Introduction to Commentary
To express one's opinion is to put a perspective on the proverbial table. From whence cometh one's opinion? The more knowledge one has on oneself – the more any given opinion is traced to the influence of external sources, if one is so psychoanalytically inclined to put forth the task of discovering such sources; but you can relax, for our intake of any source is never pure – we are not machines, and we often learn to see that which shaped our upbringing in completely different shapes as we grow older. Our behaviors are our own, and while shaped by our experiences, we eventually shape our own experiences. Mary Wollstonecraft's understanding does not contradict my own, as she puts forth great detail in showing the negative cause and result of patriarchal values. We shall explore: what were the patriarchal values critiqued by Wollstonecraft, and how were they implemented?
I am interested in expressing a critical opinion of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in a thorough manner – first freely, then through refinement. The next step to recognize is the achievement of such a goal: will I hold the critical interest in the book to read through to the end? I will find out over time. Completion of the book aside, the question creeps upon me as if a ghost: what is the difference between opinion and belief? I will use the meaning of ‘belief” as defined in ‘3.’ of the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “conviction of the truth of some statement or the reality of some being or phenomenon especially when based on examination or evidence.” Whereas, ‘opinion,’ from the above dictionary, is: “1 a: a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter… 2 a: belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge… 3 a: a formal expression of judgment or advice by an expert b : the formal expression (as by a judge, court, or referee) of the legal reasons and principles upon which a legal decision is based.” So, we will get nowhere with the subject at hand with philosophic discussion about the difference between belief and opinion, but for a definite defining of the words at hand: herein, ‘belief’ will be defined as above and ‘opinion,’ to exact a similar basis – to make the two terms interchangeable – will be defined herein as 3 b.
Mary Wollstonecraft had faith in the possibilities of the system, of the healthy development of civilization, and argued vehemently and with the precision of the ancient power of the philosophic logic of Plato, Aristotle, of Locke and Thoreau, and with a civil common sense – for the self-respectable development of women generally and of the poorer classes, for they were, to her, a key to the pristine development of civilization. Unlike many philosophers before and after her, who sought to at least ideally concretize the conditions and status of the lower classes, Wollstonecraft sought their dynamism and livelihood through the bringing up of the plebeians from their impoverished state of being through education (Nietzsche looks down upon plebeians, as well as upon Christianity, as it seems to be the gray area between the elites and the lower classes – but does Nietzsche not praise the ‘gray’ as well as elitism? – let us look closely at what that man praises, for he requires close, intimate reading, assumptions held at bay, above all, check your assumptions – and with certain intentions of greatness all his own; the above I shall hope to relevantly detail in conjunction with Wollstonecraft's work). Nietzsche was a harsh critic of morality, while Wollstonecraft was a defender of higher morals (nobility, prudence, education), so we should ask, how does morality play a part in Wollstonecraft's critique? What are her morals and what are those of whom she criticized?
As the commentary unfolds, we will discover the growth of many more branches. The trunk: Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; the roots: a focused reading of her work, and an intuitive catching and expressing of my most subtle or fleeting opinions, beliefs and contemporary and historical perspectives that sprout from a close examination of her work. And in a completely different metaphor of the tree, Mary Wollstonecraft is to the upholders of patriarchy as Bob Marley's “Small Axe” is to “the big tree.”
At this point in the progress of my work, the reader may refer directly to the content of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in order for this commentary to be of use, the much of the following essay needs no such reference; I do, however, suggest it as a companion to the book and encourage the readers to form their own educated opinion of both the book and the commentary.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman does not begin with a lengthy introduction, but the density of meaning within its not even five full pages is enough to produce many more pages of analysis, bringing other, special, guests into the discussion as well.
Wollstonecraft is aware of the inequalities between humans, and asks if it is due to nature or the history of human development; she points to “neglected education” as the source of people's misery, particularly that of women; she based this deduction on her many studies of education and other subjects, and she “deplores” this situation. It was her belief that women were not mentally healthy in their then-present social state, as expressed by their behavior and due to the doctrines of men who, throughout history, espoused the idea that women were intended to be the objects of men's desire, and little more. (6)
In the first paragraph of her introduction, summarized above, Wollstonecraft gives an opinion; she is not completely objective, as she uses metaphors to develop her idea, which makes the text more interesting to read, though somewhat difficult to clearly comprehend due to Wollstonecraft's writing style – in the last decades of the eighteenth century.
