This post by author and poet Tracey Madeley presents us fascinating ideas on gender equality from the 19th century that are still up to date. The surprising author of such ideas, whose identity will be revealed further down, defends that equality promotes closeness and fulfillment in relationships: mere fondness is a poor substitute for friendship, as we will see.
“Like the flowers that are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty.”
This is the central idea behind The Vindication of the Rights of Women, written by Mary Wollstonecraft in response to Thomas Paine’s work, The Rights of Man. Published in 1792 it advocates a more balanced view of the differences between the sexes and how a redressing of the balance would benefit society.
Women occupied themselves with their outward trappings of dress, lace and ornamentation. Wollstonecraft argued that a woman who is simply valued for her looks benefits no one. Women relied on their appearance and any accomplishments which were designed to enhance their marriageability. For an 18th century woman, “when she obtains a husband she has arrived at her goal, and meanly proud, is satisfied with her paltry crown.”
She refers to them as alluring mistresses, rather than rational wives. Such “uncultivated understandings made them entirely dependent on their senses.” In a society which was gravitating towards sensibility of feeling, this was fashionable but not practical, as it turned their character towards manipulation rather than reasoned argument.
At the time the book was published, society believed marriage was the best outcome a woman could achieve. The Married Women’s Property Act was brought into force in 1870 and extended in 1882. This allowed women to keep control of their earnings, in addition to owning and inheriting property, thus providing for a more secure and independent future. Today we live in a culture where women work, but super thin models still hit the headlines and society argues over whose responsibility it is to set a good example.
Wollstonecraft draws a distinction between the sexes, where predominance is based on physical strength, which is perpetuated through women’s ignorance and lack of independence. “Weakness may excite tenderness, and gratify the arrogant pride of man.” But she continues, “Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship.” A view disputed by the emerging gothic novelists of the time, who saw men’s strength and power as oppressive and bullying. Wollstonecraft’s suggestion is that when you put men and women on an equal footing, they both benefit. A man gains companionship and friendship, a woman independence of thought.
She sees society’s way forward, through the education of women. Not just in the fine arts, such as singing and needlework, but in practical skills which will enable them to earn a living. An educated woman is a better companion for her husband, with a relationship based on mutual respect and friendship. Yet it’s strange to see her reject books, as the source of this learning. This is because, during this period, the books women read were fanciful romances, with what she refers to as flowery diction.
“Women who have fostered a romantic unnatural delicacy of feeling waste their lives in imagining how happy they should have been with a husband who could love them with a fervid increasing affection every day.” She sees no benefit in raising women’s expectations. In today’s language we would say the grass is not greener on the other side and it still needs cutting.
It’s a shame that recognition of Mary’s personal life was more prominent than her writing, especially in the early years, due to her relationships with the opposite sex. This has caused her work to languish, neglected for many years and to only receive the recognition she deserves in the last century. Her only marriage was to William Godwin, which produced a daughter, Mary, who later became Mrs. Mary Shelly, author of Frankenstein.
Tracey lives in Wrexham, North Wales with her husband Joe and two cats – Joplin and Fleur. She graduated from Essex University with a Law degree and went on to complete a Literature degree with the Open University, on a part time basis. After getting married in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco in 2004, she completed her Masters in the 18th Century Novel, again with the Open University.
Like most independent authors she works and writes in her spare time, aiming to produce a book a year. Peaceful Meadows was her first novel in 2012, followed by Love & Haight in 2013. Both works are available on Amazon.