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Remembering Mary Wollstonecraft: champion of the obvious yet controversial


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It is very fashionable for writers to comment on the obvious. Currently, an entire herd of writers, commentators and journalists make their living pointing out that which is obvious and uncontroversial.

This population have dedicated their efforts to sharpening their wits on the dullest subjects, and the dullest of all subjects, the current U.S president, produces wave after wave of boringly obvious thinkpieces. Michael Wolf's Fire and Fury, Omarosa's Unhinged, and Bob Woodward's Fear all write, print, and package softball truths already known to the public to the chorus of 'resistance'. Writers who deserve the honourable title of radical write in the narrow space between the obvious and the controversial. And Mary Wollstonecraft, writing at the time of the French Revolution, lived her life writing on the controversial yet obvious. 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Having died two-hundred and twenty-one years ago today, Mary Wollstonecraft is remembered for her radical book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and is remembered as one of the earliest feminist writers. Far a lofty treatise, Wollstonecraft writes that "the discussion of this subject merely consists in opening a few simple principles, and clearing away the rubbish which obscured them".

The simple principles that she opens the book with can be stated as a syllogism: first, reason is the unique and exalting aspect of humankind; next, the only measure by which someone can be exalted is virtue; third, passion exists to be struggled with in order to produce knowledge. If women do have the faculty of reason then the only solid foundation for any virtue, happiness, and perfection must be that "truth which is common to all". From this lucid first principle, Wollstonecraft begins to examine every so-called 'womanly virtue' and tears each down that does not hold up to the standard of reason. It is through this process that Wollstonecraft provides her greatest example and legacy for future generations, and in it affirms the necessity of revisiting her arguments. 

The prescient of all her arguments centres on the relationship radicals and conservatives have towards nature and nuture. The rope the political left and right tug on is made up of the argument between something being a product of natural systems working well, or socially constructed systems failing. Sex and gender politics so easily fall into this mold as our own psyches and consciences are less known to us than anything else, and it is necessary to constantly ask what of the self is innate or embedded. Mary Wollstonecraft was brave enough at a tumultuous time to dig her heels into the firm ground of reason and struggle as a radical. She was willing ever to "imply what [she] should be afraid to utter".

Her introduction to this came with the French Revolution and the birth of the modern conception of a political left and right. In 1790, the English Parliamentarian, and father of the political conservative philosophy, Edmund Burke wrote against the French revolution in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. This book is one of the few in history to be known more for its reception than its content. After having been published, a series of refutations and rebuttals were written, one of which was Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Man.

Anticipating much of what she was to write in her great feminist book, Wollstonecraft attacked Burke as a worshiper of "the rust of antiquity" mistaking sagacity with "the unnatural customs which ignorance and mistaken self-interest have consolidated". Wollstonecraft rejected throughout this piece, and throughout her life, authority for authority's sake, forever taking the risk to think things out for herself. Abhorring the political servility of Burke to heritage and monarchy, it is no surprise the Vindication of the Rights of Women would carry the argument further.

The first and main battleground for equality Wollstonecraft took to was education. Her first published work was Thoughts on the Education of Daughters, and it took an opposing view to that of society at the time. Where most writers on the subject prescribed an education in manners and conduct over knowledge and virtue, Wollstonecraft emphasized the independent mind above all else. In defining education she rejected the idea that anyone can be truly taught: "the mind is not, cannot be created by the teacher, though it may be cultivated, and its real powers found out". Her writings on education extend into her later feminist writing, with a whole chapter focusing on the subject of national education. At a time when french politician Talleyrand was submitting a proposal to exclude women from the new constitutional order by means of separate education for women, Wollstonecraft challenged him in print and in person. 

Part of the education Wollstonecraft argued for was one that shifted away from the follies of dress and ornamentation. Much of her inspiration came from the oppression of fashion and appearance. In an age when femininity not only meant excessive fragility and vacuity but also burdensome beauty, the everyday aspects of female life were cause for a revolution. Seeing the obsession with the outward appearance, Wollstonecraft noted that "the body hides the mind" and instead "dress should adorn the person, and not rival it". To her these were the vestiges of a relationship between an object and its adorer, not two companions. The 'lady' needed to be replaced by the woman. 

This naturally lead to a very important topic when the issue of the sexes is raised: love. Despite being quite an austere and religious person, Wollstonecraft had an exceptional respect for love and in many way improved the definitions of the time. Where romanticism was peddled in novels sentimental to the point of saccharine, a deeper understanding of love was needed. Wollstonecraft asserted a new form of love, one which she captures in her first novel Mary, in which an autobiographical character, stuck in a loveless marriage of familial obligation, finds her companion in soul and character. 

Never accepting the definitions of the discussion at any point, Mary Wollstonecraft managed to set the framework for a series of revolutions. Never content with easy targets, she challenged the most eminent thinkers of her time, including Jean Jacques Rousseau and Edmund Burke. Never resting on inheritance of the past, she was always looking towards a future in which the position of women as equals in society would be more secure. The reactionary "exerts himself to prove that all was right originally; a crowd of authors that all is right; and I, that all will be right." Her example will forever stand as a call to forever question those who say "all is right" and forever struggle towards a state, however elusive, in which "all will be right". 

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