How does Wollstonecraft's critique of women's behavior apply today? Does it at all? As a global society, where do her criticisms hold more and less accuracy? In Western society, what is the state of women: can it be generalized? Are there differences between urban and rural women, and men for that matter? Where are women on an equal or above footing with men? How does physical attraction affect men's behavior towards women in the beginning of the twenty-first century, and that of women toward men? How do urban women think and act with respect to men, and different kinds of men – and does Wollstonecraft discuss this for her era? Even in the U.S., and of course in the world, in 2009, women generally earn less income and do not hold as high status positions as men do (women are allowed the status of secretaries, even of State! but a secretary nonetheless); where might Wollstonecraft stand on such issues, and given the epoch, did she conceive such issues? Do the above issues echo aspects of the inequalities of Wollstonecraft's epoch?
Wollstonecraft validates her criticism of women's lack of equality by clearly stating that she will review and refute the patriarchal perspectives of the great men of history, perspectives that clearly define women as inferior to men (6).
Aside, one thing I will note: Mary Wollstonecraft's style is not the most delectable – though less of a knot of words than Marx, and especially Hegel and in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. I put her closer to Nietzsche with respect to honesty (though, in his honesty, lies a labyrinth of allusion), which is reflected in her form as well as content, though the two philosophers differ in intent, with respect to each of their philosophical goals; upon further investigation we may see a greater relationship between the two.
Wollstonecraft takes note of her own writing style: She makes clear that her reason for writing is not for literary purposes, but for the subject at hand, that writing for the sake of elegance is artificial, “which, coming from the head, never reach the heart” (8-9). Her goal is to make women “more respectable members of society” by influencing readers through her utilitarian style and sincerity (8 & 9). Wollstonecraft seeks to influence women in a dialectical manner, whereby she writes, “I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversations;” the dialectic of which is that Wollstonecraft's writing should influence women by the same means as that of the “flowery diction” that she criticizes (9).
As one of the world's first feminists, she criticizes “flowery diction,” stating that such manner of words create “a deluge of false sentiments and overstretched feelings, stifling the natural emotions of the heart” (9). What are the natural emotions of the heart? Must one's true emotional expression come from utilitarian and like words? Does flowery language automate artificiality? I do not believe so, for flowery language can be a means for truly expressing oneself, for both men and women. I imagine that in the eighteenth century, since, according to Wollstonecraft, middle class women were brought up to act a flowery manner, such language was merely for the purpose of coquette, rather than a means of true expression of the heart.
Wollstonecraft may not be completely against flowery diction after all. When referring to the demeaning effects of flowery diction on women's feelings, Wollstonecraft directs the effect upon a woman's duties, severe duties (9). She is stating that flowery diction, instead of its potential use for showing “domestic pleasures” as a “nobler field of action,” shows those traits as tasteless (9)? I believe she is hinting at the possibility of a “flowery diction” that will “educate a... being for a nobler field of action;” this paragraph (¶11 of the Introduction), upon first and second glance can be confusing, as it seems to say that flowery diction shows domestic work as tasteless, and that “domestic pleasures” themselves should “sweeten the exercise of those severe labors” - but this is, I think, is a misunderstanding based on Wollstonecraft's grammatical structure (9).
As for Nietzsche, as I continue reading Beyond Good and Evil – in the preface, Walter Kaufmann writes that Nietzsche made “tedious remarks about women,” whereupon reviewing with my own eyes, I think his remarks to be more sardonic than merely tedious (189). In generalizing women's attitude toward science, for example; women are against it because, as Nietzsche writes of women saying:
“Oh, this dreadful science!” sigh their instinct and embarrassment; “it always gets to the bottom of things!” (311)
Nietzsche answers for his own generalization of women (though at the time of writing, the women Nietzsche poked fun at were probably the same type of women who Wollstonecraft criticized in her own epoch, nearly a century earlier – though she did so in a precise way, with a specific intention towards bettering the lives of those same women, while Nietzsche was merely using a lofty and sardonic expression) inadvertently when exposing the generally degraded position of philosophy in the eyes of certain types of men: “sometimes lack of respect for individual philosophers... had involuntarily generalized itself into lack of respect for philosophy;” herein lies the confusion of a category (philosophy or women) with a particular (individual philosophers and individual women) (312). The possibility remains that the European women of both Nietzsche's and Wollstonecraft's time were generally of the same behavioral and societal status.
