Monday, February 4, 2013

1: A Vindication of the Rights of Women - Mary Wollstonecraft

"The neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers...civilized women, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect."

This was written in 1794 people! You may, like me, remember "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" as a short essay tucked away on a few tissuethinpages in a giant anthology (and despite what Sharpie pens say - all pens bleed through those pages!) You probably remember thinking, Dang, this shit makes sense, and it was exactly that sentiment as well as the shortness that made me stick it on my Master's Reading List. The joke is on me because it was actually a 280-page essay. (It turned out that the joke really was on me since I am only required to read "Selections" but I would have preferred to read the whole thing even if I had known that because I am a nerd.)
The most startling/interesting/heartbreaking thing about the essay is how much has NOT changed in the past 200+ years. MW tackles a variety of feminist issues and they are all being discussed to some extent in feminist and non-feminist circles today.Pretty 

  • Power/Privilege/Consequences: While pretty privilege is more modern than MW, she brings up many times how damaging pretty power is. Women are taught that their value lies in prettiness and marriageability, so they cultivate those skills. This leads to them being chosen by mates for these things as well as an incredibly vanity that needs to be stroked. No long-term marriage can keep up the pace to feed their egos, so their eyes start to stray. On the flip side, men have been taught to value this prettiness, and no woman can keep up the novelty of new prettiness, so their eyes start to stray. MW believes that as people are marrying for looks and money rather than personality and values, they have no respect for each other as people, are all off bonking the neighbors, and the family unit is degenerating which is good for no one. Hm. 
  • Pretty Power Is The Only Power: Because prettiness is the only tool women have to wield, they use it extensively to manipulate men to get what they want. (I have to say, as a teacher of teenage girls, I definitely see them using this with their classmates, family, and sometimes even adults. Pathetically, I also see their classmates, family, and sometimes even adults fall for it. What will happen to them when they are old and ugly and saggy like the rest of us?)
  • Nature vs. Nurture: Are women not being educated because they're less intelligent or are they less intelligent because they're not being educated? She believes in equal non-segregated schooling for the early years and then a separation in the later years where young ladies and men do NOT get the same education - that was a bummer, but for 1794 I'll still take it as a win.
  • Power/Respect Demanded for No Reason: This essay is about far more than gender equality which is probably surprising for anyone who has only read the excerpts. MW has quite a lot to say about the assumption that people should have power/respect and how that is a terrible idea (ie: royalty, inherited titles, military leadership, parents over children, etc). I particularly like how she points out that if we raise children to obey parents unquestioningly "because they said so" then we are raising a generation of idiots who will obey anything.
  • Breastfeeding: No joke, she has lots to say about this. She is very pro-breastfeeding (and no, a wetnurse will just not do, as wetnurses were formula before there was formula). I was *just* discussing breastfeeding in the lesbian mom community with a friend and apparently, while everyone agrees "Breast Is Best" there are still plenty of women who are opting out. MW is judging you ladies (I am not - I leave the judgeypants to the people who are actually parents)

 The only problem with this essay is that it is 280 pages long, which would be fine if she had 280 pages worth of unique things to say. Unfortunately, many points are reiterated over and over again in different ways with different examples. It was written in a rush of emotion in response to some other political essays of the day and printed almost immediately, and it has been passed down to us in much the same format, but it really could have used some editing and tightening up of ideas and organization. I don't know that I would have read the whole thing without feeling that I *needed* to, but it is definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in gender equality, gender studies, or feminism, because it really and truly starts here. (The Oxford World's Classics edition is lovely and highly recommended. It also comes with A Vindication of the Rights of Men, an essay she wrote first which I look forward to reading/skimming when I have time.)

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