complicated rules to adjust behaviour are a weak substitute for simple principles. (25)

With these words, Wollstonecraft sets forth her major argument, which threatens to topple Rousseau's tower of male chauvinism. Women, she allows, are physically weaker than men, but this is the only difference actually decreed by nature. By obtaining this insight, Wollstonecraft acknowledges the distinction between gender as a biological fact and the sexed self-identity of femininity as a artificial cultural creation. The emphasis placed on the development of the body in women's education is what has made them the ignorant creatures that men like Rousseau saw fit to complain about in their dictatorial tracts on female behavior.

Writing from her personal experience, Wollstonecraft proceeds to trace the effects of a woman's education upon the self.

The very confessions which mere children were obliged to make, and the questions asked by the holy men, I assert these facts on good authority, were sufficient to impress a sexual character; and the education of society was a school of coquetry and art. At the age of ten or eleven; nay, often much sooner, girls began to coquet, and talked, unreproved, of establishing themselves in the world by marriage. (88)

Hereby acknowledging the consuming force of this superficial education in childhood, Wollstonecraft shows just how early women were taught to define themselves only in relation to men. Girls are "forced to sit still, play with dolls and listen to foolish conversations; the effect of habit is insisted upon as an undoubted indication of nature." As women grow older their fathers, per Rousseau's suggestion, forcibly hold them under constant restraint. All matters of education are promised to be given in time, by the husband. With their fate thus plotted for women, it becomes natural, by circumstance, to turn all hopes and dreams toward that goal which will fulfill their role as a sex.

Women subjected by ignorance to their sensations, and only taught to look for happiness in love, refine on sensual feelings, and adopt the metaphysical notions respecting that passion, which lead them shamefully to neglect the duties of life, and frequently in the midst of these sublime refinements they plump into actual vice. (201)

Wollstonecraft rightly viewed this state of servitude as a sign of the rights of humanity itself having been "confined to the male line from Adam downwards." In this bleak projection of the female existence even the attainment of marriage is fruitless. Since women have been raises solely as objects of desire, it is easy to assume that the man's love for his wife will fade as her beauty lessens. At this point, not having been taught any other option, the woman has no choice but to either search for another man to justify her existence, or to dedicate her life to her children. With this illusion of happiness shattered, the emptiness of the woman's self is exposed. Indeed, she may be said to have no self other than that which has been forcibly taught her by society.

The path that Wollstonecraft feels can solve this problem of the frozen woman is to be found in equal education. Only the cultivation of reason will afford an individual with the means to lead a full life.

When women are once sufficiently enlightened to discover their real interest, on a grand scale, they will, I am persuaded, be very ready to resign all the prerogatives of love, that are not mutual, speaking of them as lasting prerogatives, for the calm satisfaction of friendship, and the tender confidence of habitual esteem. Before marriage they will not assume any insolent airs, or afterwards abjectly submit; but endeavouring to act like reasonable creatures, in both situations, they will not be tumbled from a throne to a stool. (112)

By opening the doorways of the mind, it would be possible for women to have aims other than marriage. If the focus of education were taken away from defining a woman's virtues on the basis of external appearance and placed instead on some internal measure of worth it would be possible for women to cultivate a healthy self. Since, according to Rousseau, public opinion is as important to women as "what she really is" shifting the basis for the measure of virtue to the internal world becomes extremely important.

But vain is the scrupulosity of ignorance, for neither religion nor virtue, when they reside in the heart, require such puerile attention to mere ceremonies, because the behaviour must, upon the whole, be proper, when the motive is pure.(144)

Only once a proper self, free of the cultural requirements of the sex, is created is it possible for a woman, having chosen to marry, able to serve as a true companion to the man. In addition, wives with the gift of reason would make far better mothers than "weak, enervated women" who, according to Wollstonecraft, are unfit to be mothers.

With the arguments set to refute Rousseau firmly in place, let us now shift our attention to Wollstonecraft's wish, hinted at earlier, "to see the distinction of sex confounded in society." The central problem that arises with the self being seen through the cultural definitions of sex is the dichotomy created between woman and human. Is the individual female to strive always to succeed as a woman or to rise above this social construction as a human? Wollstonecraft argues "It is the desire of always being a women that degrades the sex". Because women were always to see themselves in relation to man, it is through their positions as objects of love that women found themselves trapped within the feminine ideal. Wollstonecraft's wish for a "revolution in female manners" becomes the wild hope for a revolution of sexual subjectivity, which will transform gender as a psychological reality as well as a cultural force.

Men are not always men in the company of women, and women would not always be women, if they were allowed to acquire greater understanding.

This quote is a direct reworking of a statement by Rousseau in which he comments on the differences between the sexes. "A male is only a male now and again," he writes, whereas, "the female is always a female…" In accordance with his views of society as the corrupting force of our natural states, Rousseau allows for gender to be mutable for men, but not for women. Therefore, man is allowed to enter freely into culture, while woman is doomed to remain in nature. Through the formation of her arguments, Wollstonecraft uses Rousseau's own insights against him; for, if it is possible for one sex to transcend gender, then it must also be possible for the other. It took just the type of woman that Wollstonecraft describes in her treatise to turn the ideologies of the past upside down.

No doubt, in reading this paper some of the arguments voiced by Wollstonecraft may seem familiar, even trite. It is a testament to the power and originality of her thought that these ideas are known today. The importance of this treatise in promoting awareness of the mistreatment of women is prevalent in the feminist literature of the modern era. In reading her words, it becomes possible to hear the future voice of Simone de Beauvoir. The recognition of the role that sexual subjectivity plays in the divisiveness of the human race is at least part of the legacy that Mary Wollstonecraft has left to us.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.