mary wollstonecraft -- 3/09/21

Today's selection -- from Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic by Rosemarie Zagarri. Mary Wollstonecraft and the birth of "women's rights":

"[I]n 1792 ... Mary Wollstonecraft's incendiary tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [debuted]. A self-educated young woman who traveled in radical literary circles in London, she followed the early years of the French Revolution with great interest and anticipation. When the French proposed a system of national education for men but ignored the education of women, Wollstonecraft penned her treatise. Deliberately echoing the title of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, published the previous year, Wollstonecraft's work exposed the gendered assumptions behind the revolutionaries' thinking. While Paine had argued that all human beings shared certain basic rights, the specific rights he mentioned -- the rights to own property, to vote, to participate in government -- were, in fact, limited only to men. Typically for his time, Paine did not even consider whether women had rights or what those rights might be. 

"In contrast, Wollstonecraft explicitly applied the concept of natural rights of women. Given by God, these rights were universal, inherent in the condition of being human, and they applied to all people, regardless of sex. Women's rights were thus irrevocable and undeniable. 'It the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and explanation,' she insisted, 'those of woman, by parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test.' Yet while only some men had been denied their rights, all women had been excluded from enjoying their rights simply because of their sex. 'The rights of humanity have been ... confined to the male line from Adam downwards.' The greatest social inequity, she claimed, did not exist between or among males but between men and women. The result was that half of the population had been kept from realizing its full human potential. 'The tyranny of man' and the perpetuation of a 'male aristocracy' had oppressed women in all aspects of their lives, retarding the development of their intellect, hindering the growth of their virtue, and preventing them from making a full contribution to society. 

"Significantly, Wollstonecraft mentioned but did not emphasize the question of women's political rights. She raised the issue of female suffrage only once, and then only briefly and tentatively. 'I may excite laughter,' she noted, 'by dropping a hint, which I mean to pursue at some future time, for I really think that women ought to have representatives.' She never took up the issue again. It was more important, she believed, that women gain greater educational and economic opportunities than to participate in what she considered to be a deeply flawed and corrupt political system. The franchise would presumably come in the wake of other gains. 

"As in Britain, many Americans at first responded favorably to Wollstonecraft's work. Excerpts from A Vindication appeared almost immediately in American periodicals and magazines such as the Ladies Magazine published in Philadelphia and the Massachusetts Magazine published in Boston. By 1795 three American editions of the volume had been issued. A modern study indicates that Wollstonecraft's treatise appeared in more American libraries of the era than Paine's Rights of Man did. 

"Personal scandal, however, soon tarnished her reputation. In 1798, soon after Wollstonecraft's death, her husband, the freethinking radical philosopher William Godwin, published a memoir of his wife. Committed to an unflinchingly honest portrayal, Godwin mentioned details about Wollstonecraft's life that had not been widely known. During the French Revolution, he said, Wollstonecraft had had an affair with an American man, Gilbert Imlay, and gave birth to an illegitimate child. Subsequently she tried to kill herself not once but twice. After taking up with Godwin, but before they married, she conceived their daughter (who, as Mary Shelley, would later author the classic work Frankenstein), whose birth resulted in her death. These actions represented an assault on the conventional Christian morality of the time and provided ample ammunition for Wollstonecraft's critics. Her 'licentious practice,' railed the minister Samuel Miller, 'renders her memory odious to every friend of virtue.'

"Despite the scandal, Wollstonecraft's tract popularized the notion of women's rights and introduced the phrase into widespread usage. ... Acknowledging that women had natural rights opened up other possibilities. If women shared in the same constellation of God-given rights as men did, then women were what modern political theorists call 'rights bearers.' Implicit in the concept was an understanding that women were separate individuals who were distinct from men and who possessed their own rights and responsibilities. They were, in this sense, equal to men, as rights-bearing individuals, women gained the moral authority to demand that the state protect their God-given natural rights from infringement and usurpation. As Wollstonecraft herself pointed out, if men refused to recognize that women had rights, the 'by the same rule, their duties vanish, for rights and duties are inseparable.' White women, in particular, enjoyed a privileged status. They were unlike slaves, who were considered to be outside the social compact, and they were different from free blacks, whose race was often invoked to disqualify them from possessing the same rights and privileges and white men enjoyed. 

"Even when the meaning of the phrase 'women's rights' was vague or imprecise, it evoked a whole new world of possibility for women. In 1796 Harvard graduate William Boyd devoted his entire commencement address to the subject of 'Woman.' After hailing women's contributions throughout world history, he pointed out how little women's status had changed over time: 'Still lives this truth, by savage man confess'd/Woman belov'd, yet Women the oppres'd.' ending his speech with a solemn vow, another commentator concluded, 'I shall always be found among the foremost to contribute my feeble efforts to defend THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN.' This insight led some commentators to acknowledge men's role in oppressing women. In 1800 the National Magazine quoted the English radical Thomas Cooper, declaring, 'Let the defenders of male despotism answer (if they can) The Rights of Woman, by Miss Wollstonecraft.' To Americans, the analogy was clear. Just as England had stifled America's freedom, so men repressed women. 'It appears ever to have been the policy of our sex,' a Boston man said, 'to arrogate to themselves a superiority over the other, and to treat them with all the spirit of petty tyranny.' Acknowledging the fragile basis of male authority, he noted, 'We seemed to have claimed a prescriptive right for calling them our inferiors, and we can give no better account of our authority for treating them as such, than that custom has so established it.' Although the solution was vague, the problem was not widely acknowledged.

"Others found the prospect of women's rights more troubling. Women's assertion of rights might subvert the gender hierarchy and threaten the subordination of women to men. Even the terminology itself seemed to open up dangerous prospects. Discussion of 'equality of right,' worried 'A Lady,' might 'excit[e] an insurrection in the female world.' A man calling himself 'Ignotus' agreed: 'If once a man raises his wife to an equality with himself, it is all over, and he is doomed to become a subject for life to the most despotic of governments.' Nothing, he decided, 'was more dangerous to the rights of man [than] when it took possession in the home department.' Not only would the relations between the sexes be affected, but the whole family structure might suffer as well. A satirical poem called 'The Rights of Both Sexes,' originally published in England and republished several times in the United States, warned of the possibility of ludicrous role reversals. Men would 'reside at the tea-table, regulate the household, and rule the nursery; while all the offices of state and business of commerce should pass into the hands of the ladies.' Men might even end up, the poem warned, as a 'wet-nurse' to the baby. As each sex took over the other's 'employments, amusements, and cares,' the whole world would be turned upside down. What was good for women, then, might be bad for men. 'These Rights of Women,' concluded a Massachusetts newspaper, 'would become the wrongs of man.'"



Rosemarie Zagarri


Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2007, University of Pennsylvania Press


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