Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Annotated and Introduced by Eileen Hunt Botting

Mary Wollstonecraft, 1797, Portrait by John Opie, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Introduction

The educated woman, with power over herself, can bring down the patriarchy for the betterment of all humanity

by Eileen Hunt Botting

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.

Wollstonecraft’s moral emphasis on duty animated her revolutionary politics. In order for women’s rights to be respected, men had to fulfil their duties to respect their wives, daughters, mothers and other women in their lives. Women had to learn self-respect, and to seize more than the few, meagre opportunities that patriarchal society had availed them. Once women and men together exercised their duties for respect of self and others, they would be psychologically and socially capable of respecting and recognising one another’s rights in law and culture.

Wollstonecraft’s theory of equal rights and their political realisation requires a transformation of how men and women perceive and relate to each other. No longer could men view women as weak and dependent creatures, or mere toys and playthings for their sexual pleasure. No longer could women view men as their lords and masters, the rulers of their entire way of life. It began with a change in self-understanding, for both men and women. A psychological change of such depth would require reform of education on the deepest level too. Only comprehensive education and religion could accomplish this kind of change.

Wollstonecraft was a governess, a primary school teacher, and a disciple of the Dissenting Christian minister and abolitionist Richard Price. From these experiences – ordinary and extraordinary – she learned how to bring education and religion together to advance a cultural revolution that would make Burke quiver. It would push women to stand up and speak out alongside men as moral equals – deserving of the same civil and political rights and bound by the same God-given duties.

Six weeks of single-minded writing produced A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published early in 1792, it was an instant international success. Although the title suggested its vindictiveness toward men’s mistreatment of women, its arguments are free from personal vitriol or bias toward her fellow women. Her core thesis was measured and even-handed: ‘I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.’

As we contest our own patriarchs in media wars on the internet, it is still time to heed her revolutionary message. The dedication and introduction of Wollstonecraft’s book lay out the first steps toward bringing down the patriarchy for the betterment of all humanity.

25 July, 2018

Read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, annotated by Botting, at Aeon, where this introduction was originally published

~ Eileen Hunt Botting is professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. Her books include Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Women’s Human Rights (2016) and Mary Shelley and the Rights of the Child: Political Philosophy in ‘Frankenstein’ (2017). (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Happy Birthday, Ida B. Wells!

Ida B. Wells, head-and-shoulders portrait, published, 1891, Image retrieved from the Library of Congress LC-USZ62-107756, public domainIn the course of my journey following the life of Frederick Douglass in 2016, I was so glad to have the opportunity to visit the place in New York City where he may have first met the great Ida B. Wells. It was late 1892, and this fiery young newspaperwoman had published her very controversial piece of investigative journalism in the New York Age on June 25, 1892. It was expanded and published as a pamphlet later that year as Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases.

Many people at that time thought of lynching as an unfortunate and somewhat rare excess of race-hatred by frustrated Southern whites. And many more saw it as a lawless but not entirely unjustified species of vengeance against black men who had raped white women. But Wells (born in Mississippi on July 16th, 1862) would change all that. In early 1892, three of Wells’ friends were lynched after a dispute between themselves and white owners of a rival business. She was outraged and began an investigation of the practice and history of lynching.

When Wells wrote Southern Horrors, she had already been an activist and writer promoting black rights for many years. In 1884, she resisted being forced out of the first class train car into the ‘colored car’; she later sued the train company, won the first suit, then lost on appeal. This incident (which echoes Douglass’ train protest in 1841) led to many other lawsuits, articles, and activism against anti-black laws and social practices. In 1892, her investigation of lynching revealed to Wells that lynching was far from just vengeance for rape or other violent crimes; it served as vengeance for or a public warning against alleged insubordination or impertinence, petty crimes, idleness, drunkenness, and so on. It was also put to such uses as eliminating business competition (as was the case for Wells’ friends), getting rid of inconvenient owners of coveted land, or scapegoating black people for the crimes of others. She discovered that lynchings were not all that rare, either, and came to the conclusion that they constituted a form of social control that replaced the terrorism (the system of coercion which included whippings, deprivations, and threats of being sold ‘down the river’) of slavery.

