|Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)|
Works that begin some field of study or movement are sometimes quite different from what works belonging to that field or movement generally are. Development of such fields and movements leads often to some idiosyncracies, which weren't discernible in the seminal works. Thus, it is no wonder that the major work of the supposed founder of feminism May Wollstonecraft, feels often quite alien in its tone, when compared to later feminist works.
The feeling of strangeness is especially prominent, when one thinks about the goal and purpose of the Vindication. Historically, feminism is famous for advocating rights of women. On the contrary, Wollstonecraft's book is less about right and more about duty. True, she does speak for giving women more rights, but she justifies this demand by noticing that more rights would make women more useful in the society – classic argument, hailing all the way from Plato. Furthermore, Wollstonecraft is also willing to accept the possibility that women have even naturally inferior intellectual skills – she just wants to point out that their inferiority is no reason for not developing them.
From these quite non-feminist or even antifeminist principles Wollstonecraft develops more progressive ideas, which often seem quite self-evident these days – or at least, they should seem. Education should be provided to all children – preferably, by communities – and particularly girls should not be left without any intellectual stimulus. Furthermore, girls should be allowed to run and play, because exercise improves physical vigour, which is also required for learning. And last, but not least, women should have an equal status in society with men, they should be able and even demanded to work for their living, and if they happen to marry, they should not be held as mere appendages of their husbands.
Although all these ideas seem so evident to us – and most likely seemed quite radical back in the day – Wollstonecraft's duty-centric viewpoint gives them a peculiar light. Wollstonecraft's starting point is the prevailing picture of women as irrational beings who follow their instinct and fancy and who are governed by sensibility. Wollstonecraft's thesis is that these supposed peculiarities of woman nature are just results of their upbringing – if women are not given anything other to care about than their outward appearance, they won't in the end care about anything else.
What Wollstonecraft shares with the writers she criticizes is the idea that in their current state women simply are inferior – although she is careful to emphasize that this inferiority is not to be blamed on the women or their nature. Wollstonecraft holds the old idea that certain lifestyle, which might be called sensual, has a lower than value than a lifestyle that is supposedly based on reason. In other words, when women think of nothing but making themselves beautiful, Wollstonecraft implies, they are not just wasting their skills, but they are wasting their whole lives and even living badly.
To be fair, Wollstonecraft's criticism is not in any sense gender-specific. Indeed, she is quite willing to condemn men who live in the same manner. In fact, she suggests that both soldiers and nobility often resemble women in their behaviour – soldiers learn to not think and to just look good in their uniforms, while noblemen are spoiled and pampered and therefore fail to become dutiful citizens. Still, it appears quite surprising that Wollstonecraft would go so far in expressing the inferiority of a certain lifestyle, when modern feminism is more about liberating everyone, no matter what their gender, and letting them decide their lifestyles for themselves, without any explicit or implicit pressure to behave in a certain manner. Yet, Wollstonecraft just is a child of her times – after all, the urge to educate humankind to supposedly better lifestyle was quite an established idea, again, at least since the time of Plato.
Wollstonecraft shows her reliance on tradition also in her motives for emphasizing duties. True, she admits, if we would only live this one life, there would be no reason to condemn a life of sensibility and everyone would have the right to increase the amount of pleasures they experience. Indeed, she appears to say, in this case even men would have no reason to let women live up to their potential, because they would get more pleasure out of women in their childlike condition. But, Wollstonecraft points out, this is not the only life we'll live, since God has destined us to another life beyond death. Thus, behind Wollstonecraft's feminism lies a religious mindset.
Even with these peculiarities, Wollstonecraft's work is a milestone in history of thinking. Rarely before this was the state of women considered in such a reasonable fashion, and while the suggested improvements were at first ridiculed, they did eventually lead to positive social developments – what more could we ask of a philosopher?