Mary Wollstonecraft: Challenges of Race and Class in Feminist Discourse

By Maoulidi, Salma | Women's Studies Quarterly, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview
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Mary Wollstonecraft: Challenges of Race and Class in Feminist Discourse


Maoulidi, Salma, Women's Studies Quarterly


Mary Wollstonecraft wrote for revolutionary times, calling for revolutionary ideas to bring about new political and social relations. Human rights ideals put forth by the French Revolution and the American Constitution inform her social outlook. To reform the world, she calls for universality, instead of local manners and sensualist persuasions that present an image of women devoid of strength in character or virtue. However, her preoccupation is not solely with the place and rights of women but more fundamentally with the privilege men are accorded. Wollstonecraft asks, "In what does man's pre-eminence over the brute creation consists?" (12). She dismisses using bodily strength as the sole criteria to justify the superiority of man and implores the use of reason to challenge what she regards as the subjective opinions of writers of the day. Rather than according merit to these opinions she wants a common playing field where the intellectual abilities and virtues of women are judged on the same terms as those of men (36).

In her treatise Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft boldly extends all rights due to men to women, arguing that the manner of times have changed, formed by more reasonable principles. For Wollstonecraft, equality of the sexes will ensure the emergence of a new social order, a virtuous society. How relevant are these arguments today?

RIGHT PREMISED ON UNIVERSALITY

Wollstonecraft bases her work on philosophical, literary, and religious texts, seeking to counter what she considers regressive viewpoints, in the process becoming perhaps one of the earliest women to interrogate religious text and dogma. She blames writers such as Rousseau and Dr. Gregory for advancing the notion that women are weak, devoid of solid virtues, and therefore useless members of society (22). The perception that women are slaves, playthings, loses them respect.

Wollstonecraft presents universal arguments that remain relevant for women today. She argues for an array of social, political, and economic rights, among them the right to self-determination, the right to an education, the right to choose a spouse, the right to participation, and the right to a livelihood and to property (168). The context of the debate, however, remains consonant with her times, as shown in her use of language and the basis for her analysis. For instance, to defend the rights of women, she uses moral arguments derived from biblical texts or romantic notions and, rather than employing a rights-based framework, appeals to reason.

Further, presenting a biased view of religion as it pertains to women, she mentions Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Ironically, Prophet Muhammad is generally seen by Muslims and non-Muslims alike to have been a strong advocate of women's rights in conservative Arabia. On the one hand, her remarks could suggest existing prejudices regarding foreign civilizations having different moral standards-that is, those that are not Christian or European. On the other, her assertion could represent widely available interpretations of sacred texts about women. Nevertheless, her readiness to engage with the cultural and religious is pivotal in advancing the discussion of rights, particularly in communities where culture or religion is the dominant framework in operation.

The discussion of rights with respect to women contrasts that which is transitory (the need for love and affection) and that which is permanent (the demand for respect and friendship).1 Wollstonecraft pushes for neutral criteria-that is, other than sex-that distinguishes one human being from another: virtue, reason, and knowledge. She demands a common standard for measuring virtues, necessitating that they be founded on the same principles and have the same aim. A common standard would ensure that all virtues are of the same quality and degree (26). Wollstonecraft asserts that women, like men, possess the ability to reason and thus to become virtuous.

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