Both Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Equiano’s Interesting Narrative share revolutionary parallels and ideas that are before their time and showcase their strength as writers and an insight into the political and social climate of their era. Both share a desire to be released from oppressive chains and use writing as their outlets. Browning for example, actually comments on the topic in her writing, “Preserved her intellectual. She had lived a sort of cage-bird life, born in cage, accounting that to leap from perch to perch was act and joy enough for any bird” (“Aurora Leigh” Line 304-306). This shows her personal opinions and experience in the realm of her intellect being used in society or her daily life and the affect it has through Aurora Leigh. This also shows, how relatable Aurora Leigh was written to be along with themes of having to prove intelligence, feeling caged and boxed, etc. We can also compare this idea to one of Equino’s where he discusses how he never would betray or leave his master (Interesting Narrative Line P. 22), Browning and Equiano both share an innocence in the sense of their oppression. The expression of these ideas shows how their is a comfort but also innocent nature in “captivity”. Both writers were ahead of their time in expressing these emotions that were extremely uncommon to hear from or even be written by a black man and a woman in this era.
Both Barrett Browning and Equino express the need/love for knowledge, which was revolutionary for the both of them, given the time periods they lived in. “The Interesting Narrative” first portrays Equino as a young boy, ignorant to the new world he’s been forced to live in. The reader first see’s Equino’s curiosity and whenever he states “I had often seen my master Dick employed in reading; and I had a great curiosity to talk to the books, as I thought they did; and so to learn how all things had a beginning.” From this quote alone, one can sense the longing that young Equino has to be knowledgeable. Equino later shows the desire to learn navigational skills. He states, “I determined to make every exertion to obtain my freedom, and return to Old England. For this purpose I thought a knowledge of navigation might be of use to me.” Equino actually does gain this knowledge, which is unheard of for a person of color in this time period. Equino’s ability to learn and eventually buy back his freedom is revolutionary indeed.
Barrett Browning’s desire for knowledge is also portrayed through her epic, Aurora Leigh. The speaker in Aurora Leigh discusses what is considered “lady-like” starting a line 427. She seems to make a mockery of the issues brought up, and she does not speak positively on what a woman “ought to do” for that time period. Here, the reader can gather that these feminine skills are not what grabs her interest. Later on in the poem, the speaker discovers “garrett-room,” or attic, so to speak. There, she discovers her father’s books. This excites the speaker beyond belief! “Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs / Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there / At this or that box, pulling through the gap, / In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy, / The first book first. (838-841) This portrays the speaker’s excitement to read new texts, and discover new stories. The speaker is both nervous and excited to be doing something that her aunt would not approve of. This shows how it was not a common thing at the time for a female to pursue knowledgeable things and books. Her excitement to learn is revolutionary, just like Equino.
Barrett Browning and Equiano have multiple qualities in common, each of which could be discussed and exemplified in their works, but the shared quality between these two revolutionary authors that struck me the most was the way they tactfully worked towards achieving their ambitions. In “The Interesting Narrative…,” Equiano’s primary goal is to gain his freedom. He wants to do more than that, however; Equiano also wants to advance himself in society. Instead of trying to escape and live a life on the run, Equiano works to make himself indispensable to his masters. He notes that, when he worked under Robert King, the man used to say he “… saved him, as [King] used to acknowledge, above a hundred pounds a year.” Equiano also devotes time to learning different trades and skills that will make him more valuable to others, and learns to navigate, hairdress, read, and write; he also gains the skills necessary to work as a clerk, “… delivering cargoes to the ships, in tending stores, and delivering goods…” (220). Eventually, Equiano earns enough money to buy his freedom, and continues to serve under his former master for a time before returning to England. He is free and has gained many skills which allow him to not only work for the abolitionist movement but also establish himself as a respectable aristocrat. Barrett Browning also shows value in patience and tact through her character Aurora Leigh in her work by the same name. Leigh is left motherless at a young age and is made to move from Florence to England in order to live with her rather pedantic and puritanical aunt. Her aunt, who had lived “… A sort of cage-bird life…,” did her best to begin conforming Aurora, “…A wild bird scarcely fledged…,” into her idea of a respectable young lady (lines 305, 310). Aurora learned the tenets of her aunt’s religion, languages, algebra, the sciences, music, the gentlewomanly arts, and books on womanhood. These books, in particular, promoted a “wilting flower” approach to womanhood, which, among other things, encourages women to be subservient and “… never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay;'” Aurora, in speaking of them, shows express contempt for their teachings (line 437). Aurora takes her aunt’s teachings, but never forgets who she is- that wild bird in a world of cages- and chooses, when she is ready, to break free of those cages through writing. Her rebellion is not through action (which would, in reality, gain her nothing but a brand as a shrewish, unrefined woman), but through words, which will reach a far broader audience and make a much more lasting impact. Both Equiano and Barrett Browning, in this, show that revolution can be most powerfully advanced through working with what one is given and twisting it to one’s own advantage. Equiano worked through the ranks of slavery and abided by the law of his time by buying his freedom back. He uses his story and the things he learned throughout his enslavement to bring about change in a more peaceful, rational manner. Barrett Browning, through Aurora, shows a character who uses the lessons she is taught and the skills she learns to overcome the oppression she faced. She, too, does so peacefully. It seems though Barrett Browning and Equiano are making a similar point- that revolution can be achieved peacefully, that perhaps the only revolutions that will succeed are those who are gone about in a peaceful manner. When faced with a society terrified of change and the chaos it may bring (caused by the Terror following the French Revolution), the two authors realize that their tactics will have to be different. They will be subtle, always, but the suggestions for change and progress are always there, lying just behind the obvious.
One revolutionary aspect of both Interesting Narrative, and Aurora Leigh is the perspective each writer comes from. These are not rich, white men of high class. Equiano and Barrett have different perspectives, and they both shed light on the plights of slaves and women respectively. Both writers mention, and delve into descriptions of the perceived childlike innocence of both women and slaves. Equiano talks about how innocent he was about snow, “As I had never seen any thing of the kind before, I thought it was salt” (Equiano 218) and his lack of understanding about the religion of the white people, “([A] great man called God: but here again I was to all intents and purposes at a loss” (Equiano 218). Barrett Browning talks about the innocence men place on women, “I read a score of books on womanhood…that boldly assert Their right of comprehending husband’s talk…With pretty ‘may it please you,’ or ‘so it is,’” (Barrett Browning 1161 lines 426-433). Both stories are made increasingly more popular and well known for their insight into important problems from the perspective of those experiencing them. Interesting Narrative is a story about slavery, told from the perspective of a slave. The other is a story about women and their experiences in the real world, from the perspective of a woman. These ‘insider access’ stories make the reader think more about the issue at hand, than if a white man in a position of power were to have written them, and this allowed these authors and these passages to make a big impact.
A key characteristic of both Barrett Browning and Equiano’s writing on their respective revolutions is the element of innocence and consequent loss of it. Both start out with the freedom of childhood and lose it as they are indoctrinated into a role they are expected to play in society, as Barrett Browning characterizes in Aurora Leigh: “I, alas, / A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage” (Barrett Browning l. 310). She further describes this loss of innocence by using the motif of how her she fixes her hair, “So it was I broke the copious curls upon my head / In braids, because she liked smooth-ordered hair.”(Barrett Browning ll. 384-385). This tangentializes her loss of innocence and by extension, freedom, into words that the audience can understand. Similarly, Equiano describes his first experiences on the ship “these filled me with astonishment, that was soon converted into terror”(Equiano 216). Throughout the entirety of his narrative Equiano colors his life with wonder at new experiences very similar to an eight year old’s perpetual curiosity at the world.
Revolution, it seems, demands that the revolutionaries have a disillusioned perspective of the world. The cruel loss of innocence suffered by both Equiano and Barrett Browning propels them to their respective revolutions. It can be argued that, on broader terms, revolution requires loss in general. That in revolution there is an effective attempt to regain some former, fuller state of glory. The objective of revolt being to break free of the cage and fly free, restored and autonomous.
