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In Mary Wollstonecraft's words: What do women (citizens) want?



The concept of citizenship as it has evolved historically has always suffered from the phenomenon of incompleteness. This is because citizenship since the earliest times (like from those of Aristotle) by ‘otherising’ someone (be it slaves, blacks etc. or as in Indian case- dalits, shudras etc.) has been limited to a privileged few. ‘Woman’ remains a common identity across cultures and societies when it comes to discrimination and denial of equal rights. Yet against all odds they have strived to voice their opinions and present their perspectives on what rights should women have in order to become equal citizens in society.

One of the prominent explorations of the feminist notion of citizenship can be discovered in Mary Wollstonecraft’s essays from her book ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’. Mary Wollstonecraft born on 27th April 1759 wrote this book in 1792 and this work of hers is considered as one of the, earliest and still most prominent works done exclusively on women’s rights.   


Revolutionary Times of Eighteenth Century, not so much for Women

The eighteenth century was an important one as it witnessed two of the history’s very important political events, the American and the French Revolutions. Both of these were assertions for rights and liberties for the common people and the replacement of the arbitrary governance with the rule of law. The language of civil rights was developed by thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and was still being developed constantly by many others.

However it is interesting to see how Rousseau who figures prominently in discussion about civil rights and liberties, was torn to pieces by Mary Wollstonecraft, particularly for his views on women. Wollstonecraft was no doubt concerned about the rights of the women, hence the title of her book, but more importantly she located women’s rights in the larger framework of human rights in general.

In a letter to M. Talleyrand- Perigord, Late Bishop of Autun, she writes “… to wish to see woman placed in a station in which she would advance, instead of retarding, the progress of those glorious principles that give a substance to morality”. Wollstonecraft held the virtues and morality as important principles and wished to uphold them in equality for both the sexes however she wished to do so, on the basis of exercise of reason, especially for women.

Equality and Education for Women

Whilst contending for rights of women Wollstonecraft simply demanded that the truth to be attained by the pursuit of knowledge and virtue must be common to all or else it will be ineffective as a general principle. She suggested for the attainment of these virtues by women on the basis of their reason but lamented the fact that the then education system shut them out from any such exercise.

She asserts that any logic that guarantees men their rights, would also hold true for women however again it was the current system of prescription for women that took away this reasoning from them. She writes “who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him of the gift of reason”.  She further adds that men by denying women their political and civil rights act just like the tyrants whom they themselves oppose in demanding rights of their own.

In an interesting analogy drawn between women and the army men she suggests that just like the men in the army, women are also trained to abandon any habit of exercising reason and take up blind obedience to customs prescribed for them. She writes that reason is the simple power of improvement; of discerning truth, however women in her opinion are denied this right by training them to take things on a prescribed version of truth rather their own. Such practice has rendered many women as only objects of adoration and not as intellectual beings.

According to her, knowledge is the ability of generalising ideas and drawing comprehensive conclusions based on individual observations. This power however has not only been denied to women but some writers have deemed it inconsistent with female character. Wollstonecraft detests such views as she adds that only necessity leads to cultivation of reason, virtue and knowledge, and since women are so habituated to being the creatures of pleasure they are in a sense denied any opportunity to develop the aforementioned faculties. Thus she not only demands equality with respect to rights, but also in terms of treatment meted out to them as well as their duties, which according to her are the basis of development of virtue.

Critiquing Rousseau

Following up on our earlier mention of Rousseau it is important to note what Wollstonecraft specifically took objection to in his writings with respect to women and how his views contributed to a continued deterioration of women’s rights in society.

In the ‘The Rights of Woman’, she quotes precise passages to highlight the prejudices carried by Rousseau and some other thinkers regarding women. She criticizes the ideals that are set by him for women such as ‘amiability’, ‘obedience’, and ‘agreeability’ etc. She suggests that all these virtues contribute to women’s lack of reasoning and their vulnerability to insults and condemnations. She goes on to reprimand Rousseau for suggesting any common ends to the lives of men and women when he has constantly denied any right to women to expand their minds in the first place.

With respect to religion, Rousseau writes “as authority ought to regulate the religion of the women, it is not needful to explain to them the reasons for their belief, as to lay down precisely the tenets they are to believe”. Thus, Wollstonecraft asserts, that the rights of humanity have been confined to the male line from Adam downwards.

