Why does today’s woman need to look back at feminist texts, especially those from other environments and other times? Because we know that in the matter of women’s rights we don’t have the luxury of retiring from the fight. Indian women are not all bowling along on a smooth road to full equality. Even the more privileged play a snakes and ladders game. Many others are in a fight to the death. Knowing what other women have argued, in other environments and other times, can only help us toward that fuller life we all strive for. This series considers five iconic feminist texts, starting with Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman
At the time Mary Wollstonecraft, writer and educator, wrote Vindication…, two revolutions had just taken place, in America and in France, overthrowing long-standing hierarchies determined purely by birth. Once a thinking person accepted that “all men are created equal”, it was a short step to “and also all women”.
Wollstonecraft was that thinking person, and she applied the cry of liberty, equality and fraternity to the situation of men and women. Her argument, published in 1792, starts with what a man or woman is entitled to from society and what a man or woman should contribute to society.
She surveys prevailing opinions about the relationship of women to men, the degradation of women’s situation at the time, how the laws in England for centuries have kept women poor, how their deficient education still keeps them ignorant and frivolous, and how that education ought to be improved. Though Wollstonecraft herself earned a living and supported her siblings and father, she does not press for that freedom for all women. Her ideal is still the woman at the centre of a family hearth. What she protested was the dedication of women to their own beauty and idle pleasures instead of to the work that builds new generations.
Wollstonecraft couches much of her radicalism in religious sentiments and insistence on “true modesty”, and she rails against the kind of literature that set girls to thinking only of love.
But she shows her rigour on the subject of reason when she attacks that most sacred cow of all, parenthood. She deplores parental tyranny and the actual harm done to children by harsh and arbitrary or even by blindly adoring parents. “Females... in all countries are too much under the dominion of their parents,” writes Wollstonecraft.
The idea that women live subject to their parents’ will long after they should have attained autonomy may look quaint to American and European readers today, but it is still harsh reality for the vast majority of women.
The writer reveals her own prejudices and clutters the strong lines of her argument with anecdotes and scorn. But that argument is based on the unshakeable foundation of reason, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression, and it can culminate in only one idea: equality between men and women.