Protofeminist is a term used to define women in a philosophical tradition that anticipated modern feminist concepts yet lived in a time when the term “feminist” was unknown, that is, prior to the 20th century. The precise use of the term is disputed, 18th-century feminism and 19th century feminism being also subsumed under “feminism” proper.
Mary Wollstonecraft is one of the champions of the feminist movement and that her Vindication is one of the most important works on women’s rights. Even today, many women struggle with the problems of different types of oppression which Wollstonecraft discussed in her work.
“She wrote at a time in which neither democracy nor a feminist movement, nor a democratic mass movement existed. She approached theorizing feminism without the benefit of the invention of that very term that manifests group or political consciousness by women on the basis of their gender; that is, before the term, feminist― or even, womanist― was invented.’”
Indeed, the term, feminism― came to use much later than Wollstonecraft spoke about the position of women. In today’s terms, her Vindication is a feminist manifesto, and her fiction works can be defined as feminist literature of feminist novels, but she saw herself only as a woman who speaks in the name of those who can not.
Mary Wollstonecraft is an 18th century author whose name and ideas still echo in the feminist world. She advocated a change in approach to education for women which would lead to their better position in society and would end oppression to which they were exposed. Wollstonecraft’s life was turbulent and gave her plenty of material to observe and discuss the position of women, starting from her own family and later love affairs. Also, she felt the atmosphere of some great social events such as the French Revolution.
“Her impression was that everywhere, women are forgotten and their rights are not considered relevant as those of men.”
In her work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she examines and explains how society oppresses women and argues with some great authors of the time (like Jean Jacques Rousseau), giving counter arguments for their theses. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a work which will determine her as a feminist writer, but also a great intellectual of her time. This is a key work of proto-feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft’s readable and impassioned argument is as relevant today as it was 200 years ago. Before the concept of equality between the sexes was even conceived, Wollstonecraft wrote this book, a treatise of proto-feminism that was as powerful and original then as it is now. In it, she argues with clarity and originality for the rational education of women and for an increased female contribution to society. It was a cry for justice from a woman with no power other than that of her pen and it put into motion a drive towards greater equality between men and women, a movement which continues to this day.
Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication” claim that the seeming “nature of women” is actually a product of being disenfranchised politically — a very early iteration of the “social construction” argument used by feminists today.
Her work partakes simultaneously of two ideological strands: on the one hand, as the first articulate feminist text in the Anglo-American context; on the other hand, as an ethical system subjected to the main tenets of the Enlightenment.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft responds to those educational and political theorists of the 18th century who did not believe women should have an education. She argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands, rather than mere wives.
“Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.”
In the book The Feminist Papers: from Adams to de Beauvoir, Alice S. Rossi (1973) explains Wollstonecraft’s view on „social problems― in the following way: ‘Like her contemporaries and immediate descendants in political thinking on social problems, she felt both cause and solution to lie in education: ignorance, poverty, prejudice, and sin arise in the absence of knowledge and will be solved by the spread of education.’ This is particularly true if we discuss the position of women in some societies with lower rates of education where still exists subjection to „ancient― and ungrounded beliefs and customs. Furthermore, ‘there are no innate racial, sexual, or social class differences among men and women; all differences are rooted in the social environment and can be eradicated by changes in that environment.’ (Rossi, 1973). Inequality in the social environment and treatment is the main issue that Wollstonecraft emphasizes. She admits, for example, the physical strength of men over women, but in her opinion, it should not be a foundation for a different approach in education.
Wollstonecraft is best known for “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”.
“Contending for the rights of woman…that if she is not prepared by education to become the champion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue…” (Wollstonecraft).
As a writer, she writes in plain English. Her style of writing is adopted by other feminist writers. She makes many references to validate her own education. As a feminist writer, she influenced early feminist movements. Wollstonecraft’s proto-feminist ideas enjoyed popularity in both Great Britain and America, with other progressive thinkers writing responses weighing the merits of various points made in “Vindication.” But her notability waned after her untimely death in 1797, in large part because Wollstonecraft’s grief-stricken husband in 1798 published a memoir about his wife revealing that they had a premarital sexual relationship, making Wollstonecraft a figure too controversial to be touted by progressives at that time.
Both Wollstonecraft and Austen have distinct ways of arguing their proto-feminist agendas. Wollstonecraft focuses in Maria or the Wrongs of Women on the demonization of men with a small emphasis on woman’s ability to be a logical and reasoning creature. Austen fashions her character of Fanny to be strictly the voice of reason in a world of chaos with little emphasis on the demonization of men. Wollstonecraft’s definition of femininity also plays into her arguments as the reader’s view through each utilization of language. Literature has always been a powerful tool for the actualization of certain topics and their modernization as Wollstonecraft used it to fulfill her aim. Feminist authors and literary critics interpreted the works of Jane Austen through the lenses of feminism and found that she advocates some of Wollstonecraft’s postulates of emancipation, but not in a very radical way, but rather through the subtle portraying of the characters.
Evaluating Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Sapiro (1992) states:
“But to understand her significance we must remember one thing: we are talking about a woman who wrote at a time in which neither democracy nor a feminist movement, nor a democratic mass movement existed.”
To pen off, the strength of the English writer’s text lies in the fact that her arguments for female emancipation have nowadays as much relevance as they had in her own time. The way in which Wollstonecraft’s thought surmounts the male theoretical perspective typical of liberal humanism provides an obvious link between her essentially proto-feminist poetics and the current postmodern feminist theory.
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