Both Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh contain many important and vital aspects for their time. However, the most revolutionary part of their writings is the perspective from which they are written. Though nowhere near equal to those of white land owning males, the opportunities for African slaves and women began to increase in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. These two writings prove that very point by not only gaining a wide readership in their time but impacting the way we view that era from our current perspective. The fact that both works were written by members of each of those two disenfranchised groups shows a distinct change in the perspective that literature could be written from and still be widely published. Equiano’s work comes about as part of the abolition movement, making it both an autobiography and a political track. With statements like “I have been baptized; and by the laws of the land, no man has a right to sell me”, the abolitionist message is rarely missing in a part of the story (220). On the other hand, Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh is often linked to the suffrage movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This movement would not come to a head until two decades after the narrative poem was published, but like the Interesting Narrative it impacted the politics of emancipation for a respective group. The way this factors into the revolution of perspectives is that both of these works were written by people from those groups that needed emancipation. It was not a minister writing about abolition or a Whig politician writing about helping women, it is a slave writing about abolition and a women writing about educating herself.
Another way that both of these works fit into a revolution of perspectives is that they both fit into the genre of autobiography. Though autobiographies existed prior to these two works (for example Benjamin Franklin’s) the stories that they told were different than most autobiographies before them. Equiano’s narrative is more likely to fit the mold of a regular autobiography with some editing from an unknown (but likely abolitionist) source. It focuses on the aspects of Equiano’s life as a slave and eventually free man, but never really digs into his thoughts during the major events of his life. Aurora Leigh however, contains many aspects from Barrett Browning’s life and the challenges she faced. Aurora learns many things from her aunt, but Barrett Browning also often carries a sarcastic tone when referencing things as sewing or knitting by writing “The works of women are symbolical” (1161). In the same way that Aurora was not always being educated on the subjects she would have enjoyed the most, Barrett Browning always strove to have an education that women were not allowed to have in her time. By making a character face the same challenges she faced when she was younger, Barrett Browning allows us to see how she may have felt inside when she was going through these struggles as well. This gives us two different perspectives of autobiography, the internal thought autobiography with Aurora Leigh and the more outward struggle autobiography with the Interesting Narrative. These changes in perspective can remind us that revolution often produces evolution. The French Revolution though eventually disastrous, coincided and caused other revolutions that would further the emancipation of less fortunate members of society.
One revolutionary characteristic that both Equiano and Barrett Browning share is that they both share a fiercely independent spirit, which I think is a crucial ingridient to the start of a revolution. After Browning’s mother dies when she was 4, her father is left to raise her and he instills in her his passion for learning. This is similar to how Captain Michael Pascal took Equiano under his wing, and taught him how to read, the christian faith, which allowed Equiano along with the other skills he learned to eventually purchase his own freedom, and to become something more than a slave, Equiano even chose to use the knowledge and skills that he had acquired to help improve the world, by going back to the same master who sold him, in the hopes of giving him a better life than he was given. Equiano states, “I often supplied the place of a clerk, in receiving and delivering cargoes to the ships….I used to shave and dress my master, when convenient, and take care of his horse…. I worked likewise on board of his different vessels…. I became very useful to my master, and saved him, as he used to acknowledge, above a hundred pounds a year.” Here Equiano explains the different ways that he was able to exercise the various skills that he learned in a useful manner, where before he was thought of as cargo, now he was beginning to be seen as useful addition to society. “My imagination was all rapture as I flew to the Register office, and in this respect like the apostle Peter…. that he thought he was in a vision.” This quote emphasizes the feelings of immense gratitude that Equiano feels toward Captain Pascal, for granting Equiano his freedom, even though Captain Pascal ended up selling Equiano back into slavery after promising him he wouldn’t previously. In a similar way Browning was able to take the knowledge that she learned from reading the books in her late father’s library, and apply what she learned from her father’s books into her identity as both a writer and a woman Because Browning had read Shakespeare and other famous works, she was able to assert that knowledge and eventually become one of the most famous and well known women writers of the victorian age. As well as to know that women are capable of more than just flower arranging, spinning glass, and sewing. Browning states, “I danced the polka and cellarius, spun glass, stuffed birds, and modelled flowers in wax, because she liked accomplishments in girls.” Browning is mocking what was typically viewed as “accomplishments ” for girls. Browning further emphasizes this sarcasm stating, “By the way, the works of women are symbolical. We sew, sew, prick our fingers, dull our sight, producing what? A pair of slippers…. or a stool to stumble over and vex you….”curse that stool!” Browning is asserting her opinion of women’s accomplishments by saying that all of the work that we do really just reiterates how women are viewed as weak and useless by men. Browning uses the analogy of a stool for men to trip over as a personification of women because they are seen as nagging and annoying, and useless by men like a useless stool that someone trips over. If Browning had never been exposed to her father’s books she would have most likely never acquired an independent spirit, because she wouldn’t know that there was anything to be unsatisfied about, she would have just accepted that the circumstances of women were how they always were, and that there was no need to refute or argue against them. On the same accord, if Equiano had never been taught how to read, or how to navigate a ship, cut hair, etc. he would have just accepted that becoming a slave as his predetermined destiny. Both the stories of Browning and Equiano are examples that when we become empirically informed, that is when we become informed of the facts, then we can use our normative knowledge (our opinions) to make valuable judgements of the facts, and ultimately decide whether to obey them, or disobey them.
