Once it is demonstrated that man and woman are not, and should not be constituted the same, either in character or in temperament, it follows that they should not have the same education. In following the directions of nature they must act together but they should not do the same things; their duties have a common end, but the duties themselves are different and consequently also the tastes that direct them. After having tried to form the natural man, let us also see, in order not to leave our work incomplete, how the woman is to be formed who suits this man. ( Jean Jacques Rousseau, “Emile”)
In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a book to prove that her sex was as intelligent as the other. Thus did feminism take its first tentative steps. Her manifesto was an achievement of real originality and was based on the apparently obvious and self-evident premise : “I wish to see women neither heroines or brutes; but reasonable creatures.” Three hundred plus years later, we are still hung up on an interpretation of the word “reasonable”….
…All the faculties common to the two sexes are not equally divided; but taken as a whole, they offset one another. Woman is worth more as a woman and less as a man; wherever she makes her rights valued, she has the advantage; wherever she wishes to usurp ours, she remains inferior to us. One can only respond to this general truth by citing exceptions in the usual manner of the gallant partisans of the fair sex.
So much for for the equality and egalitarian principles alluded to in the French Revolution. In 1792, and later, a woman could not own property, nor keep any earned wages. All she possessed belonged to her husband, including her body. She had no recourse to divorce, but he could divorce and have custody of her children. There was was no legal or constitutional protection to safeguard her from not growing up illiterate or beaten every day. Such was the legal and moral climate in which Mary Wollstonecraft lived.
Mary’s voyage to first feminist on an allegorical moon, was not a straightforward and linear progression. Mary had to hold her household together and forfeited her childhood. Her father, a once prosperous weaver, squandered his inheritance and became an abusive, wife and child beating alcoholic. The experience left Mary with an everlasting gloomy streak , and was a strong factor in the making of her reformist views.
Mary conformed very little to the hateful stereotype that has been constructed about feminists. Having spent her childhood as an adult, Mary reached the age of nineteen is a state of complete joylessness. She was later to quit the role, but at that age, she wore the garb of a martyr. Her early twenties were spent in this elderly frame of mind. First she went out as companion to an old lady living at Bath, then nursed her dying mother. She started a primary school with her dearest friend, Fanny Blood, who then married, moved to Lisbon and died during childbirth. When Mary returned to the school, her flourishing little project had been run into the ground by her sisters, who stole everything they could grasp. Mary made up her mind to die. “My constitution is impaired, I hope I shan’t live long,” she wrote to a friend.
One positive fallout from her brief and fleeting success as a schoolmistress was the acquaintance of Joseph Johnson, and intelligent and successful London publisher in search of new writers. Debt laden and penniless, Mary set aside her impaired constitution and wrote her first book, probably in the space of a week. Johnson bought it for ten guineas and published it under the name “Thoughts on the Education of Daughters”; it went unnoticed, Mary spent the money, and compelled to find work she became a governess on the house of Lord and lady Kingsborough in the north of Ireland.
Here, she worked on a novel, “Mary, a Fiction” , which was a sort of literary fantasy of a twenty-seven year old undertaking the scribbling concoctions of what a thirteen year old might secretly cook up. Mary was embarking on her adolescence, with all its daydreams, fifteen years after the usual date. The following year she lost her post and set off for London with her novel. Not only did Johnson accept it for publication, he offered her a regular job as editor and translator and helped her find a place to live.
Finally, at age twenty-eight, Mary put aside her doleful persona as the martyred, set-upon elder sister. She finally discovered the sweetness of financial independence earned by interesting work. She had her own apartment. She was often invited to Mr. Johnson’s dinner parties, usually as the only female guest among all the most interesting men in London: Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine, Henry Fuseli, William Blake, William Godwin; all of them up and comers bound together by left-wing political views. …
Women, for their part, are always complaining that we raise them only to be vain and coquettish, that we keep them amused with trifles so that we may more easily remain their masters; they blame us for the faults we attribute to them. What stupidity! And since when is it men who concern themselves with the education of girls? Who is preventing the mothers from raising them as they please? There are no schools for girls—what a tragedy! Would God, there were none for boys! They would be raised more sensibly and more straightforwardly. Is anyone forcing your daughters to waste their time on foolish trifles? Are they forced against their will to spend half their lives on their appearance, following your example? Are you prevented from instructing them, or having them instructed according to your wishes? Is it our fault if they please us when they are beautiful, if their airs and graces seduce us, if the art they learn from you attracts and flatters us, if we like to see them tastefully attired, if we let them display at leisure the weapons with which they subjugate us? Well then, decide to raise them like men; the men will gladly agree; the more women want to resemble them, the less women will govern them, and then men will truly be the masters.( Jean Jacques Rousseau, “Emile”)
…Moreover, Mary was successful in her own writing as well as in editorial work. Her “Original Stories for Children” went into three editions and was illustrated by Blake. Still, lest anyone imagine an elegantly dressed Mary presiding flirtatiously around Johnson’s dinner table… her social accomplishments were rather behind her professional ones. Johnson’s circle looked upon her as one of the boys. One of her later detractors reported that she was at this time a “philosophic sloven,” in a dreadful old dress and beaver hat, “with her hair hanging lank about her shoulders.”
Mary had yet to arrive at her final incarnation, but the new identity was imminent, if achieved by an odd route. Edmund Burke had recently published his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, and the book had enraged Mary. The statesman who so readily supported the quest for liberty in the American colonies had his doubts about events in France.
Mary’s reply to Burke, “A Vindication of the Rights of Men”, astounded London, partly because she was hitherto unknown, partly because it was good. Mary proved to be an excellent polemicist, and she had written in anger. She accused Burke, the erstwhile champion of liberty, of being ” the champion of property.” “Man preys on man,” said she, “and you mourn for the idle tapestry that decorated a gothic pile and the dronish bell that summoned the fat priest to prayer.”
The book sold well. Mary moved into a better apartment and bought some pretty dresses; no farthingales of course, but some of the revolutionary new “classical” gowns. She put her auburn hair up in a loose knot. Her days as a philosophic sloven were over….
“In order to understand our present economy and change it for the better we need a new perspective, which spans the distance between epistemology and activism, the market and gender. The hypothesis of this paper is that such a perspective may be founded on the practice of gift-giving and receiving, viewed as an extension of mothering. Gift-giving has been hidden by patriarchy and the market, both of which are social constructions based channeling hidden gifts towards themselves. This paper attempts to sketch the ways in which gift giving forms the basis of communication, especially verbal communication, and it looks at the market as distorted material communication. Not just the market but exchange itself is identified as deeply problematic. In order to facilitate social transformation, gift giving rather than exchange must be brought forward as the mode of the human. An attempt is made to look at exchange as deriving from naming transferred back from the verbal to the material plane to mediate between the not-gifts of private property. This ‘incarnation’ of naming has a decided effect on our ways of interpreting the world, causing us to validate categorization and substitution while devaluing nurturing and its values. In our semiotic, philosophical and economic investigations we need to correct for this distortion in our perspectives. Restoring the value of gift giving for the interpretation of the world, signs, and the market is a first step in a re-visioning which will allow us to achieve another possible world.
Global Patriarchal Capitalism is not just a sui generis economic fact. It is a perverse self-perpetuating system of values and (mis)conceptions which is made up of institutions and of individual human beings who are thinking and acting individually and collectively to carry out artificial agendas based on the social construction of gender.” Feminist Semiotics for Social Change: the Mother or the Market
by Genevieve Vaughan
First published in “Mimesis,” 2004.