Published by Penguin Books on 1792
A few months ago, as I wandered around my local indie bookstore in search of one particular book, my eyes alighted upon this slim volume, which is part of the Penguin Great Ideas series. The design is absolutely gorgeous; the image to the left doesn’t do justice to the gently textured paper or the beautiful letterpressed type. It’s a book that I just want to gaze lovingly at and run my fingers over. It also happens to be one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy (written in 1792), and if you’ve hung around BSV for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I’m all about feminist works. I picked up a copy and read it in small bites over the course of a month.
Essentially, Wollstonecraft argues for the education of women. She discusses how women are viewed as inferior and how denying them education MAKES them inferior. If they are encouraged to care only about clothes and social standing, and not to develop their minds, of course they will be stupid, vapid creatures. She writes at length about the various ways women are repressed, enslaved, and kept from developing into humans worthy of having rights. It was interesting to read how women were viewed during Wollstonecraft’s time and compare how things have changed, but also to see which attitudes have remained the same.
She also goes on to argue that:
- Girls should be allowed to be as active as boys are.
- Women should be able to pursue occupations and be represented in government.
- Women must be educated in anatomy and medicine so that they can take good care of their children; many babies are lost to mothers who are taught only old wives tales.
- Both sexes of children should be educated together; only by jostling equally among each other can boys and girls form just opinions of themselves.
I was surprised by how many of the things Wollstonecraft writes about still feel relevant today — primarily how woman’s main concern is looking attractive to men. There is still a startling amount of pressure for women to be thin and pretty, and to act in ways that will please men.
I don’t think I can adequately summarize her many arguments, so I’ll let the author speak for herself and share a few of my favorite passages:
- “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention, and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views beyond the triumph of the hour.”
- “I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority. It is not a condescension to bow to an inferior. So ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles when I see a man start with eager and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.”
- “Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers — in a word, better citizens. We should then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect ourselves; and the peace of mind of a worthy man would not be interrupted by the idle vanity of his wife, nor the babes sent to nestle in a strange bosom, having never found a home in their mother’s.”
- “To render mankind more virtuous, and happier of course, both sexes must act from the same principle; but how can that be expected when only one is allowed to see the reasonableness of it? To render also the social compact truly equitable, and in order to spread those enlightening principles, which alone can ameliorate the fate of man, women must be allowed to found their virtue on knowledge, which is scarcely possible unless they be educated by the same pursuits as men.”
Miss Wollstonecraft is also delightfully cheeky sometimes!
- “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”
- “But fair and softly, gentle reader, male or female, do not alarm thyself, for though I have compared the character of a modern soldier with that of a civilized woman, I am not going to advise them to turn their distaff into a musket, though I sincerely wish to see the bayonet converted into a pruning-hook.”
This book occasionally felt a little tedious because of the old-fashioned language — think verrry long sentences — but the ideas Wollstonecraft puts forth are fascinating. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in feminist theory and the history of feminism!
This is the sixth book I’ve read for the Classics Club.