What this says about revolution is that to begin a revolution one has to first be informed of what the current circumstances are that create the proper climate for a revolution to occur. In other words, if you have never been informed about the world outside of your current world, situation, or circumstances you will never know that there is a world or life outside of your current situation, and as a result you won’t start a revolution, because you are satisfied, because you don’t know anything outside of your current situation, so you just except it, because you think that is how things have always been and that is how they will always be.
Equiano and Browning both share in a slavery, Equiano in literal slavery, Browning in a veiled slavery. These two people had a burning desire for freedom. Equiano’s “heart burned (Page 234, 5th edition)” to be a freeman, to make a living for himself. He held a secret heartfelt desire for freedom. At one point he nearly obtained his freedom, yet he was sold back into slavery. His heart was “ready to burst with sorrow and anguish (Page 235, 5th edition)” upon this betrayal. However, Browning wrote a fictional poem using a character named Aurora Leigh to depict Browning’s own life. Browning uses the phrase “restless as a nest-deserted bird (Line 43, Page 1156)” to describe how she felt at a young age. She desired to write poetry, which in that day was typically reserved for men. Her passion for writing poetry was suppressed when she was taught by her aunt. She notes that it was similar to “A wild bird scarcely fledged, was brought to her cage.(Line 310, Page 1159)” This same bird, which depicts her desire to be free, was suppressed in her education. Both these authors felt a deep passion for freedom of revolution.
These two writers assisted in changing public opinion, Equiano in freeing slaves, Browning in equality for women. These writers depict that revolution does not just spring from a need, but it springs from a passion. Revolution springs from the deep desire of the heart. It has an emotional drive to it. It brings a heated passion; when suppressed the passion grows. “I kept the life thrust on me, on the outside (Line 477, Page 1162)” explains Browning. Even though she despised her aunt’s teaching, she kept her compressed passion on the inside. When this passion is released, it is similar to a fireball of emotion violently being released. “All within my breast was tumult, wildness, and delirium (Page 238, 5th edition)” exclaimed Equiano when he finally bought his own freedom.
Olaudah Equano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, The Longman Anthology of British Literature, 5th Edition, Volume 2A, Pearson, 2012.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Auora Leigh, The Longman Anthology of British Literature, 4th Edition, Volume 2B, Pearson, 2012.
Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” was revolutionary in that it worked to change the ways in which her society valued women. Essentially, Wollstonecraft argued that women’s value extended far beyond being mere vessels for human reproduction—instead, women had the capacity to contribute to society through the value of their labor in the workforce and their instruction in the home. Wollstonecraft doubted whether women who have abandoned their own autonomy of body and mind to their husbands could ever have “sufficient character to manage a family or educate children” (302). Without proper instruction necessitated by a better status for women, children would grow up stunted, and the society they would inherit would be likewise stunted. In addition to rearing children, women had the capacity “to be able to pursue with vigor… various employments” (301), working inside and outside the home just as men could.
