I cannot believe Mary Wollstonecraft wrote this in the 18th Century; it is beyond comprehension. And how is it that so many of the issues she named and described remain prevalent over two hundred years later? (Was I really just reading something about a twenty-four-year-old Playboy bunny marrying Hugh Hefner and prancing around the Mansion in her skivvies?) I love how Wollstonecraft is both totally passionate and totally reasonable at once.
She calls for woman "to obtain a character as a human being" and tells us, frankly that she "must declare what [she] firmly believe[s]" (5,13). Right on, Mary. After all, we are human, as Atwood kept trying to say in spite of the Commander in her work of speculative fiction.
This part is equally passionate and reasonable at the same time: "When will a great man arise with sufficient strength of mind to puff away the fumes which pride and sensuality have thus spread over the subject?" (19) I often wonder the same thing. There is a paradox at work in this: men are stronger, it seems to me, when they are willing to put their own strength aside for a minute and consider the strength allowed women, in the past and now.
"Let it not be concluded that I wish to invert the order of things," Wollstonecraft is careful to say, acknowledging the fact that attaining equity and equality for women does not mean denying equity and equality for men--hence the words equity and equality, I should add (20).
Now I'm not so sure about this: "Her first wish should be to make herself respectable" as long as the focus of that respect isn't clear (23). If Wollstonecraft means respectable first to herself, if not then to others, then I'm on board. "Let her only determine, without being too anxious about present happiness, to acquire the qualities that ennoble a rational being" remains, in my mind, a worthy call for women and girls, should we also allow room for a fullness and wholeness of being in addition to rationality (29-30).
From time to time, I share Wollstonecraft's disdain for passionate and romantic, frivolous love as a kind of light and unworthy obsession. All those years ago, she was calling for a kind of partnership and mutual respect between men and women who love each other. "I love man as my fellow," she says (36). And: "The lordly caresses of a protector will not gratify a noble mind that pants for and deserves to be respected. Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!" (24) I must admit to having enjoyed men's "fondness" from time to time over the years, but I certainly have better enjoyed their friendship and felt that their friendship was more substantial and therefore more meaningful.
Finally for now, I get pretty excited about what Wollstonecraft has to say about liberation. First: "It cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjegated" (38). How can we know, in other words, what women are capable of? (This seems true to me even with regard to sports, for example. Too little time has past for us to yet fully see what women can do as athletes, at least when compared to men, who've been playing the same sports for much longer in most cases and, before that, whose bodies have been evolved for hunting and other quite physical enterprises.) "Liberty is the mother of virtue," Wollstonecraft proclaims (37). Amen, sister. Give me liberty, or give me death (or at least a kind of death, like there is for the narrator in The Handmaid's Tale). She notes, too, that "The women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex," reminding us that well behaved women rarely make history (25). Right-o!