The Transcendental Arguments Of Mary Wollstonecraft

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Writing at a time the French Revolution was shaking France and Europe in general; Mary Wollstonecraft borrowed the ideals of this revolution and incorporated it in the struggle for the advancement of the role and position of women in the society. At the time of its publication in 1792, the reception of the book A Vindication of the Rights of Women was mixed. Of course, for the radicals the ideas discussed in the book were helpful in striving for an egalitarian society. For the general public, however, and the government in particular, the work was generally perceived as anti-establishment, as it should be, and the attacks of Wollstonecraft on how women virtues are developed in the family, the institution of marriage, the educational system, and most importantly, religion led to her work being banned in most of Europe, especially in Spain. While the reception of Wollstonecraft’s book in the 18th century was generally negative, the contemporary reception of the book has been positive especially after it became evident that the arguments of Wollstonecraft are as relevant at present as these were during her time. This may sound negative as this only means that after more than 200 years since the publications of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the issues raised by Wollstonecraft have remained unaddressed and that rather than, arouse and unify women to overthrow the establishments that have subjugated them in the society, the years following the publication of the book have only seen deeper division among women especially with regard to those feminist thinkers who thread the line of reasoning of male thinkers such as Fanny Burney (Straub 48).

Among those camps that received the ideas of Wollstonecraft is the postmodernist group. Matilde Martin Gonzales, in her work Mary Wollstonecraft and the Vindication of the Rights of Women”: Postmodern Feminism vs. Masculine Enlightenment, claimed that the continuing relevance of the ideas of Wollstonecraft is the reason why her arguments are well received by postmodernists. Postmodernism, or more specifically postmodernist feminism, posits that the norms and universal principles constructed during the period of modernity have only subjugated women. Postmodern feminists argue that the period of modernity was supposed to enlighten individuals with regard to their human rights and the value of individual dignity. One aspect of the period of modernity is liberal humanism or the belief in the creative potential of individuals, which was advanced by the likes of Jean Jacques Rousseau and Rene Descartes (Todorov 114). However, they noted that liberal humanism only facilitated the flourishing of ideals of men, not both men and women. While a number of men became pioneers and prominent figures in various fields such as philosophy, mathematics and physics, women were generally restricted in the private sphere of life. If there are a handful of women who were able to create a name for their selves by virtue of their intellectual capacity, they were labelled as aberration and their feats were largely considered as a product of being masculine as critical and logical thinking or any ability associated with reason were considered as the monopoly of men. Mary Wollstonecraft was also a victim of this ascription as evidenced by the negative reception of her book. For the postmodernists, therefore, the goal is to overthrow the universal principles espoused in modernism as these only subvert the unique individual experiences of women. An example of modernist universal principles is the dichotomy of man-women, masculinity-feminity, and public-private. Instead of having universal principles, there has to be a multiplicity of truths that are relative as each is based on experience (Hekman 68).

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However, a close reading of the ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft will reveal that she appears to be advancing universal principles rather than a recognition of the value of the individual experiences of women. Her arguments are apparently premised on the identified similarity across the experiences of women rather than the unique experiences of each. For this reason, it appears that the assertion of Gonzales that the ideas of Wollstonecraft are helpful to the postmodernists is misdirected. A close reading of A Vindication of the Rights of Women could lead to the inference that Wollstonecraft still operates within the province of modernism.

The first argument of Gonzales that Wollstonecraft was already threading a postmodernist line of reasoning despite the fact that postmodernism was not yet around at the time of her writing is that she questioned the existing social order during her time that discards the potentials and actual capabilities of women as human beings (178). While this is true, the underlying reasons of Wollstonecraft and the postmodernist beyond this assertion differ. The latter would question a male-dominated society and its disregard for women based on the premise that there only exists a single narrative to judge all the conditions of both men and women despite the possible peculiarities of each experience. This single narrative is patriarchal as opposed to the postmodernist assertion that there have to be multiple narratives with each being capable of serving as justifications for the assertion of equality between genders. On the contrary, Wollstonecraft grounded her critique of the social order on the basis of lack of education (Chapter 2, para.16). The emergence of a single narrative, which is the narrative that reason is the sole province of men that is the basis for the critique of the postmodernists as explained by Gonzales, is only a symptom of a problem. For Wollstonecraft, it can be inferred that this problem is the lack of appropriate education for women where the exercise of reason will be developed and nurtured. Wollstonecraft argued that because of their lack of education, women became limited in their intellectual pursuits and contented themselves with pursuing things that would make them pleasing to the eyes of men (Chapter 5, para.11). This thinking, which was a product of the lack of education of women, only reinforces the single narrative of male dominance.