Yet Wollstonecraft’s argument begged the question: If women had such potential, why did they have such a low position in society? Wollstonecraft’s answer to this question is likewise revolutionary: Wollstonecraft charged that women’s lowly position was not a natural result of the female gender’s inherent mental and emotional weakness, but a societal construct—by refusing women the opportunities to sufficient education, society had refused to tap into their potential to contribute. This is seen in the very first paragraph of the introduction, in which Wollstonecraft argues that “the civilization which has hitherto taken place in the world has been very partial” (290). Here, she speaks nothing of the different gifts nature might have bestowed on men and women. Instead, it is our constructed society that has been so partial—and partial so overwhelmingly in favor of men. More to the point, she claims that “the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore” (209), and not a natural state of femininity.
Not only does Wollstonecraft argue for the equality of men and women in Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she also revolutionarily claims that the relationship between the sexes is interdependent. Wollstonecraft argues that concept of equality reaches further than politically giving women a “voice” (pg. 289), but that withholding education from women “will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue” (pg. 288). The concept of their being a societal impact of leaving women uneducated is revolutionary. The bases of sexism relies on the fact that men our superior, thus giving women the power to render education powerless because of their lack of it is ground breaking. She furthers this concept of interdependence when she relates women to “convenient slaves”, but that this slavery will “degrade the master”. Using the concept of slavery implies that man uses women for some type of gain, that they are a needed commodity. This metaphor expands when she says this toxic relationship will “degrade the master”, saying that leaving women as commodities will ultimately destroy the “master”. This interesting comparison leaves the “slaves” with the ultimate power in the relationship instead of the “master”. Furthering this Wollstonecraft engages the argument that “faithless husbands will make faithless wives” (pg. 289). This places man and woman on equal ground, even in sin. Women were places on a pedestal of purity, thus matching sin for sin destroys this pedestal and actually elevates woman to the level of man by showing their connection within morality. Showing that both impact each other, that actions equate to equal actions showcases that men and women have equal interdependent power.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument about the “Vindication of the Rights of Women” utilizes many different methods of persuasion; the most revolutionary of her points is her understanding of gender norms as learned behaviors utilized to keep women as the inferior party. Her audience is the middle class, or “ladies,” because she believes that the middle class is more separated or uncorrupted by the bourgeoisie enforced gender norms (292). Wollstonecraft’s argument is largely sociological, drawing in the different ways in which women are treated as second class. She argues that this not because it is simply a “law of nature” or because of religious doctrines on superiority i.e. Eve being created from one of Adam’s ribs. Extensively, Wollstonecraft debunks as an unattractive picture of mankind creating his “companion” for his own selfish pleasure, but rather by relying on how much of the differences used to distinguish men from women stems from learned behaviors (291, 300).
Wollstonecraft brings up the important example of marriage dynamics and the role of mistresses and harlots in the gender structure. First off, women are understood as separate from men, and furthermore different than “human creatures.” She states that “from the books written on this subject by men,” that being the marriage and gender norms for men and women, men make women “alluring mistresses” rather than “affectionate wives and rational mothers” (291). Wollstonecraft deduces from this that this leads women to only aspire to be the one thing they have been told to be: wives and mothers. Even more compelling, she next describes how the entirety of a woman’s identity is placed on her marriage and children, but the father of the family is never held up as a father in the same regard. There is no same “duty” for a father, as their reputation is not debased by their “visiting a harlot” for simply “obeying the call of appetite.” Perhaps one of her most convincing arguments is that women cannot be blamed for accepting their position in society, this is the fault of male suppressors (294). Wollstonecraft states that contrary to the idea of men as superior beings, it is rather “unphilosophical” to always “keep women in a state of childhood” (296). Moreover, men in positions where they are taught to appease act in similar ways, proving that men and women aren’t so different. Extensively, “officers are also particularly attentive to their persons” and dabble in frivolous things such as “dancing, crowded rooms, and adventures” and, of course, “ridicule.” These are characteristics looked down upon by society, but they are simultaneously held but men in this profession as well as women are taught of feminine values (298).
