Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Dialectic of Sex and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Despite writing almost two centuries apart, both Wollstonecraft and Firestone begin at the same assumption: Women are thought to be naturally inferior to men, and this is a problem. Firestone (like deBeauvoir before her) sees this inferiority as stemming from the physical, so she calls for a revolution that centers on disconnecting women from their biological obligations, childbearing chief among them. She advocates for cybernetics, babies born in labs, and socialized health and childcare, among other things. She follows a Marxist mode of thinking that says progress cannot be achieved without an overthrow of current ideologies. Indeed, she criticizes Marx and Engles for what she sees as their merely tokenizing inclusion of women within their economic theories. While I think Firestone (like all true radicals) is a bit too idealistic, I do think she makes valid points about how women are sometimes oppressed by their own bodies. I'm definitely a supporter of childcare in businesses, as well as the addition of paternity leave to the traditional maternity option (something Firestone doesn't directly mention, but would almost certainly support due to its removal of the maternal body from mandatory direct childcare responsibilities).

Wollstonecraft zeroes in on education as both the root of and the solution to the problem of supposedly naturally occurring female inferiority. There are a few passages of her work that really struck me:
  1. "Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of property, will obtain for them the protection of a man...( excerpt from Kolmar and Bartowski 64). My grandmother used to say to me "The man may be the head of the family, but the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head whichever way she wants." I thought it was funny as a kid (and in a different way later after she passed away, when I heard it repeated in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding), but coming to feminism made me consider how the ways women are taught to gain power in relationships can actually keep them subordinate by playing into gender stereotypes. I love that Wollstonecraft goes straight to social construction in 1792. There is nothing new under the sun, indeed.
  2. "The most perfect education [will]... enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent. In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. Cf. EM conduct books, the phenomenon of greensickness (or later, hysteria, or even later, anorexia/bullemia). Elizabeth I was only able to learn "unfeminine" virtues because of her class position. Sadly, the view of feminine education Wollstonecraft decries is gaining ground again in conservative religious communities through the Stay-at-Home Daughters movement.
  3. "In the education of women, the cultivation of understanding is always subordinate to the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment" (65). In EME, this is true for most all women except some lucky high-class ones (Elizabeth, Lady Mary Wroth, etc.)

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