We know, those who are familiar with her, that Mary Wollstonecraft sought to influence the rise of women from lowly, servile behaviors in order to better themselves, their families and society. Nietzsche cared nothing for the betterment of women and the lower classes, thus far in my reading of Beyond Good and Evil, and in a way, even in all of his otherwise brilliant, and I mean this, absolutely brilliant philosophy, his attitude towards lower people could perhaps be likened to the treatment with which the Marquis de Sade's lower characters are given by the brutal and cruel masters, the libertines – though de Sade's exact form of extreme brutality cannot be compared to Nietzsche’s elitist ideals, the power relations and the stagnancy of those relations, do make for an appropriate comparison.
The British writer focuses on middle class women because these women “appear to be in the most natural state” (Wollstonecraft 7). First, to what state of nature is she referring? And second, that Wollstonecraft is critiquing the state of women in her epoch, I ask: what of today? What of my generation, and not particularly of gender relationships, but of the future of my generation, how is such a perspective to be grasped, or is her perspective completely outdated? If we explore certain aspects of her ideal virtues, she may well be outdated, and obviously the historical situation of women has greatly changed in the Western world, though, as briefed above, women still face the forces of inequality. My assumption is that the middle class was “in the most natural state” because they may have been the ideal, and in the Western world today, the medium of the stable society; but this is only the Introduction, so I expect we will discover more of the “nature” of the middle class soon enough.
Wollstonecraft refers to “a class of mankind;” this means middle class women, I think, rather than the middle class as a whole. She maintains a sardonic attitude towards the behavior of middle class women, expecting them to act as “rational creatures” and to inspire in women “strength of body and mind” and to show the superiority of virtue over elegance, rather than be in a state of “perpetual childhood” and taking up “soft phrases, delicacy of sentiment, refinement of taste” that show women to be “only the objects of pity.” In 2009, the contemporary woman has already developed a synthesis of the two forms: of the “sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel,” as well as the “character of a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex,” thus maintaining a certain identity of woman in current society; I have yet to challenge myself with the means to validate this perspective. (8)
The education of women was based on developing “libertine notions of beauty, [and] to the desire of establishing themselves... by marriage” (9). The above notion of libertine, I think, meaning unrestrained by morality – the word 'libertine' immediately calls to mind the Marquis de Sade, who was of the same epoch as Wollstonecraft and is the most well known proponent of libertinism – so famous is the unrestrained sexual cruelty in his work and life, that the word 'sadism' is named after his exploits. I wonder if, when Wollstonecraft was writing book reviews and translating works for the journal Critical Review in the late 1780s, she came across any of de Sade's writings – nevertheless, at least several eighteenth century libertine works were in circulation in Wollstonecraft's lifetimes, as can be seen in the contents of the 1997 anthology, The Libertine Reader: Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France (Wollstonecraft iv). With respect to the work and life of de Sade, Wollstonecraft is diametrically opposed, and though the works of both authors intersect to show the disparities of coquetry, they do so with completely different means and intentions; this may be elucidated later on and in more detail, but I will not promise so.
Wollstonecraft saw the women of her day sacrificing the potential for physical and mental strength for mere coquetry in order to establish themselves in society through marriage (9). For eighteenth century women, marriage was the only way for a woman to “rise in the world,” so instead of learning practical skills for living a practical family life, she focused instead on learning how to be alluring (i.e. to seduce) to a man of high stature (Wollstonecraft 9). Keep in mind that Wollstonecraft's ideal was contrasting with a middle class woman's life, where banality was the rule; frippery (defined here as “something foolish or affectedly elegant”) reigned (“frippery”).