I think that Wollstonecraft’s discussion of obedience is revolutionary. Women weren’t seen to have valuable opinions or ideas throughout the 1790’s. To have someone challenge this idea of obedience and being complacent with the way things are for women, is revolutionary in itself. At the time at which this book was published(1792), women weren’t seen to have valuable opinions and were looked to be obedient and live their lives as companions to their partners. In the first paragraph of here work, she sums up a woman’s duties in one sentence. ‘Obedience’ was expected behavior, sanctioned by religion, law and custom; a rebellious daughter…could be disowned…” This idea of an obedient wife, one who will not contest with one’s spouse is not a new one. However, Wollstonecraft does elaborate, using another writer as a backbone for her argument. Catharine Macaulay is a prime example of how pivotal it was for women to speak out. Macaulay, who was born to a wealthy family, and left pretty comfortable after the passing of her husband, says that she was attacked viciously and “…..her politics produced enemies and vicious misogynist attacks on her private life….” The most revolutionary part of Wollstonecraft’s argument here is the fact that she is tearing down a barrier that has written off women as simply obedient companions. Women had be subjected to such unfair treatment, so this work seems like a victory for all and one that many people(especially during this time period) can empathize with.
Written during a period of revolution and uncertainty in Europe, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft argues for drastic change in British society to end the suppression of women. The most revolutionary component of Wollstonecraft’s writing was her objection to the sentiment that people should follow the orders of others without thought. She argues that “every profession, in which great subordination of rank constitutes its power, is highly injurious to morality” (Wollstonecraft 294). Correlating to the previous argument, she creates the example, along with others, that “a standing army … is incompatible with freedom; because subordination and rigour are the very sinews of military discipline” (Wollstonecraft 294). In the conclusion of her argument, she states “that the character of every man is … formed by his profession” (Wollstonecraft 295). Additionally, because of this “society … should be very careful not to establish bodies of men who must necessarily be made foolish or vicious by the very constitution of their profession” (Wollstonecraft 295). Through being molded by their profession to take orders without thought, men of those types of professions would never question why their society was oriented in its state; in a state that suppresses women and many others. A non-violent revolution for women’s rights could not succeed with the majority of the populous accepting society for how it was and viewing change as a danger to their way of life; with them never wondering if or how: society could change to become more inclusive for women, and what benefits may come of such a shift. If people refuse to change their worldview, no significant changes can be made in any society.
The sentiment of following orders was more detrimental to women during Wollstonecraft’s time than it was to men. Referencing her previously mentioned example regarding the military: “Like the fair sex. The business of [officers’] lives is gallantry.—They were taught to please, and only live to please. Yet … they are still reckoned superior to women” (Wollstonecraft 298). Wollstonecraft views the actions of military personal and women in English society as similar in that both are meant to satisfy their superiors; however, she opines men are not seen as lesser for following orders while women are. Wollstonecraft’s piece is revolutionary in that it urges people to consider why their society is in its current state, and to understand there is no fundamental difference between men and women that would prevent women from making a significant contribution to English society.
What is a significant way that Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the Rights of Woman is revolutionary?
I think one of the ways that Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the Rights of woman is significant is how she advocates for a reform of women’s education. Wollstonecraft claims that women’s education has prepared women to be dutiful, docile wives and mothers, and that while men’s education prepares men for life in the real world, women’s education only prepares them for what men think women should aspire to be. Wollstonecraft states, “I attribute these problems to a false system of education….who considering females rather as women than human creatures have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers.” What I interpreted this quote to mean is that men’s skills determine their value, and in turn earn them respect. Whereas qualities such as beauty and love determine a women’s value, and those qualities is what earns her respect, because a woman is not viewed as an equal ”human creature”, but as an object of man’s affection. Wollstonecraft is saying that women’s virtue should also be determined by their skills and nobility instead of trivial qualities like beauty and love.
Wollstonecraft also states that “for the sake of woman’s dignity she should be allowed to earn a living and support herself.” This is a refute of society’s view of women during this time, which was that the sole purpose of the creation of women was to fall in love with a man, and that the man’s assumed job is to take of the woman. While this may seem like a golden system, in reality this isn’t as great a system as it seems, because it puts unnecessary pressure and expectations on men by creating a toxic masculinity of men, and women should be able to have their own identities and be able to support themselves, that should be a women’s right. This view of women is also revolutionary because during this time men were the only gender that were seen as worthy to have a job, by asserting that women had the right as well to make their own living and support themselves is placing women on the same accord as men which was revolutionary during the 19th century.
