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The feminist movement since its earliest times has been marked with varying perspectives, positions and arguments. Nevertheless, these variations should be understandable, especially when interpreted within the contexts (both in time and space) that inspired them. Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stewart Mill represent different times in the evolution of women’s rights movement.
Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill
Wollstonecraft and Mill share a common task, namely, the advocacy for more rights for women. That advocacy begins in admitting that women are treated differently from men. Still, as their essays show, there are differences in their advocacies that reflect certain contextual differences of their times.
In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft makes her argument based on the issues of morals and virtue. For her, one is considered moral and virtuous if they perform their tasks properly.
However, this devotion to tasks can only occur if all people (men and women) are equal, which is attained through education. She writes: “There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly… if one half of mankind [is] chained to its bottom by fate” (Wollstonecraft 802).
If, for instance, a woman paid more attention to what men think of her looks, then she is failing in her moral obligation because she is distracted from her role, herself. She argues that each and every woman should acquire proper education as the only way to gain respect, as well as the freedom to choose the level of her independence.
Wollstonecraft’s view of education for women is different from what Rousseau sees it to be (as women’s attempt to rise above men). For her, the purpose of education is not to give women power over men, but over themselves. Women attain freedom when they start to view themselves from the point of view of the self, and not the other (represented by men, in this case).
She writes: “It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and good mothers” (Wollstonecraft 804). A woman who is not educated views herself from the perspective of men. As a result, being conscious of that masculine perspective, she becomes “cunning, mean, and selfish” (805)- either in rebellion against or adoration for that view.
Unmistakably, Wollstonecraft’s arguments adopt a conservative perspective. To her, the ultimate purpose of education for women is not for them to rise above their domestic plight. Rather, education would make them better equipped to be wives and bear children not for employment, voting rights, and property ownership, among others. Education would make women even better moral figures.
Thus, by simply getting education, regardless of whether they remain in the same position as they previously were in, women are freed. We can, therefore, infer that Wollstonecraft, in her advocacy, still believes that the domestic setting is the woman’s place.
Her goal is not to break away from that domestic cycle, but- perhaps to give it better status and name and, consequently, uplift the status of women. To Wollstonecraft, the differences between men and women, as well as their places in society, are both important and should be recognized as such. As long as women get that recognition, for Wollstonecraft, they have attained equality.
John Stuart Mill’s arguments, of course, stem from the foundation first laid by the likes of Wollstonecraft. It is only expected that both Wollstonecraft and Mill share the basic task of advocating for more rights for women. However, the scopes of their advocacies are different. Mill, unlike Wollstonecraft, aims to give women the right to enter into fields hitherto known to belong to men.
Mill examines the subordination of women from the legal dimension, that is, how the legal system (including the constitution) helps this subordination. But that legal system, he argues, is only the result of a social principle that “regulates the existing social relations between the two sexes” (Mill 819). In other words, there is an inherent element of society that makes the subordination of women natural and, therefore, generally accepted. This, he says, hinders human improvement.
The purpose of his essay is to act as a mouthpiece for what he terms as “perfect equality” (Mill 819); a balance of power in which no side is given power over the other. By ‘perfect equality’, Mill means that women should have equal rights as men in all facets of life, such as occupation, government and marriage.
Mill, therefore, introduces the aspect of societal structure (of which the legal system is part). He presents his arguments by examining the role of nature and nurture. He questions the notion of ‘nature’ as used in the society to justify the plight of women. To him, what is seen as women’s nature is actually what the society has nurtured them to be.
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The society has never given women much room and freedom to explore what their nature really is. Rather, by placing and governing women within the framework of the dominant patriarchal psyche, society has nurtured the woman into what she is. Simply, the differences between men and women are the products of the society rather than the result of nature. The solution, to him, is found in opening space for women to explore further the limits of their nature.
As a proof of how much women can achieve he says: “We know how small a number of reigning queens history presents, in comparison with that of kings. Of this smaller number a far larger proportion have shown talents for rule” (Mill 823).
The differences in scope between the positions held by Wollstonecraft and Mill are products of context and, therefore, understandable. Besides, as the feminist movement has evolved over the years, the voices of advocacy have increasingly pushed for more rights.
Therefore, it is understandable that Wollstonecraft’s arguments are more conservative in character that education for the housewife is enough for her. She is the product of a context that, perhaps, cannot permit more, and she has to stay within that context’s possibilities. Mill understands this.
He is himself the product of a context that is beginning to open up to more new ideas. Therefore, education as such is not enough for him. To herald a new mindset with regard to social gender relations, Mills believes society must reach out to new horizons. In this respect, the establishments of the society, such as the legal system, should not interfere with the natural social set-up by taking sides.
In conclusion, this paper does not exhaust the issues that both authors explore in their papers. Still, it explores the central themes in the two articles. Wollstonecraft sees education as enough. Mill asks for much more. In the end, they both recognize the adverse plight of the womenfolk and call for their ‘freedom’- any situation better than the present.
Mill, John S. The Subjection of Women, New York: D. Appleton Co., 1869. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, London: Joseph Johnson, 1792. Print.