An 18th Century Canon for the #MeToo Era

As more and more women speak out about humiliating incidents of sexual harassment in their lives at the workplace and outside it, and as employers are still trying to devise the best ways of dealing with the problem, I was wondering if the problem isn’t a deeper one. A problem that perhaps goes beyond the usual causes attributed such as misogyny and patriarchy.

I have written in a previous post (Of Chiaroscuro and the Myths we Live by) about male domination being as old as the land and about us living according to myths and stories that have been passed on to us over generations. While writing that post, I was reminded of an extraordinary book by an equally remarkable woman that I happened to read recently, even though it had been on my reading list for several years.

woman sitting on grey concrete pavement reading book
Photo by George Dolgikh on

I am referring to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, writer and philosopher, written in 1792. Those who have read it will agree with me that it is a book that was remarkable for the times it was written in and continues to be relevant even today. And those who haven’t yet read it, I urge you to please put it down as the next book on your reading list. If you manage to read it before the New Year, you might even be looking at next year with fresh eyes and that would be a reward in itself.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born the second child of seven, in 1759 to parents who were reasonably well-off in England. Her grandfather ran a successful weaving business and her father tried to become a gentleman farmer, unfortunately mismanaging the business and the family’s finances, though, so they fell on hard times. Her first brush with male domination came at an early age with her mother always favouring her eldest brother over her and he later inherited most of her grandfather’s wealth.

Reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, you sense her strong and passionate views on the raising and education of girls on every page. Her views are awe-inspiring and the language incandescent. When you consider that she had a somewhat indifferent and intermittent education herself, the substance of her writings is even more remarkable. Of course, she read well and so was knowledgeable on matters of politics, philosophy and literature.

Mary Wollstonecraft – image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of the book lies her main argument – and it is a bone that she dares to pick with Jean Jacques Rousseau – that women ought to be educated as well as men and with an aim to continue to exercise their minds and not with a view to get married and live a life of pretty fancies or coquetry. She takes on Rousseau’s theories on education as pronounced in Emile and picks them apart one by one.

“I will allow that bodily strength seems to give man a natural superiority over woman; and this is the only solid basis on which the superiority of the sex can be built. But I still insist, that not only the virtue but the knowledge of the two sexes should be the same in nature, if not in degree, and that women considered not only as moral, but rational creatures, ought to endeavour to acquire human virtues (or perfections) by the same means as men instead of being educated like a fanciful half being – one of Rousseau’s wild chimeras.” (the italics are the author’s)

Just when everyone in Europe is quite taken by Rousseau’s views on education, thinking they indicated progress, Mary Wollstonecraft comes along and by sheer dint of argument and fierce intellect, she demands to know why women should receive education only to be ultimately submissive to men and do as they command. Rousseau’s ideals of education start crumbling, unable to withstand the onslaught and weight of her arguments.

“The fondness for dress, conspicuous in women, may be easily discounted for, without supposing it the result of a desire to please the sex on which they are dependent. The absurdity, in short, of supposing that a girl is naturally a coquette, and that a desire connected with the impulse of nature to propagate the species, should appear even before an improper education has, by heating the imagination, called it forth prematurely, is so unphilosophical that such a sagacious observer as Rousseau would not have adopted it, if he had not been accustomed to make reason give way to his desire of singularity, and truth to a favourite paradox.”

Mary Wollstonecraft actually had to leave home when she was just 19 and had to take up various jobs, as companion to a lady and then as governess. Jobs she didn’t particularly fancy but she found herself in a situation where she had to nurse her mother through a fatal illness. Later she had to provide for herself, her sister Eliza who had been through a bad marriage, her close friend Fanny Blood and Fanny’s sister and so she started a school in the progressive Dissenting community of Newington Green. The Dissenters were a group of people who believed in combining reason with faith.

All this must have been rather overwhelming for a young girl, particularly in the time that she lived. Not for Mary. You can see where she gets her strong views on education and the raising of daughters from. In fact she writes and publishes her first book Thoughts on the Education of Daughters in 1787. The next year, Mary Wollstonecraft goes on to work for a publication in London called the Analytical Review, published by the radical, Joseph Johnson. There she worked as editorial assistant, writer and reviewer.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft doesn’t just argue for women to be educated. She asks for them to be educated the same as men; so a focus on the sciences too is a must. She believes that women of the genteel classes particularly let their daughters down when they don’t give them the right kind of education. Education that is sustenance for the mind, body and soul. Education that can help women – their daughters, that is – become better mothers themselves when they raise a family. So Mary Wollstonecraft is making a generational argument; she is shifting the tectonic plates under which French and indeed all of European society was pursuing intellectual activity.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

When you consider that this was in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution in 1789, Mary Wollstonecraft was obviously looking at the long-term future of women in the French Republic and elsewhere. While Rousseau was proposing only incremental improvements in education for girls, and that too only with the ultimate purpose of making them subservient and obedient to men, Mary Wollstonecraft was shaking the very foundations of European society. In a chapter on national education, she argues for boys and girls to attend the same schools.

“Let an enlightened nation then try what reason would have to bring them back to nature, and their duty; and allowing them to share the advantages of education with man, see whether they will become better, as they grow wiser and become free.”

She was no status quoist. She had similarly strong views on the French Revolution and on monarchy in general. That is when she took on Edmund Burke in A Vindication of the Rights of Man, written in response to his book Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke’s sympathies lay with the monarchy while Mary fiercely argued for the oppressed classes and for the individual’s rights. She found France a much more fertile environment for her studies on which A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is based. Her hope was that after her ideas were tested in France, she could bring them to England, a country which she still loved even though her ideas were out of favour there.

Meanwhile, her travels took her to Scandinavia. Quite remarkable that a woman could travel alone on long journeys in those days – ship journeys even to neighbouring countries took long – and write about it. Her book Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark is also a delight to read. Her acute sense of observation combined with her sensitive and compassionate views make for altogether fine reading. This book feels a little quaint, if not outdated, though. That is because her descriptions of life in the Scandinavian countries are from a time when they were under monarchical rule and were poor countries relative to England and France. Today these countries enjoy some of the highest standards of living, of course.

Mary Wollstonecraft married the philosopher, William Godwin, on her return to England and had a daughter named for her, who would go on to become even more famous than her mother. That daughter is Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, and wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She had an older daughter, Fanny Imlay, by an American, Gilbert Imlay, whom she met in France, but never actually married. Brave woman, you have to think.

Mary Shelley, her daughter – image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The reason this book struck a chord with me and the reason why I feel it’s still so relevant for our times, is that it asks women to consider their own strengths, values and sense of self-worth above everything else. I suggest that men too read it. It entreats them to evaluate their values, standards and judgement when it comes to relations between the sexes. It is the first and truly feminist canon written.

So please do yourselves a favour and read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman before the year is out. It is not merely essential reading for the #MeToo era, every word gleams fresh from the page today as it did when it was written more than two centuries ago. It speaks the language of reason women should adopt even now.

What was true in post-Industrial Revolution France and Europe is true of the world today. Some things have changed for the better. Women work, they make decisions, they raise families actively the way Mary Wollstonecraft would have been proud to see. However, we still don’t put ourselves first often enough. And we still don’t step out of our turf to make men see they cannot get away with invading a woman’s private space.

A little more calm reasoning and assertion is what Mary Wollstonecraft would have liked to see, methinks. #MeToo or not.

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