I wish to show a distinction between Wollstonecraft's ideas of the rising of woman's status to that equal to man, especially for her epoch, distinguished from woman's peculiar ability to bring life into the world and support a child’s earliest years; she knew a woman could both be equal and raise a family, even on her own if need be, as we shall see. Of origins, was the practical specificity of child rearing and the seeming fragility and time required to attend to children a cause of patriarchal ideology that was instilled in women and enforced by men? Certainly not of the type of woman Wollstonecraft criticized. We know of the suppression of and deviant portrayal of women in the texts of the Old Testament, even in the history of Hindu and Buddhist cultures – and where did this idea, more so, this act, this behavior and attitude towards woman originate? Was the effect of child rearing a significant cause of patriarchy? The above questions are not to be answered here, but are interesting and worthwhile to contemplate, as well as how the above culture portray the positive aspects of women.
Wollstonecraft contrasts the coquettish education of women, her subject of criticism, and that of a noble and practical one, which she upholds. Wollstonecraft's idea of woman's place with regards to men in society, in the first pages of her introduction, show the ideal woman as gaining respect through her abilities and virtues (de Sade merely shows the most horrifying use value of the weak attitude and behavior of women [or any creature that is weaker than another, for that matter], rather than a transcendence of it, as Wollstonecraft seeks to express), and to be “affectionate wives and rational mothers” (6). What were Wollstonecraft's ideal abilities and virtues? What was the basis of Wollstonecraft's ideal woman if that woman was to be a good wife and mother? This seems restricting in 2009, and in fact, in Chicago, the young middle to upper class hold more aspects of behaviors that Wollstonecraft is criticizing than those that she praises, but not at all entirely. Most urban women today know what most men like, know how to catch and how to please the same (though in very different cultural forms), while at the same time holding their own interests in mind, yet this is done in a similar manner as the coquettish women criticized by Wollstonecraft; of course, the contemporary urban women has gained independence and is on par with men in many areas of life – but by no means all; this too I hope to elucidate further on. And I wonder, is there not a grudge that Wollstonecraft holds against women with the ability to be coquettish, or is she simply one of the earliest female-specific existentialists, concerned with the authenticity of women's actions?
Back to the Present: Porn and the Spectacle of Sexuality
In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.
The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.
–Debord, Sections 1 and 4 of The Society of the Spectacle
The immense quantity of online pornography available today is a practical example of men's objective desire of woman, showing that libertinism has not at all diminished, and to quote Wollstonecraft in a new context, pornography continues in “making mere animals of them” - and not only mere animals, but alienated beings: one side ascribed to actor, who's sexual allure is recorded and put on display in the public realm; the other side as spectator, who, through the exciting of certain sense organs, gains momentary sexual satisfaction, and though scientific consensus is in the works, many doctors have concluded that watching porn can become a chemical addiction of the viewer, just as drugs or alcohol can be addictive (Morrison). In the above form of alienated pseudo-interaction, tens of thousands of people, usually men (I believe I have a right to assume this), can gain momentary gratification by viewing the same porn video (9). One woman exposed and performing the sexual act can become the object of ten thousand fleeting desires. Now, how many women's bodies are displayed on the internet?
What does this mean for the women, many, very many in their late teens and early twenties, who perform in these videos? Is it a means of establishing oneself, for an adventure, in order to please the man that wants to record her, for financial gain, a result of overt coercion, sexual addiction? Doubtless, the reasons are those and many more, but the means and the many perspectives of pornography must be noted.
When a porn recording is made, I do not believe, in many cases (though I have no quantifiable evidence at the moment), that the woman who is the subject of the spectacle realizes what is to be done with it – as a lot of online porn is non-professional, and a man who propositions a woman for a movie perhaps pays her, perhaps is in a relationship with her, thus establishing trust, or perhaps is simply able to manipulate her and promise her pie in the sky – but she sees only the camera (or may be deceived and not be informed that her intimacy is being recorded) – and may not even be aware that the footage will be uploaded to the internet for millions of people to peruse; and for how many is it a shameful claim to fame? For how many is it a desire to be watched? To look upon one's youth as if immortalized in the spectacle of naked passion? I doubt such a romantic idea of porn exists in many of the minds of its participants, though I have seen much in the way of naivety, pain, stupidity, cookie-cutter acting out of sex acts, as seemingly directed by the often over-baring man who's genitalia is the star in the way of women in online porn. Everything is seeming, for how much actual cruelty and misery is an effect of the tens, or hundreds of thousands (or millions?) of anonymous bodies seen in the online porn world? Quite a lot, I will not doubt. Think about it, it seems no big deal to be persuaded to have a little electronic eye pointed at you during sex, does it?
