Reading Mary Wollstonecraft

I’m reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although often addressing the concept of reason, the essay frequently resorts to religion, which I suppose is to be expected for a document written in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft, widely regarded as a founder of feminism, still displays many of the biases of an upper-class person at the center of the dominant empire of the day. However, I still found many of Wollstonecraft’s pronouncements compelling.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, c. 1797

For example, I very much appreciated the following comments on education:

To prevent any misconstruction, I must add, that I do not believe that a private education can work the wonders which some sanguine writers have attributed to it. Men and women must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in. In every age there has been a stream of popular opinion that has carried all before it, and given a family character, as it were, to the century. It may then fairly be inferred, that, till society be differently constituted, much cannot be expected from education.… Consequently, the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as well render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was Rousseau’s opinion respecting men; I extend it to women, and confidently assert that they have been drawn out of their sphere by false refinement, and not by an endeavor to acquire masculine qualities.

Perceiving the “stream of popular opinion” that biases the education of a given era is much easier when one lives during another time. Reading Wollstonecraft causes me wonder what biases of my own education I am not able to perceive. Which catechisms do I feel obliged to insert in my writing to make it acceptable to the palate of my present–day readers?

I also appreciated Wollstonecraft’s comments on love, friendship, and marriage:

Love, from it’s very nature, must be transitory. To seek for a secret that would render it constant, would be as wild a search as for the philosopher’s stone, or the grand panacea; and the discovery would be equally useless, or rather pernicious, to mankind. The most holy band of society is friendship. It has been well said, by a shrewd satirist, ‘that rare as true love is, true friendship is still rarer’.

This is an obvious truth, and, the cause not lying deep, will not elude a slight glance of inquiry.

Love, the common passion, in which chance and sensation take place of choice and reason, is, in some degree, felt by the mass of mankind; for it is not necessary to speak, at present, of the emotions that rise above or sink below love. This passion, naturally increased by suspense and difficulties, draws the mind out of its accustomed state, and exalts the affections; but the security of marriage allowing the fever of love to subside, a healthy temperature is thought insipid only by those who have not sufficient intellect to substitute the calm tenderness of friendship, the confidence of respect, instead of blind admiration, and the sensual emotions of fondness.

This is, must be, the course of nature. Friendship or indifference inevitably succeeds love.…

In my experience, friendship may succeed love, which gives me hope for the fulfillment in a long–term marriage.

Wollstonecraft displays some understanding of the folly and destruction wrought by the upper classes in the following passage:

Birth, riches, and every extrinsic advantage that exalt a man above his fellows, without any mental exertion, sink him in reality below them. In proportion to this weakness, he is played upon by designing men, till the bloated monster has lost all traces of humanity. And that tribes of men, like flocks of sheep, should quietly follow such a leader, is a solecism that only a desire of present enjoyment and narrowness of understanding can solve. Educated in slavish dependence, and enervated by luxury and sloth, where shall we find men who will stand forth to assert the rights of man, or claim the privilege of moral beings, who should have but one road to excellence? Slavery to monarchs in ministers, which the world will be long in freeing itself from, and whose deadly grasp stops the progress of the human mind, is not yet abolished.

Let not men then in the pride of power, use the same arguments that tyrannic kings and venal ministers have used, and fallaciously assert that women ought to be subjected because she has always been so. But, when man, governed by reasonable laws, enjoys his natural freedom, let him despise woman, if she do not share it with him; and, till that glorious period arrives, in descanting on the folly of the sex, let him not overlook his own.

Words of this 18th-century prophet bring to mind the folly, the excesses, and the destructive force of the Trumps and the Musks, the deranged politicos and the disconnected billionaire class, seemingly focused on the subjugation not only of women but of labor, the working and middle classes, disabled, and queer folk, and on the destruction of the environment, resting their hopes on escape to their gated communities, on their underground shelters, or on terraforming other planets.