As can be noted from the literature, the need to be educated is a hallmark of the Enlightenment. Individuals began using reason and freed themselves from superstitions and heavy reliance on religion in their pursuit of attaining explanation for everything during the pre-modern era. By emphasizing the need for education and without advancing an alternative means to liberate women from the bonds of intellectual servitude, it is evident that Wollstonecraft still operates within the modernist school of thought. It can be said that she merely intended to alter how modernist thinking perceive of women and the need for their enlightenment and consequent emancipation but it can hardly be shown that Wollstonecraft was seeking a new way of thinking that will replace modernism.

In addition, Gonzales also maintained that Wollstonecraft charged some feminist thinkers of “indirect compliance with the very system that oppresses them”, citing the likes of Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Carter and Hannah More (Gonzales 178). It is true that Wollstonecraft did mention this claim but it can be argued that Wollstonecraft was motivated by a political reason rather than to merely demonstrate that her fellow thinkers “willingly adopted and accepted masculine discourses on women’s spiritual and intellectual inferiority” (178) that Gonzales is claiming. On the contrary, the expression of Wollstonecraft of this claim can be said to be a strategy to circumvent the likely way of thinking of her male readers. The approach was to give concession to men that women were also at fault for their subjugated state. Then, having made this concession, Wollstonecraft would then lead male readers to the fact that if not for the situational constraints of the male-dominated society, women would not have been guilty of “abandoning their own ranks”. For instance, thinkers in the likes of Burney and More may have threaded the masculine reasoning as there was simply no other means for women’s inclusion in the intellectual circle other than adopting a masculine perspective. These female writers might have thought that it is a necessary compromise to abandon a genuine line of feminist thinking in favour of inclusion. Not doing so would be of greater cost to women and their emancipation. At least, by compromising their perspective, Burney and others were able to penetrate a network that was previously excusive to men and these allowed them to demonstrate that women, like men, are also capable of intellectual sophistication.

By giving concession, Wollstonecraft can be said to have been able to lead male readers to the realization that the patriarchal system caused the struggle of women thinkers and women in general. With liberal humanism at full swing in the late 18th century, this could lead to some male readers sympathizing with women. If not for the concession Wollstonecraft gave that Gonzales claimed as “indirect compliance with the very system that oppresses” women, the book could have easily been rejected by men. It is evident that Wollstonecraft that liberal humanism was at the back of her head when she was claiming that some women betrayed the cause of genuine women emancipation in order to win some male readers.

The other points raised by Gonzales about the ideas of Wollstonecraft are valid. Foremost of this is the claim that Wollstonecraft should be credited as the first thinker to use gender as a category of analysis. Gonzales is right in saying that this approach disenabled the patriarchal imposition of seeing women as subjectively and rationally weak. By differentiating between genders, Wollstonecraft was able to demonstrate that the conditions of women were a result of the deprivations inflicted by men, not by their own nature. It is inappropriate to say that women are incapable of participating in public affairs simply because they are highly emotional and public affairs require rational thinking. Wollstonecraft countered this assertion by saying that if there is only an educational system that allows women to exercise reason, they would have been able to control their emotions and become capable in participating in state affairs. By using gender, Wollstonecraft was able to expose that the limitations of women are not natural and are merely a result of the deprivations inflicted by men.

Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women can be said to be a treatise on how to achieve women emancipation without supplanting the modernist society that the author was in. This is because Wollstonecraft did not advocate for the superiority of women over men but merely equality between the two genders. What she merely wanted is for the society to provide women the same level and quality of education as men so that they will be able to develop the ability to exercise reason and actively participate in societal advancements. This makes Wollstonecraft a reformer, not a radical thinker contrary to what radical feminists claim her to be. The radicalness of her ideas was induced mainly because it was radical in the context of her time. If feminist thought is analysed, the gender equality that Wollstonecraft advocated is a liberal thought. On the contrary, radical feminists would advocate for the withering of the social construction of gender itself (Crow 99). As a whole, it can be inferred that the goal of A Vindication of the Rights of Women is to arouse and mobilize both men and women in establishing a new society that sees gender not as an impediment to advancements but as a biological difference that becomes moot when the ability to exercise reason is raised.