What do Women Citizens want?

The picture of women’s rights was substantially different in the eighteenth century from the later centuries, especially the twentieth century. Women, [from England], had to deal with many prejudices in the sphere of family, religion, society and governance. Wollstonecraft in this work has addressed all these spheres while demanding greater choice and autonomy to women in each of them.

Religion: Wollstonecraft as already mentioned before, strongly disagreed with Rousseau’s views regarding religion which denied any introspection on their part into religious tenets. She asks women to question the authority of the priests who prescribe religion for women. In doing so she appeals to their scientific temperament and makes a case for understanding the human health and anatomy to avoid any misleading through religion.

Literature: Another aspect of society that she attacks was the limited education and literature available for women. They are denied serious studies as they are denied any participation in the serious business of the society. She deems these women who have been denied proper choice as merely “overgrown children”. She appeals to women to read superior texts rather than the romantic novels. She suggests that the correct method of reading literature is by critiquing it on the basis of sound reasoning thus inculcating better logic instead of vague romantic sentiments.

Stigma of ‘Sensibility’: Wollstonecraft asserts that in the society women are considered as beings of sensibility and generosity rather than sense. However she holds that this notion only contributes to their ignorance for “how can women be just or generous, when they are the slaves of injustice”.

Family: For development of family as a better institution, Wollstonecraft advocates for more equality. She writes “till more equality be established in society, till ranks are confounded and women freed, neither shall we see that dignified domestic happiness,… Nor will the important task of education ever be properly begun till the person of a woman is no longer preferred to her mind”. Thus according to her, until women are given more autonomy, family as an institution would not be all that it is hoped to be, for only a woman with a fair sense of justice and reasoning could provide sound education and values to her family.

Economic Independence: Wollstonecraft asserts that economic independence is very important for women as it not only leads to self reliance but also more responsible society. Woman according to her “is defrauded of her just reward, for the wages due to her are the caresses of her husband”. Thus the prescribed confinement of woman to her home to take care of the family results in not rewarding woman for her work and thus she remains dependent on the male members of her family and society for subsistence. This dependence according to Wollstonecraft is not natural but engineered in society.

Governance: Most importantly the spheres of civil society and political representation have been the one that have denied full participation to the female members of the society. Wollstonecraft asserts that the denial to political and civil rights to women is on account of them being seen as creatures of pleasure. This in turn has resulted in their political and civil oppression as they have not been encouraged to develop their understanding and reason. She questions the efficacy of the government that remains unmindful of the happiness of one half of the members of the society by denying them the right to be independent and fill respectable stations. Furthermore she also demands for political participation in terms of representatives and governance. “I really think that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government” she adds.

Mary Wollstonecraft- a Trailblazer

Mary Wollstonecraft one of the earliest feminist scholars through her work “Rights of Woman” gives an excellent account of an artificial suppression of women, and its effects. She questions the basic arguments of the society that deems women as inferior to men. She suggests that any inferiority that exists is precisely due to the prescription of station to women from the society. This station as it existed, denied proper education, economic independence, equal rights, duties and intellectual engagements to women, which in turn rendered them cattish, subservient and docile.
Moreover religion in her opinion also denied any opportunity to women to exercise their minds and promoted blind allegiance to faith. Such conditions for women, she claimed were inconsistent with the cherished libertine ideals of rights, equality and liberty.
A major factor in this state of affairs was the form of education that was prevalent. She not only wanted more outwardly engagement of women but also more domestication of men. She upheld virtues of chastity and morality as much for men as for women. As she writes “Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated”.
Wollstonecraft was a champion of women’s equality with men. She based her arguments on reason and understanding. But what is of more significance is the fact that she deemed a citizenship that was unmindful of the female citizens as incomplete. The half of the humanity she suggested must be emancipated and removed from the state of slavery that it has existed in. At the same time she constantly appeals to the women of her times to assert themselves more in the intellectual sphere, rather than frivolously indulging in the useless trivialities of life. She wants a complete revolution of the female station in society to make them responsible, dutiful and intelligent citizens of the world. Such a revolution can only be brought about by marriages of equality, independent intelligent women and sensible and sensitive men in society.

-Sumit

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