Victor Nuovo: Wollstonecraft and the Rights of Women

I begin this essay with a brief biography of Mary Wollstonecraft for the benefit of readers who don’t know her. She was born on April 27, 1759, in London, where she also died, on September 10, 1797, aged 38. She was the second of seven children. Her family was financially comfortable. However, her father was a spendthrift, a drunk, and a wife-beater; his bad habits meant that she received no formal education and no inheritance.
Early in life she left home to make her own way in the world as a single mother. Her considerable intelligence, ingenuity, love of learning, passion for truth and the good fortune of finding kindred spirits who shared her passions were more than sufficient to enable her to succeed. She was a strong and well-endowed woman.
She had two children, one illegitimate, the other by marriage. She died of septicemia, following the birth of her second child, a daughter, who was given her name. By the time of her death, she had already achieved lasting literary fame. The second Mary Wollstonecraft, better known as Mary Shelley, wife of the poet, was also a prolific and celebrated author, creator of the character, Frankenstein.
Wollstonecraft wrote “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” in 1792. She was prompted by a proposal presented to the French National Assembly, the revolutionary legislative body, to establish universal education. She applauded this action, but was disappointed by it because the members of the assembly assumed the proper place for women was in the home, their chief activities domestic, and that they should be educated accordingly. She wrote her second Vindication to set them straight (the first being “A Vindication of the Rights of Men,” which I wrote about last week.)
She argues that all social differences of class and gender are determined by culture rather than nature, and accordingly they may be changed and their effects reversed by education. The standard to which these differences should be judged is the principle that all human beings are born free and equal, and that this right is inalienable and inviolable.
No system of laws, which is not founded on this principle, is just, nor is it rational, she maintained. It is because of this principle that she condemns slavery and the common prejudice that the proper role of a woman is to be a dutiful wife, subject to the desires of her husband. This latter provision was codified in the Book of Common Prayer, the official liturgy of the Church of England—first published in 1549. It was not revised until 2000.
Wollstonecraft was born and bred in the Church of England and was familiar with its conventions and their effects, which she came to regard as hateful. Not surprisingly, she had little use for organized religion. She described Catholicism, as practiced in the Church of Rome and the Church of England, as “a puppet-show” conducted by male puppet-masters.
Nevertheless, these cultural differences have real effects. Servants born into servitude become servile; and wives, who from earliest childhood have been taught to be attractive to men and to please their husbands and men in general, accommodate themselves to their prescribed roles by becoming dutiful, as well as mistresses of the art of coquetry. She was offended by all of this, and following Rousseau, came to regard civilization as a system of artifices whose effect is slavery.
However, like Condorcet, she believed that these hateful practices could be changed, and the instrument of achieving this change was universal education. In this respect, Wollstonecraft’s second Vindication is misnamed, for the system of education she prescribes is designed not only for women but for men also. Here too she follows Rousseau in regarding education as a primary means to create human equality. Women should be raised to regard themselves as free rational agents, and men likewise, if they would put aside male pastimes of sportsmanship, hunting, drinking parties and gambling, and become enthralled by the higher intellectual pleasures, which they could share with women.
The goal of education is individual independence for all women and men, which requires a sound mind in a sound body. And the proper institution for this to take place is neither the home nor the private school. She proposed a “national system of education,” a government-funded and professionally regulated system of public education, consisting of coeducational day schools that make no class distinctions in their admissions and that were open to all.
She opposed home schooling because it deprives the child of the company of children, confining them to the company of adults and subjecting them to the often-selfish whims of their parents. She opposed boarding schools because their strict and often cruel practices only set a child’s mind on vacations.
She also worried that parental love is more often than not prejudicial to a child’s best interest. “Parents often love their children in the most brutal manner, and sacrifice every relative duty to promote their advancement in the world,” she wrote. Parents seek not enlightenment for their children, but power, privilege and the vulgarity of wealth, she wrote.
For much the same reason, Wollstonecraft opposed elite schools, for they violated the culture of equality by their very exclusivity. This is a sobering thought for liberals in the United States because our system of higher education is overburdened with private elite institutions, which seem more interested in marketing themselves than in promoting the search for truth, which is the very essence of higher education. Moreover, their competitiveness inflates the cost of education, and increases student debt.
Wollstonecraft envisioned education as the heart and soul of a civil society. Next to this she desired a redistribution of wealth, which would provide everyone with the means to support themselves and their families.
In a subsequent work, concerning the French Revolution, she condemned the “vulgar error that civilization can only go so far as it has hitherto gone” and then revert to barbarism; this, she is sure, would be true only if elitism were to prevail and only if “hereditary riches support hereditary rank.”
“But when courts and primogeniture are done away, what is to prevent each generation from retaining the vigor of youth,” she asked. “What can weaken the body or mind when the great majority of society must exercise both to earn a subsistence and acquire respectability?”
Postscript: Among the kindred spirits who gave Wollstonecraft counsel was Samuel Johnson (1709–84), the great literary scholar. This is noteworthy, for Johnson was a staunch conservative. They met not long before his death, and Johnson was so pleased by her conversation that he invited her back. They shared some common convictions, among them, a dim view of the American Revolution. She also shared with him a profound moral pessimism, notwithstanding her espousal of the idea of progress. I will return to that theme in the next essay.

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