Mary Wollstonecraft: the mother of the feminist movement

The courage and the gut for a more equal society

To many, Mary Wollstonecraft’s name does not sound at all familiar. As a matter of fact, she is – together with Olympe de Gouges – the mother of Feminism as we know it today. The two began demanding, during the French Revolution, independent, legal and political rights.

Even though the French Declarations of the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 gave rise to the matter of extending rights to women as well, the question was still very delicate and complicated too. The discussion on giving women at least partial rights regarded only some specific aspects: women were still considered to be different in terms of intelligence and morality and could therefore only ask for the mere recognition of their own rationality and eventual entitlement to citizenship. For instance, it was impossible for them to be legally considered as sexual subjects rather than sexual objects.

Enlightenment, with its insistence on rationality opened up the matter of more intellectual, sexual and legal freedom for women. Simultaneously, studies confined women to be just the home and centre of moral and religious life, within the intimate and private walls of their own families. Actually, they were facing a paradoxical situation since they were expected to be moral guides to their husbands (to whom they were extremely subordinate), together with raising the religious tone of the household and directly of a wider social world. Social world in which they were not allowed to access, politically speaking.

Thankfully, eighteenth century brought a decline in this patriarchal authority, with John Locke explaining his educational and psychological theories on how children needed both parents’ filial obligation, respect and loyalty. The reason why Mary Wollstonecraft was so involved in the matter is that her own father was abusive and violent: her past gave her the critical perspective on masculinity, which led to her major work, the Holy Bible of Feminism, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” (1792).

The Vindication showed how women’s weaknesses had nothing to do with their physical and mental assets, but were instead a result of the – socially imposed – lack of education and employment.

Furthermore, she explained how sexual stereotyping was due to a major absence of adequate terminology that could eventually praise women. Regarded as the founding text of British Feminism, the book was written extensively thanks to the indignation of all the possibilities that were denied to her. Wollstonecraft set out all her arguments on the matter asserting that, under all points of view, women were rational creatures as much as men were. Gendering of qualities, together with the rethinking of all conventionalized ideas about women’s moral qualities are just two of the questions among all the matters she confronted in her treaty. Others were the need for an education based on rational principles, need for a sexual double standard, need for a reform of marriage and the demand of admission of women to all fields of study and paid employments, that could guarantee economic independence. To sum up, she strongly believed that women ought to have representatives, instead of being manoeuvred like puppets.

In the end, we should all be very thankful to Wollstonecraft, as she highlighted all the issues within a patriarchal society, issues that still stain our world. She bravely encouraged an acute analysis of all the instruments of patriarchal control, painting women not as objects, but as human beings whose liberty had been tamed.

But most importantly, we should all be feminists.

Articolo a cura di: Victoria Pevere

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