Wollstonecraft in “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” confronts the omnipresent notions of her time that suggest female inferiority to men, especially in contexts of morality, and that women actually lack the capacity to gain their own moral standing in comparison to men who naturally possess virtue. She understands that these beliefs are a result of the physical differences between the two sexes, stating that male physical superiority is “the law of nature,” but argues that any other established beliefs of female inferiority are a result of lesser education for women during this time. Though there are many revolutionary aspects of her argument, one which is most significant is her demand for education that promotes an unexplored, individualistic way of thinking for women.
Presenting the idea that women retain shallow thoughts and desires because they have not been given the chance to express anything else, she states that women, “are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire [virtue].” She encourages women (and men) to reconstruct the beliefs regarding their place in society, asserting that with equal education, are capable of equal reasoning and virtue. Her argument is desperate in its plea for the changing of these notions, and seemingly looks to warn her female readers of the reality in their supposed inferiority. She expresses, “those beings who are only the objects of pity… will soon become objects of contempt.” It is the responsibility of each gender to change this mindset, with men creating these ideas but both genders perpetuating them.
I think that Wollstonecraft is revolutionary in this piece not only by creating a convincing argument but doing so in a way that is less than formal and even a little funny at times. To explain, the way Wollstonecraft presents some of her points in a casual or sarcastic tone is revolutionary because it just wasn’t how an author and especially a woman author trying to prove a point should have written. For example, she says “I presume rational men will excuse me for endeavouring to persuade them to become more masculine and respectable.” This way of writing is more likely to get people’s attention and it is certainly effective. The author herself explains “I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style; I aim at being useful.” Her style of writing is in itself a small rebellion against the conventions of writing at the time and embodies her whole argument.
Wollstonecraft is also very fair in her sarcasm, meaning everyone got some words from her. She says to women in general “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces.” Once again she is being revolutionary not only through her words but by how she refuses to censor herself even for her own sex. Even abstract concepts like love aren’t free from her reign of terror. She says “To speak disrespectfully of love is, I know, high treason against sentiment and fine feelings.” She evens attacks the ancient concept of love and that is very revolutionary. Her tone in this piece is useful for telling the reader how much she cares about this topic and how little she cares if she hurts someone’s feelings along the way.
In 1792, a state-supported system of public education, for men only, was proposed by the French minister for education. Leaving behind a sense of betrayal for everything the revolution stood for, it seems the French revolution’s promise to redress the wrongs of the past has been broken.
An Outraged woman, Mary Wollstonecraft (a force to be reckoned with), responded with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Wollstonecraft’s proceeded to argue upon the foundation of one, simple principle:
“… if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice.”
Wollstonecraft basically suggests that education should be accessible through national establishments as private education is confined to only elite class. She voices her diehard idea of educating girls with boys. She also suggests that girls should be taught things such as anatomy and medicine in order to raise them up as rational nurses of their infants, parents and husbands. Living in men’s society, Wollstonecraft clearly realized that her suggestions can cause a fuss; whereas later, she assures that she has no desire whatsoever to raise a generation of independent and unattached women like herself, but that she does seek to develop wiser and more virtuous mothers.
It is very crucial to understand that even two hundred years after Wollstonecraft’s contribution, this debate is still alive in modern arguments about feminism. Considering Wollstonecraft’s work was never fully appreciated by the women of the 18th century, despite how vital her pieces were for Feminists, it’s clear that her thoughts were revolutionary for her period and more suited to the society of the late 19th to early 20th century.
Should the classification of men and women as different be denied?
Considering this is a question still debated and widely discussed tells us that the question is not yet off the table. These arguments show themselves, along with other things, in modern concerns about the rising frequent rates of divorce and of men who leave their families, of super-moms, of teenage pregnancies, of the need for men to be in control of the family, and so on.
