In the course of historical development, society witnessed a period when due to achievements of industrialization there appeared a clear distinction of work from home. This distinction in its turn led to the view of the male as the main breadwinner of the family and the female as an economically dependent housewife legally deprived of ownership and other rights.
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Such inequality spurred protest already in the late eighteenth century, with one of the most prominent works being A Vindication of the Rights of Woman written in 1792 by Mary Wollstonecraft’s. In the subsequent period, the issue of female oppression in society was developed by a multitude of philosophers and public figures.
For instance, the English liberal thinker John Stuart Mill in his essay The Subjection of Women (1860) confronts the patriarchal culture typical of the nineteenth century society. Both feminist-set works address the same topic of artificiality, unfairness and noxiousness of female abjection in a progressive society.
However, while Wollstonecraft approaches the solution to the problem from the educational viewpoint and claims that the key to a successful and full-fledged participation of woman in social and family life lays in proper education, Mill prefers to seek the answer to the female issue from legal point of view, accentuating the importance of official public recognition of female rights equal to those of male.
The whole tension of protest in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman stems from the author’s disagreement with the wide-spread view of women as weak and inferior creatures.
To emphasize the contradictive and hypocritical nature of the stereotypical vision of women, Wollstonecraft appeals to the readers’ common sense and logical reasoning and produces a question of whether “nature has made a great difference between man and man, or […] the civilization which has hitherto taken place in the world has been very partial” (Wollstonecraft 74).
By positioning this statement at the very beginning of her work, Wollstonecraft means to turn the readers’ attention to the main conflict she dwells upon. It is the conflict between the initial equality of people and the double standards governing the contemporary society. The British feminist classifies the position of women and the attitude to them as outrageously erroneous, and envisages the main reason for this in the way women are brought up and educated.
Analyzing the prevailing image of woman in the society of her time, Wollstonecraft outlines the governing female ideal of the time as that far from the strong, decisive, initiative, creative, and splendid being once created by nature: “Weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner” women “undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society” (Wollstonecraft 76). The estrangement of women from their true essence therefore leads to deplorable results in terms of their social standings.
Utterly convinced by the traditional social standards of the necessity for being weak, sensible, and submissive, women become no more than feeble and passive amoebas that are unable to provide good company to their husbands and proper upbringing for their children. According to the stereotypical vision of women, their delightful innocence and grace should allure and inspire a desire to support and protect. But in due course of time those qualities fail to attract any more, causing disappointment and negation:
“… the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.” (Wollstonecraft 76)
What once attracted men as frail and subtle, at some point starts to irritate and bother. Consequently, men tend to abandon it in search of new attraction, nonetheless transient. Trying to counteract this tendency of matrimonial infidelity, desperate women start manipulating their spouses by means of the same fragility and caprice that once used to attract and allure. This makes the wedlock a total waste, full of insincerity and artificial affection.
In addition to problems between spouses, women blinded by their image of sensibility and led solely by emotions also fail to perform their maternal obligations: “… women of sensibility are the most unfit for this task, because they will infallibly, carried away by their feelings, spoil a child’s temper” (Wollstonecraft 145). Deprived of any rights, women thus appear quite useless in all the aspects of social and family life. The natural reaction to this uselessness is pity and contempt towards the helpless females.
Attempting to find the solution to the seemingly irreconcilable injustice in treatment of women, Wollstonecraft directs her attention to the factor that provokes such attitude among society; and this factor is education. According to the feminist, women do not get proper education, and this is not without a reason.
Lead by the desire of domination, men design the curriculum for women so that the latter do not get any systematic education and are therefore forced to be guided by tradition, scrappy and random knowledge. As a result, women become the blind obedient creatures men want them to be (Wollstonecraft 87). Opposing the ideas of the French Revolution, Wollstonecraft severely criticizes Rousseau’s views on women as destined to be passive due to their bodily inferiority (Alexander 39).
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She believes women should get the same right to the same mental activity and education as men. Such intellectual equality would, firstly, endow women with the power over themselves, and secondly, by training their reason allow women to be more efficient as partners for their spouses and mothers for their children (Wollstonecraft 138).
Almost seven decades later, John Stuart Mill was inspired by practically the same issues that had brought to the light Wollstonecraft’s writings. The bench mark of his The Subjection of Women is the hindrance constituted to human progress by one of the governing social principles, the principle of “the legal subordination of one sex to the other” (Mill 119).
Mill states that the especial difficulty in the struggle against this inequality lies in its eternal character: oppression of one sex by the other has already become a cultural norm which has been defining gender relations for millennia (Mill 130).
But however striking it may sound, in spite of the large number of women dissatisfied with their social and legal state, it is almost never the case that a woman openly voices a protest against mancipation. Even when the case for rebel is more than obvious, it does not make much sense for a woman to make a charge against her male offender.
The power of the laws regulating social relations simply does not provide a safe positive outcome for her: “All causes, social and natural, combine to make it unlikely that women should be collectively rebellious to the power of men” (Mill 132). Therefore, the nature of the problem and the key of its solution lie, according to Mill, in the legal sphere that outlines the rights and obligations of men and women.
The legal state of contemporary women is described by Mill as practically null and void. Even despite the acclaimed rights Christianity and civilization have returned to the woman, she actually remains at the position of a slave to her husband: “She vows a livelong obedience to him at the altar, and is held to it all through her life by law” (Mill 147).
The woman has no right either to the property or to the children that result from marriage; moreover, she does not possess any freedom of choice. Women are no more than prisoners of their own femininity that leads to social impotence. In order to resolve this painful issue, Mill suggests providing women with the right of suffrage. This right ensures their equal participation in social issues and provides them with the freedom of choice they are so far deprived of (Mill 168).
In addition to improving the situation with political rights for women, Mill also suggests changing the legislature that concerns family and labor. Allowing women to have their own property and to work outside home would lead to their independent financial status. Such approach counterfeits the “wrongful exercise of power” by men that “dispirits” women and “defeats their pursuits of a good life” ((Morales 105).
Raised already in the late eighteenth century by Mary Wollstonecraft, the issues of the necessity for restoring women as worthy members of society reverberate powerfully in Mill’s writings decades later.
The false ideal of femininity characterized by taciturn obedience, narrow-mindedness, and need for male protection is overthrown by both authors. It is that false ideal that produces all the negative stigmas concerning women and acts as the main hampering mechanism for the progressive society. To improve the situation, each of the authors suggests an own approach and solution.
Mary Wollstonecraft envisages the answer to the problem in providing women with the same education and opportunities for rational development as men possess. John Stuart Mill chooses to approach the issue from the legal aspect that involves a more broad scope social reform. As a result of this reform, not only the educational opportunities but also labor market and political arena would be open to women. Once legally protected, women would become worthy members of society together with their male partners.
Alexander, Meena. Women in Romanticism: Mary Wollstonecraft, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Mary Shelley. Savage, MD: Barnes & Noble Books, 1989. Print.
Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty; with, The Subjection of Women and, Chapters on Socialism. Ed. Stefan Collini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Print.
Morales, Maria H. “The Corrupting Influence of Power.” Mill’s The Subjection of Women. Ed. Maria H. Morales. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005. 98–113. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Men; with, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and, Hints. Ed. Sylvana Tomaselli. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Print.