Mary Wollstonecraft Term Paper

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Mary Wollstonecraft

The Woman

This section explains the timeline of Mary Wollstonecraft's life; understanding the choices, relationships, and events in her life helps one to understand her drive and focus in liberal feminism over the course of her short, 38-year life.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born to an English family who moves repeatedly throughout the formative years of her life (birth through 9 years of age). During her 9th through 16th year, she made friends with a neighboring clergyman, Mr. Clare. It has been theorized that it was at this point in Mary's life that she began to truly develop intellectually.

By the time she was eighteen, Mary had developed an ability to exert some influence over her father to stop the incessant moving propensity of her family and persuade him to allow her to live near a friend and continue her studies.

The first indication of Mary Wollstonecraft's social awareness is when her sister Eliza, deranged from childbirth and spousal abuse, and calls Mary to come to care for her. During this same year, Wollstonecraft meets and begins association with Dr. Richard Price and others, all of "liberal persuasions."

Although Mary wrote pamphlets (Thoughts on the Education of Daughters), children's books, contributed to works of morality (e.g., Elements of Morality for the Use of Children, On the Importance of Religious Opinions, and others) and had integral input in a monthly periodical, The Analytical Review, her liberal feminism was best displayed in her book Vindication of the Rights of Women. There are evidences supporting her sense of fairness by her involvement with A Vindication of the Rights of Men.

Upon discovering her lover's infidelity, Mary -- a psychologically dependent woman - attempted suicide. Leaving the presence of this lover, she goes on a business trip with her child and a nurse. Upon returning, she finds her lover involved with an actress and jumps off the Putney Bridge in a second suicide attempt.

Mary Wollstonecraft reconnected with a man with whom she was involved at an earlier time in her life and married. In August of 1797, Mary gave birth to her second child and died 11 days later of "childbed fever." Her final work, Memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft was published posthumously.

The Values

Mary Wollstonecraft's fundamental attitude toward women was highlighted in a statement from A Vindication of the Rights of Women:

The neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore."

By every record and report, Mary Wollstonecraft cared and contributed to correcting the neglected education of her "fellow-creatures" and although she didn't fail to include men in this category, she believed women to be repressed, owned like property, and voiceless.

This paper will review her treatise on the liberation of women's minds, rights, attitudes, and futures through her personal attempts at education, The Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Chapter One, The Rights and Involved Duties of Mankind Considered

Chapter one begins an effort to get her readers to return to original principles "in search of the most simple truths."

One of the litanies within Mary's work - and this chapter in particular - was her constant urging for women to argue with authority, challenge prejudices everywhere they were encountered, and defended her right to speak in this manner even though her questions were "formally contradicted, either by the words or conduct of men."

In Chapter one, Mary challenges man's control of all of creation; a societal assignment toward men to exalt them above women, children, and creatures; and cries for "happiness... By reason, virtue, and knowledge, that distinguishes the individual... equally undeniable, if mankind be view collectively."

With a singularity of purpose, Mary moves from generalities to specificity by accusing men of using their intellect and reasoning abilities to justify their prejudices against women. She bravely labels men who shrink from the principles of forming their own values - without being persuaded by their gender peers - as cowards.

Chapter one ends with Mary examining the reasons that men degrade women - excusing those few women educated by a "masculine education" - and asserts that men of genius are only so because they started in a social class with privilege to which women have never been permitted entrance.

Chapter Two, The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed, and Chapter Three, The Same Subject Continued

These two chapters display a surprising completeness of thought for a woman of the late 1700's who was a citizen of a time when women were little more than vessels for childbearing and household responsibilities.

In a sweeping statement, Mary demonstrates a degree of research and a knowledge of the biological sciences when describing that most great men live past forty-five (note: women often died in childbirth, or at very young ages from the rigors of life and duty) but waste the gift of longevity, "forgetful of the midnight hour," "wasted the lamp of life," and the "soul is therefore disturbed, till it shook the constitution by the passions that meditation had raised..."

Chapter Four, Observation on the State of Degredation to Which Woman is Reduced by Various Causes

Chapter four addresses the propensity of men to control and own women's bodies while leaving the mind to "rust," to the point that while sex enervates them - being his "favorite recreation" - he will continue to work to enslave women. She synopsizes this chapter by asking, "how many generations may be necessary to give vigour to the virtue and talents of the freed posterity of abject slaves?"

Chapter Five, Animadversions on Some of the Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects of Pity, Bordering on Contempt

In chapter 5, Mary continues to systematically condemn the attitudes of both men and women of her day. It is interesting to note that she recognizes the responsibilities on both sides of the issues, pointing out that in order to "satisfy this genius of men, women are made systematically voluptuous"... serves to "deprave both sexes, because the taste of men is vitiated, and women, of all classes, naturally square their behaviour to gratify the taste by which they obtain pleasure and power." She completes this chapter by accusing this behavior and the permissions to allow themselves to be treated this way as a causal factor for being weaker in mind and body.

Chapter Six, The Effect Which an Early Association of Ideas has Put Upon the Character

Chapter 6 is an in-depth discussion of the ways the two sexes "mutually corrupt and improve each other."

Chapter Seven, Modesty - Comprehensively considered, and Not as a Sexual Virtue

Chapter Eight, Morality, Undermined by Sexual Notions of the Importance of a Good Reputation

Chapter Nine, Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society

These three chapters intertwine in a discourse on Ms. Wollstonecraft's direct and unambiguous attack upon women for being weak, driven by the lusts and whim of men, and that modesty and morality are conditions to which women should ascribe in spite of the culture and dominant opinion of the day.

Chapter Ten, Parental Affection

Chapter Eleven, Duty to Parents

These chapters, though addressing parenting on the part of both parents in the one and to both of a couple's responsibilities to their parents, maintain continuity in Mary's thinking. To be a parent who refuses to foster nurturing and safe harbor for their children cannot turn and express this same attitude toward their own parents. It is interesting to note that men are included in her discourse on familial responsibilities.

Chapter Twelve, On National Education child very soon contracts a benumbing indolence of mind, which he has seldom sufficient vigour afterwards to shake off, when he only asks a question instead of seeking for information and then relies implicitly on the answer he receives." Mary shows a great deal of understanding of the role of education of children if strong societal values and mores are to be changed.

Chapter Thirteen, Some Instances of the Folly Which the Ignorance of Women Generates; with Concluding Reflections on the Moral Improvement That a Revolution in Female Manners Might Naturally be Expected to Produce

The final chapter in this manifesto harshly deals with women themselves with a final admonishment to men as the beings who can effect such important societal, moral, and familial changes. "But fortitude presupposes strength of mind, and is strength of mind to be acquired by indolent acquiescence? By asking advice instead of exerting the judgment? By obeying through fear, instead of practising the forbearance which we all stand in need of ourselves? The conclusion which I wish to draw is obvious. Make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives and mothers - that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers."

Summary for Thought

Mary Wollstonecraft was a free-thinking woman who did not shun her responsibilities as a mother, wife, daughter, sister, or teacher. This characteristic alone was the signal of courage in a woman born…[continue]

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