Thursday, February 18, 2010

Seminar Paper - Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill

A Vindication on the Rights of Women


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797)

• Difficult early life – raised by a drunken, violent father and an obedient mother
• Forced to work as a governess, but became obsessed with education
• Wrote Thoughts on Education of Daughters in 1787, in which she stated that women were poorly equipped by education and needed to be taught ‘properly’ as we are born with no innate ideas (agrees with Locke)
• Therefore an empiricist
• Unitarian i.e. did not believe in the ‘Trinity’
• Criticised Rousseau for his opinions of women as made for man, but agreed with his anti-elitism and his attack on ‘modern manners’
• Wrote Vindication on the Rights of Man which claimed that ideas of aristocracy and hereditary power were mistaken
• Had several affairs
• Suicide attempts
• To put it in context, she lived in a time of turmoil and change, as demonstrated by the French Revolution (which fascinated her)
• Well read and educated – comes across through her referencing of other writers

Vindication on the Rights of Woman (1792)

• Discusses the state of female manners for middle class women (for which she is criticised as being limited)
• Her vision for women involved equality with men in the area of education and a less structured way of living in terms of fashion and etiquette for middle class women
• States that it does not matter if you are man or woman in life as there is no difference
• Begins quite balanced: Accepts that man are naturally the stronger sex, but suggests that man’s weakness is that he doesn’t use this ‘birth right’ as she calls it, but simply follows his desire to live in the present moment – assuming that tomorrow could be his last day
• Believes the soul is immortal, because, as a human, we will never be perfect but must strive to always try and perfect ourselves
• States that if women possess reason (which she clearly believes they do) we should be allowed to think for ourselves and not to take things ‘on trust’
• Suggests that the class system of manners ‘robs the female sex of its dignity’
• Speaks in a complicated manner, confusing issues of feminism with other things: Suggests that it is narrow-mindedness that cause the problems of women and states that the same problems face the rich because they will never know the ‘virtues of labour’
• Pleasure should no longer be the main aim for a woman’s life – talks of women being weak beings again
• Speaks quite poetically: Uses the metaphor of a bird – stating that women are confined to a cage with nothing to do but ‘plume’ themselves
• Dislikes male manners that are considered charming e.g. holding a door open, because they are patronising and unnecessary
• Does not understand why no women come from obscurity into the limelight – there is no reason why they can’t
• Disagrees that the highest ambition a woman should have is to marry well
• Suggests that women took on all the useless qualities from society – like an obsession with feelings – whereas men took the best and respect order and duty
• She remains quite balanced throughout – saying there are exceptions and that it does not just apply to women
• Dislikes that women turn to men for safety, when they can quite easily solve a solution themselves

• Wollstonecraft uses Rousseau to demonstrate her point: that women should have control over themselves and decide their own lives

“Educate women like men," says Rousseau, "and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us." This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves

• Consistently talks of her dislike for sensibility – suggests that it ruins a woman, causing her to forget reason
• Has some unusual ideas: Asks whether negligence or indulgence is most detrimental – and decides that the latter has done the most harm
• Wants female beauty to be considered the same as male, and take into account a woman’s mind and sense of reason as well as her appearance
• Wollstonecraft goes on to talk of affairs and how a man should be responsible for any illegitimate children, followed by her ideas on love and friendship, which comes across as odd when considering the rest of the chapter, which centres around how women should be considered

• Contradicts with her own life – believed that women were not made solely for mans pleasure and yet lived her life by the men in it. For a feminist she was shaped by men perhaps more than she realised, even from her upbringing with a drunken father – perhaps this is a factor shared by feminists?

• The contradiction would not be so strange if she had not been so sure of her opinions in her writing.

John Stuart Mill

• Believed in Liberty
• On Liberty – stated that liberty protected people from tyrannical ruling
• Stated that power lies with the individual over the state
• The nature of the power that society has over the individual
• The introduction of rights
• Rulers became the voice of the nation’s will – representative
• Main principle of the essay: man can do what he wishes, even though others may try to persuade him against it, as long as it harms no-one. As soon as it does, penalties can be employed. “the individual is sovereign”

• Utilitarianism – happiness over pain
• Introduced the first bill to give women the right to vote – championed women’s rights
• Was extremely intelligent by the age of 16, which only led to a nervous breakdown by the time he was 20
• Believed strongly in freedom of speech
• Against uniformity – do and think what you want as long as it does not harm anyone
• Dismisses the Social Contract
• ‘The greatest good for the greatest number’ on the surface sounds like a perfect idea, but people are different and conflict will always arise making this impossible to achieve
• Made a hierarchy of pleasures
• Constantly considered the consequences: Acts, Moral Rules, Disposition

What is Liberty?

• Authority is located with the individual
• Laissez faire view of life
• Freedom over equality
• Religion and morality are private matters
• Pluralism – beliefs and actions are your own concern

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