Douglass was inspired and energized by Wells’ writing and anti-lynching work, and his letter in praise of Southern Horrors served as the pamphlet’s introduction. He visited her in New York City where she was living for a little while as a writer for and part owner of the New York Age, which was (probably) published at the site I visited in Harlem. I also visited a second site that happened to be associated with Wells two days after my New York visit: she delivered one of her hard-hitting speeches in her speaking tour following the publication of Southern Horrors at Tremont Temple in Boston on Feb 13th, 1893.

Education was another driving force in her life. Her first job was as a teacher at age 14, and she taught for many years, over time supplementing her teaching with journalism, writing and editing for the Evening Star, The Living Way, and the Free Speech and Headlight. Another of her most controversial, consciousness-raising articles was published in 1891 in the Free Speech about the conditions in black schools: the poor quality of the buildings which housed them, and of the education and morals of the teachers and school boards who administered them. She was not fired outright, but the school refused to hire her for the next school year. She then went on to work full-time for the newspaper, promoting the Free Speech from city to city and writing articles along the way, until the Free Speech‘s offices and printing press were destroyed by angry whites after the publication of her ‘Lynch Law’ piece. Adversity only served to strengthen Wells’ resolve, each attack causing her to re-double her efforts on behalf of her people.

Wells went on to have a long and distinguished career in writing, investigative journalism, and activism for black rights and women’s suffrage. She worked with Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, toured the United States and Europe as a speaker and activist, founded Chicago’s Alpha Suffrage Club, served as secretary of the National Afro-American Council, founded and became the first president of the Negro Fellowship League, and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many other things.

For a long time, Wells thought of marriage and romantic relationships as oppressive, where women were expected to defer to men and flatter their vanity. But one day, she met a man who must have made her feel very differently, an attorney, writer, and fellow advocate for black rights named Ferdinand Barnett. She married him and they raised four children.

If I ever manage to accomplish the tiniest fraction of what she did in my own life, I would consider myself a great success!

Here are some excellent resources for learning more about the brilliant and irrepressible Ida B. Wells:

Barnett, Ida Wells (1862-1931) ~ by Tyina Steptoe for BlackPast.org

Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells. ~ by Ida B. Wells, Ed. Alfred Duster. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider, The History Chicks podcast episode 51

Ida B. Wells-Barnett ~ by the editors of Encyclopædia Britannica

Ida B. Wells: Crusade for Justice ~ by Jennifer McBride for Webster University’s website.

New York Age ~ by Heather Martin for the Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance: K-Y

Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases ~ by Ida B. Wells (1892) via Project Gutenberg

*A version of this piece was previously published in Ordinary Philosophy

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O.P. Recommends: Richard Wilkinson on How Inequality is Bad

Justice et Inégalité – Les Plateaux de la Balance, by Frachet, 2010, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Dear readers,

I’m still hard at work on my master’s dissertation and therefore still have little time to write or read much of anything outside of its scope. One way I can readily catch up on what’s going on in the world, though, is by listening to podcasts while I take my daily breaks, usually consisting of a good brisk hill walk up Arthur’s Seat and around the hills and crags of Holyrood Park. So let me share another one with you that especially struck me.

In this podcast episode, social epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson discusses the evidence he and his partner Kate Pickett gleaned from thirty years of research, with host David Edmonds. Their research reveals a wide range of ill effects from very high levels of income inequality: higher rates of imprisonment, obesity, drug abuse, mental illness, and homicide to name a few, as well as lack of social cohesion and trust in other people, lower life expectancy, and so on. The poor and wealthy alike suffer these effects, but the poorer are hit hardest. Since we humans have a strong instinct to compare our status with others’, we tend to resent those who do much better. We’re therefore driven to signal that we, too, have worth. For example, we buy expensive things whether or not we can afford them, especially in a place where wealth and its trappings are considered markers of proper work ethic, intelligence, ability, and good character while having less is considered evidence of laziness and general lack of intelligence, ability, and good character. These stereotypes hold true whether the wealthy or the less wealthy work or not.

Recognize this situation anywhere?

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

O.P. Recommends: The Many Deaths of Liberalism, by Daniel Cole and Aurelian Craiutu

‘The Liberal Deviseth Liberal Things,’ memorial at St Bernard’s Well on the Water of Leith

I read an excellent essay this morning on the nature, history, and purported death struggles of liberalism. It clarified many things for me, reminded me of others, and provided a renewed sense of hope and strength in what I believe is a treacherous political period, especially in my home country.

