- The French Revolution was not enough. Mary Wollstonecraft wanted something more. She declared war against the patriarchy. She called for nothing less than ‘a revolution in female manners’. This revolution was not about how to set up or sit at the dinner table. It rather sought to overthrow the system of socialisation that made men and women prisoners of each other’s tyranny, rather than the virtuous companions whom they were meant to be.
- Wollstonecraft waged her war in print. She targeted literary and intellectual giants – John Milton, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke – for propagating absurd and pernicious ideas about the innate inferiority and natural subordination of women to men. With her pointed wit, she eviscerated a host of second-rate writers whose views on female education derived from this triumvirate. She chortled: ‘Indeed the word masculine is only a bugbear.’ Then she gladly granted them their premise. Men and women obviously diﬀered in their bodies. On the whole, women appeared to be physically weaker, but it did not follow that deeper diﬀerences of intellect or virtue prevailed between the sexes. With strikingly gender-neutral language, she contended: ‘Whatever eﬀect circumstances have on the abilities, every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason.’
- Wollstonecraft identiﬁed education as the culprit behind the inequalities between men and women. Education inﬂuenced every aspect of life, for it began in the crib, long before one learned language or went to school. Parents gave dolls and mirrors to infant girls, while letting baby boys toddle freely outside. These gross diﬀerences in the socialisation of young children, Wollstonecraft saw, bore consequences that could hardly be overstated. ‘The grand misfortune is this,’ she soberly noted, ‘that they both acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life, before they have, from reﬂection, any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature.’ Yet people applauded the diﬀerence in manners that education produced between the sexes. Women came to see and present themselves as weak and meek, and all the more attractive to men for it.
- Women’s ‘rights and manners’, she insisted, must be considered alongside each other. If women were raised to see and treat themselves as mere toys and playthings of men, then they could not possibly avail themselves of the historic opportunity for civic engagement that the French Revolution had brought to them. To bring women’s ‘rights and manners’ into concert, people had to reconceive ‘rights and duties’ as inseparable. Into the narrow rights talk of the time – the ‘rights of man’, the ‘rights of men’ – Wollstonecraft infused a rich vocabulary of ‘rights and duties’. A Rational Christian Dissenter, she derived all rights from fundamental, God-given duties. Like Immanuel Kant, however, she never claimed that all duties generate a corresponding right. In her system of ethics, duty enjoyed moral primacy.
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