The image of woman maintains a firm hold on the imagination of men (it is one of the primary ways people grow attracted to each other), and with the rise of visual mass communication and of the internet, the image of woman and her perceived purpose as a sexual object has gained a heavy footing in those parts of the world where the internet is accessible, indeed, in many of the same countries where women have the most independence. Perhaps the alienation of pornography, that objectification of the image of woman, is a continuation of ancient patriarchal values. It is not only the values of a “man's world” that allows for the wide spread supply and demand for easily accessed, no-cost porn – it is safe. Viewing porn can be, and is (at least to some extent) a replacement for the effort involved in finding a real person to interact with, and to make love or have sex with – and for women in porn, it is a camera that views them, not an auditorium full of masturbating men, which it would amount to once the porn video goes online – and a job, it may well be income, just another job, in which women have been well trained over the centuries to know what men want – forced to know, and now it may seem that women can cash in on their objectification: but in most cases, I assume, only as second rate objects and not as owners of the means of their labor; anyhow, the porn industry is actually losing money because of easy access to free internet porn (Baram). Wollstonecraft wrote, over two hundred years ago, what may be especially applicable to a critique of pornography (below, only the first emphasis is mine):
If... it can be fairly deduced from the present conduct of the sex, from the prevalent fondness for pleasure which takes place of ambition and those nobler passions that open and enlarge the soul; that the instruction which women have hitherto received has only tended, with the constitution of civil society, to render them insignificant objects of desire... if it can be proved that in aiming to accomplish them, without cultivating their understandings, they are taken out of their sphere of duties, and made ridiculous and useless when the short-lived bloom of beauty is over, I presume that rational men will excuse me for endeavouring to persuade them to become more masculine and respectable. (9)
Wollstonecraft, above and in context, is defending what the noble virtues which the men of her time sardonically attributed to masculinity, virtues which women are equally capable of holding. In modesty, and perhaps with regard to the technology of the eighteenth century, she continues her introduction by reassuring men that women will remain dependent upon men due to the former's physical inferiority (9-10). However, we can consult the famous words of Sojourner Truth, from her speech, “Ain't I a Woman?” when she said, “Look at me! Look at my arms! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? (95)” Today, however, technology has more than made up for the means to replace the deadening labor that slaves once endured, and that women of any status can endure.
Wollstonecraft sees the virtue of weakness, espoused by learned men and internalized by women, resulting in cunning on the part of the woman; she sees cunning as a form of tyranny and as the opposite of strength (10). To see cunning as a form of tyranny is a noble idea, while I see it rather as an adaptation to the circumstances that Western men placed upon women in Wollstonecraft's epoch; cunning was the passive strength of weakness, if manipulation can be seen in light of strength. For Wollstonecraft, strength is not a passive means to get one's way while acquiescing in the status quo, it is instead a noble, responsible and respectable means of acting in the world.
Beginning with a review of first principles, Wollstonecraft shows the foundations (axiom) that separate humans from animals to be knowledge, reason and virtue; she warns that, “when entangled with various motives of action, they are formally contradicted, either by the words or conduct of men” (11). The ability to reason separates humans from animals; virtue sets one “being” higher than another; and knowledge allows humans to struggle with their passions (11). Both virtue and knowledge are not first principles, in the way Wollstonecraft defines them, each for a different reason.
Baram, Marcus. "Free Porn Threatens Adult Film Industry." ABC News. 11 June 2007. 22 Nov. 2009 <http://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?id=3259416&page=1>
"belief." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 20 November 2009 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/belief>
Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Trans. Ken Knabb. Bureau of Public Secrets: No Copyright, 1967 <http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/debord/1.htm>
"frippery." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 24 November 2009 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/frippery>
Morrison, Keith. “Battling Sexual Addiction.” Dateline NBC. 24 Feb. 2004. MSNBC Online. 22 Nov. 2009 <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/4302347/>
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “Beyond Good and Evil.” Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Trans. & Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Modern Library, 2000. 179-435.
"opinion." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 20 November 2009 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/opinion>
Truth, Sojourner. “Ain't I a Woman?” Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. Ed. Miriam Schneir. New York: Vintage, 1994. 93-98
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1996.
Causes Jonathan Winters Supports
Environmental and social justice causes. Educational causes through interpersonal relationships