Here are a few excerpts to pique your interest:

“…[T]he meaning of ‘liberalism’ has always been ambiguous. As Montesquieu noted nearly 300 years ago: ‘No word has received more different significations and has struck minds in so many ways as has liberty.’ The same might be said about its close relation, liberalism. According to the legal philosopher Jeremy Waldron writing in 1987, ‘liberalism’ does not describe a unified, coherent political theory but serves as an umbrella for a large family of theories created over the course of several centuries by diverse authors with disparate notions of its meaning, and harbouring no intentions of creating a fully fledged system of governance.

The name ‘liberalism’ has been used to describe systems of governance as distinctive as the French physiocrats’ laissez-faire, the libertarians’ ‘night watchman state’, Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, the law-ordered state of German Ordoliberals, including Walter Eucken and Wilhelm Röpke, and Lyndon Johnson’s ‘Great Society’. Today, ‘new’ liberals criticise ‘neoliberalism’ as a cause of increasing inequality and declining social mobility. At the same time, ‘classical’ liberals denounce the excesses of the social welfare state for its encroachments on individual liberty and the state-dependency it creates.”

– and –

“…[L]iberalism creates a big tent for many different conceptions of the ‘good life’, in accordance with its commitment to individual choice. Some have seen this feature as a weakness of liberalism. The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset could not have disagreed more. Writing at a moment when liberalism’s death was being widely proclaimed in the Western world, he argued in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) that liberalism should best be defined as ‘the supreme form of generosity’. In liberal regimes, he argued, the majority, which has power on its side, concedes to weaker minorities the right to live on their own terms, thus announcing the determination to share existence with – and respect those – who have a different view of the good society.

That such ‘generosity’ can be a source of real strength is attested by liberalism’s real successes. Late in his life, Popper, a self-described liberal ‘optimist’, named several liberal achievements as undeniable facts. At no other time, and nowhere else, he pointed out in 1986, have human beings been more valued, as individuals, than in liberal societies: ‘Never before have their human rights, and their human dignity, been so respected, and never before have so many been ready to bring great sacrifices for others, especially for those less fortunate than themselves.’

Popper was no Dr Pangloss. He did not believe that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Nor did he overlook social problems that persist in liberal societies. But he appreciated that modern liberal societies are the best political systems we fallible humans have managed to create. He believed that such societies create the best conditions for individual development and social improvement”

– and –

“Success itself is a highly ambiguous and contingent concept. It would be inappropriate for the members of a liberal society ever to expect more than a partial success. Given what Immanuel Kant in 1784 called the ‘crooked timber of humanity’, liberalism’s ambitions and hopes will always exceed its actual achievements. Moreover, liberal democratic societies remain congenitally unstable and imperfect, in part because of liberalism’s conflicting demands for both more individual autonomy and greater equality. Because of that inherent tension, liberalism carries the seeds of its own destruction.

At the same time, it might be short-sighted to see liberalism’s alleged failures as anything more than partial and temporary ones. Even if liberalism does not provide a telos or supreme good toward which we should strive, it helps us avoid greater evils, the most salient being cruelty and the fear it inspires. As Ortega y Gasset reminds us, it was no mean accomplishment ‘that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined’ in the course of a long history marked by bloodshed, intolerance and violence.”

– and –

“For all its progress, liberalism is inseparable from the doubts we feel about it. Those doubts should cause us to heed, even celebrate, liberalism’s critics for pointing out its real flaws. Less attention should be paid, however, to the loud prophets of liberalism’s demise, who declare the entire liberal project dead or fatally flawed. To the extent that liberalism is about solving problems, if only incrementally, we must continue to conjecture, experiment and refute hypotheses about the best means of maintaining and improving our coexistence on Earth.blockquote

Declaring the ‘death of liberalism’ might trigger alarm bells in the media and help to sell books. But it will not solve any of the real problems that modern liberal societies confront, including the real threats to liberal values about which nearly everyone cares and agrees.”

I hope you enjoy and are as enlightened by this essay as I am!

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!