A potent explanation can be advanced for why Wollstonecraft can be aptly labelled as a reformer rather than a radical thinker based on her ideas in A Vindication of the Rights of Women and for why it is highly possible that the reason for her giving concession to her male readers was her strategy to arouse both men and women in establishing a gender-neutral society. This pertains to the fact that because women lack education that could allow them to exercise reason, they became impotent mothers. By being ineffective mothers, their children also suffers and therefore, men—being children at some point in their lives—were also victims of the patriarchal society much like their mothers (Chapter 4, para.66). Therefore, it can be said that for Wollstonecraft men should not be marginalized in the struggle of women for their own emancipation. The emancipation of women is also an emancipation of their future sons and the emancipation of the future wives and daughters of their sons. For this reason, a radical reform is no longer necessary as the provision of quality education for women can already reform the individuals. Moreover, if individuals are reformed, the structures built by men to oppress women can also be altered.

Inasmuch as Wollstonecraft might have wanted to also mobilize men for the emancipation of women, she also did not fail in showing how the system had corrupted men that they already became irrational. It must be recalled that irrationality, defined as the dominance of emotion over logical thinking, is the main reason why women should be denied education granted to men and should rather focus on fulfilling their traditional roles such as those enumerated by Rousseau in Emile (Weiss 88). Using various examples, Wollstonecraft demonstrated that men, probably because of their pursuit of greater power and wealth and further intent to subjugate women so they can remain their loyal servants, in fact might be more irrational than women. This greater irrationality of men is induced from the observation of Wollstonecraft that men already received education and yet, they only used it for the advancement of their own selfish interests which is against reason that tells that individuals should give primordial importance to what is best to the society. This emphasis on the importance of collective stability had been used by men in resisting the need to educate women. Wollstonecraft believed that such contention is grounded on the fear that educating women would disrupt the status quo. Wollstonecraft agreed that educating women would be disruptive but for the betterment of the society as women can now contribute, together with men, to the advancement of society. Yet, this same argument on the importance of collective welfare is being discarded by men in pursuing their interests. Thus, men became more irrational than women.

However, there are only two arguments of Wollstonecraft that I see as setbacks for the emancipation project of women. The first one is her belief that having an educated woman would attract men and therefore, those left behind by their husband in favour of those who are educated should also educate their selves. The second one is her ambiguous assertion that “women are, in general, too familiar with each other, which leads to that gross degree of familiarity that so frequently renders the marriage state unhappy (Chapter 7, para.24). For the first criticism, it appears that Wollstonecraft is also saying that the emancipation of women through education remains dependent on men as women would be forced to educated themselves because of fear being left by their husbands in favour of educated women. Wollstonecraft explained that “o But sense will always preponderate; and if women be not, in general, brought more on a level with men, some superiour women, like the Greek courtezans, will assemble the men of abilities around them, and draw from their families many citizens, who would have stayed at home had their wives more sense” (Chapter 12, para.73). This appears a step back from the arguments of Wollstonecraft that women are naturally capable of logical reasoning. In this scenario, Wollstonecraft showed that women are really slaves of men and that their desire for education is motivated by emotion (fear of being left by their husbands) rather than by the logical conclusion that they do need education to contribute meaningfully to the society. One can say that this claim of Wollstonecraft could be another concession of the author to appease her male readers but unlike the compromise of Burney and other feminist thinkers just to enter the intellectual circle, this claim of Wollstonecraft of women being forced to be educated for fear of being left alone can be hardly said to be strategic concession.

The second criticism may also affect the perception of women and their ability to achieve genuine emancipation. Wollstonecraft stated that women gather to discuss the unhappy state of their marriage but the author failed to clarify what is this unhappy state. This state of unhappiness is open to various speculations. One possible speculation is that women were unhappy because they fail to appease their husbands. If this is what Wollstonecraft intended to imply then it might not help the cause of women emancipation as this shows women were still unable to discern that they are being victimized by the system. Them being unhappy is not a result of their failures to fulfil their traditional roles. Rather, they are unhappy because they think that could have done more other than being wives and mothers but they are unable to do so because their marriage functions as a tool for their own enslavement.

Except for the two criticisms on the arguments of Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, this work is generally enlightening and empowering for men. It shows that the fear of men that giving women the right to be educated will disrupt society is unfounded. On the contrary, educating women would make society more prosperous as the entirety of its members would now be able to contribute meaningfully to its development not just men. The discussion on the arguments of Wollstonecraft as providing general principles and her emphasis on the role of education in emancipating women qualifies him as a modernist, contrary to what Matilde Martin Gonzales claimed. The author did not pay attention to the peculiarities of the individual experiences of women but rather on the commonality of their experience and struggle.         


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