Ross (1988) notes the development of Romanticism in the late eighteenth century and indicates that it was essentially a masculine phenomenon:
Romantic poetizing is not just what women cannot do because they are not expected to; it is also what some men do in order to reconfirm their capacity to influence the world in ways socio-historically determined as masculine. The categories of gender, both in their lives and in their work, help the Romantics establish rites of passage toward poetic identity and toward masculine empowerment. Even when the women themselves are writers, they become anchors for the male poets' own pursuit for masculine self-possession. (Ross, 1988, 29)
Mary Wollstonecraft was as famous as a writer in her day as her daughter. Both mother and daughter were important proponents of the rights of women both in their writings and in the way they lived and served as role models for other women of their time. Much of their work as writers and political thinkers developed from and represented the spirit of the Romantic era in which they lived. Wollstonecraft said she sought justice for women. Specifically, such justice would be found when women were educated as were men and when women could use their education for more than gracing the home. Wollstonecraft saw women and men as equal, and yet she was fully aware that fiction reflected the prejudices of society and showed that society did not see men and women as equal:
For man and woman, truth, if I understand the meaning of the word, must be the same; yet the fanciful female character, so prettily drawn by poets and novelists, demanding the sacrifice of truth and sincerity, virtue becomes a relative idea, having no other foundation than utility, and of that utility men pretend arbitrarily to judge, shaping it to their own convenience. (Wollstonecraft 51)
The Romantic age was bringing about a change in the way women were depicted in literature, and Mary Wollstonecraft was both reacting to and part of this change. Women had been treated harshly in literature prior to this period, but various factors at the time were bringing about a change.
Wollstonecraft's essential themes in Vindication of the Rights of Woman are directed toward removing the stigma from women and recognizing that women and men are not as different as they have been made out to be. The roles women are given in society are artificial and ignore the real values embodied in women:
have already inveighed against the custom of confining girls to their needle, and shutting them out from all political and civil employments; for by thus narrowing their minds they are rendered unfit to fulfill the peculiar duties which nature has assigned them. (Wollstonecraft 169)
Wollstonecraft pleads for the broader education of women in order to allow them to develop their faculties and abilities. Marriage is seen throughout this book as an institution which prevents women from developing in any other way than domestic, and this begins prior to marriage with the way women are trained and the reasons for that training: "if they [women] be moral beings, let them have a chance to become intelligent; and let love to man be only a part of that glowing lame of universal love, which, after encircling humanity, mounts in grateful incense to God" (Wollstonecraft 67-68). Wollstonecraft is only using society's own terminology and views in developing her argument here, for women are spoken of as moral beings, as the conscience of society, and yet they are treated as other than moral beings by being refused a full education. Wollstonecraft does not denigrate domestic activities and spends some time noting how difficult they are and what faculties they require to be done right. One of the most important tasks left to women is the raising of children, and yet society does not see that women need a developed intelligence to accomplish this task properly: "The management of the temper, the first, and most important branch of education, requires the sober steady eye of reason..." (Wollstonecraft 68).
Wollstonecraft calls for a new educational system, one which she details at length. One of its notable elements is that boys and girls would study together rather than in a gender-segregated setting. One of the consequences of a full education for both men and women as seen by Wollstonecraft would be for relationships to be based more on equality and a real connection between people. This would also be a boon to both sexes, pushing them to a fuller and more temperate life:
The want of natural affection, in many women, who are drawn from their duty by the admiration of men, and the ignorance of others, render the infancy of man a much more perilous state than that of brutes; yet men are unwilling to place women in situations proper to enable them to acquire sufficient understanding to know how even to nurse their babies. (Wollstonecraft 177)
Wollstonecraft's book on women's rights does not make reference to those who had gone before and who had called for greater rights for women, and most of these earlier writers may have been unknown to Wollstonecraft. The book is thus not an outgrowth of previous social or philosophical thought except to the degree that it arose within the wide movement for social change taking place in Europe and the United States:
Broadening that movement to include a concern for women was Mary's unique contribution, and she made it, not so much because of what she had read or the thinkers she had listened to and argued with, but from her own personal experience and her reflections on those experiences (Flexner 149).
Her concern was not with the economic exploitation of women, though she would later recognize it, but she was concerned with middle-class women and the ladies of the "gentry" because she believed that these classes set the tone for society as a whole:
She is intent on removing the stigma attaching to woman -- any and all woman -- as creatures of instinct and feeling, devoid of intellectual powers or the capacity for intellectual growth (Flexner 149).
The theme is this: that women are human beings before they are sexual beings, that mind has no sex, and that society is wasting its assets if it retains women in the role of convenient domestic slaves and "alluring mistresses," denies them economic independence and encourages them to be docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else.(Tomalin 105)
The Romantic age was bringing about a change in the way women were depicted in literature, and Mary Wollstonecraft was both reacting to and part of this change. Women had been treated harshly in literature prior to this period, but various factors at the time were bringing about a change. One was the abundance of female novelists like Fanny Burney, Charlotte Smith, Clara Reeve, and Elizabeth Inchbald, all of whom presented heroines of moral if not always intellectual stature. Another factor was the increase in humanitarian and enlightened sentiment concerning the poor, the weak, and the despised, categories that all included women. Another factor was the existence of the Bluestockings, a group of women who gained some position in a male world by combining piety, seriousness, and learning. They were not radical in what they wanted for women, but their stature helped form a more tolerant climate of opinion regarding women (Ferguson and Todd 60-61).
Just twenty years old, she writes here as a woman to other women, using the pronoun "we," her emotional involvement palpable even as the formalities of her chosen diction work to displace any overt show of feeling... (Alexander 36)
Her language has a deliberate biblical undertone that is all part of her attempt to restore to women the human right of self-respect. Women resort to artifice in order to place the world, though such assumed feelings are awkward when compared to real feelings. She pleads for women to be seen as they really are. She says that the body hides the mind, yet just as proper clothing should in all suitable modesty draw attention to the self, so the bodily self so long distorted by the claims of vanity should purify itself by incarnating mind. Hence body, though cover for the mind, becomes alive with the inwardness it holds. (Alexander 37)
The roles for women were clearly differentiated in terms of the private and the public sphere, with class distinctions involved in both spheres and with women of a certain class expected to adhere more closely to this division, with women having a certain place in the domestic sphere, and a much more diminished place in the public sphere.
Chapter Two: Private vs. Public
Much of Mary Wollstonecraft's struggle with conformity and rebellion derived from the expectations and realizations of the public vs. The private sphere. This is an issue that faces us today as well, though the way we differentiate between the two spheres and the expectations we…