“Mind will ever be unstable with only prejudices to stand on.” The “Rights of Man” was written in response to the French Revolution, with dreams for justice and equality for all. As Wollstonecraft points out in her response to this writing, the “rights” aforementioned in the literary work only pertained to half of the world’s population. The “Rights of Man” was revolutionary in its call for change in the French society at that time, but Wollstonecraft wanted to take it a step further. Her call to make women “more respectable members of society” was a step of evolution very significant in that time period. She explains this inferiority women faced, “being confined to domestic concerns,” with no say in the matter. This had been their way of life for as long as anyone could remember. It wasn’t something to be questioned. This was prevalent in “marriage” as well, which was “the only way women [could] rise in the world.” There was nothing women could do at the time to alter these circumstances. They had an inevitable fate, which made Wollstonecraft’s words have such variability from the norm.
Wollstonecraft not only discusses the reason for change, but gives some evolutionary ideas to make that happen. Her opinion on why women follow along with this way of life is not that they were happy, but that they had “blind obedience.” They didn’t have the knowledge to think for themselves. It wasn’t questioned either. Her view was that it needed to be questioned, that it was vital to “strengthen the female mind.” At that point, they could have independence, at least in thought, which had not been the case. She then mentions Rousseau and his “opinion respecting men.” His writings were only concerning men, which Wollstonecraft saw as a slight to the opposite sex. She called for him to “extend it to women,” and include everyone in his writing. This was not a common practice, but as she saw it, this evolution needed to happen or the country would not be living with “liberty, fraternity [and] equality.”
In “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” Mary Wollstonecraft addresses the physical and emotional immaturity and inferiority of women that originates from the male desire and power that is embedded into society. As a result, a change in society is needed in order for there to be equality of power between the sexes, as well as proper recognition of women and their role in society. Elaborating on the immaturity of women, women are raised as docile creatures and continue to be treated as such their whole life. This is a result from the instruction “written by men of genius,” which promotes the idea that women’s purpose is to fall in love and be taken care of by their husband (291). Instruction given to women was “to acquire personal accomplishments” such as embroidery, singing, and dancing, and nothing that allows a person to flourish in society by understanding their sense of individuality and humanity. This education as, Wollstonecraft states, gives “appearance of weakness to females” and makes women shallow, which is similar with soldiers who are given orders that must be complied with no thought to their virtue (297). Therefore, women–like soldiers–are made into superficial beings who are denied the ability to see more of life because the principles that have been stored into there minds with no ability to grow away from them.
The education that Wollstonecraft demands for women is having a “well stored mind” that would “enable a woman to support a single life with dignity” (301). However, Wollstonecraft asserts that women not only need the instruction of individuality, but society as a whole since everyone should be able to mature and learn how to think in reason (297). So, teaching people to be individual thinkers and not just observe the surface of the principles as embedded by the public, but to take charge of their own thoughts will change society. This need for change is revolutionary, making it a public trouble that society needs to address for the sake of society moving forward. The demand for change of society’s superficial principles that are forcefully taught allows both sexes to be equal in reasoning and greatly improve fundamental human development in society.
Though there are many arguments and uses of rhetoric that Wollstonecraft uses to argue on the behalf of women, her revolutionary discourse on education predominates the text: the crux of Wollstonecraft’s argument is the fact that women’s “education is what gives [them an] appearance of weakness.” Wollstonecraft does not make an attempt to deny that, as it were, women are lesser in society. She does, however, combat against the preconceived societal explanations for women’s lower status and the want to sustain their lowered place in society. That is where revolutionary ideas are introduced to the work: women are not born lesser than men, but are taught to be lesser. A woman’s “prevalent fondness for pleasure which takes place of ambition” is a result of works such as Dr. John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughter’s. Wollstonecraft rails against Gregory’s notion that, for a woman, “a fondness of dress […] is natural”. For, if this want to be decorated were natural, it would have had to existed when the body was “in a preexistent state”, which would suggest the gendering of the very human soul.
Wollstonecraft’s woman is not born from the rib of man, “created to be [his toy]”, but rather is “thrown out of a useful station by the unnatural distinctions established in civilized life.” Milton’s representation of women in Paradise Lost is rejected by Wollstonecraft, who compares the commands given to a woman to those being given to a child. This comparison to children is again brought back to education. As children are educated their “senses […] are slowly sharpened”, and Wollstonecraft believes the same to be true of women whose educations have heretofore made them focused on external beauty and obedience as opposed to internal wit. Wollstonecraft radically redefines the station of women not to be innate, but to be a result of poor, systemic education.