Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 treatise on the “Vindication of the Rights of Women” has held up remarkably well, considering the advances that feminists have made in the decades since. She emphasizes the rationality of women and their ability to be able to be strong enough to “rise in the world” without having to marry first. The fact that ground gained in the 1970s and 1980s in terms of feminist insights has been lost in the past decade has lent her arguments new power and demonstrates the longevity of gender stereotypes.
The text insists on destroying myths about women, the most damaging of which is the idea of feminity as being inherently “pretty” and of all women being a “frivolous sex”, not to be taken seriously. Wollstonecraft naturally realizes that she herself will be judged by that standard, which explains the vehemence of her attack against these stereotypes. In order to offset herself better against that myth she eschews a polished style so as not to make an impression of prettiness. Wollstonecraft wants to be seriously considered, as a “rational creature”, someone to be reckoned with as an adult, i.e. a person who can adequately discuss serious matters.
Thus she refutes the myth of women being unable to shine in any area of expertise apart from childish hobbies. However, she never denies that women are doing useless and childish things: “they dress; they paint and nickname God’s creatures.” Yet even though her disapproval is tangible, she does not berate women for adhering to these gender roles. Instead she chooses “to persuade women” to behave in a different fashion and condemns society for binding women to certain gender roles. It is a veiled attack, part of it directed against “writers”, part of it against an education system which teaches women to be caricatures of women. She doesn’t yet have the critical vocabulary developed in the 1970’s and 1980’s to describe the problem in a more exact way.
This is not to say, however, that she isn’t astonishingly modern in her criticism. Her recognition of the fact that women are made ‘women’ by their education is heavily reminiscent of modern ideas of sex and gender. Meanwhile, the most baffling connection between Wollstonecraft’s text and current attitudes towards women is not a theoretical one.
Rather, it becomes uncomfortably clear how far back the recent rollback in feminist matters has taken modern Western society. Since the mid-1990’s a new generation of women celebrate what they call their ‘womanhood’, emphasizing their ‘feminity’ and their differenece from men. The entertainment and advertising industry has catered to that impulse, providing TV Shows, hundreds of women’s magazines and books about women being from Venus and men being from Mars.
An American feminist was attacked in the NYTimes recently for decrying this harmful development in a style that was to the reviewer woefully indicative of a 1970’s frame of mind, replete with 1970’s vocabulary and concerned with 1970’s battles. The feminist complained that ‘choice’ these days has been perverted to also mean ‘choice to be feminine’, ‘choice to not work and be ‘married” and such things. It has been fashionable again to refute women’s rationality in favor of their ‘intuition’ and “libertine notions of beauty.”
As early as 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft recognized the trap which ‘feminity’ has become for women and she has decribed its contours in a precise way. Even though she is vague as to the construction mechanism of that trap and even though she continues to make problematic assumptions about the role of women in society, her text is still, 214 years after publication, remarkably forceful. This is not due to a stagnation in society and ideas about women but to the massive rollback which feminism has suffered in the last decade. Wollstonecraft’s attempt to “point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists” deserve to be read anew and to be read seriously.