In the book Emile, Rousseau borrowed a lot of thinkers that came before him. He had the arguments of John Locke on teaching and education. Still, he quite remarkably combined the arguments of the preceding philosophers to form a coherent and comprehensive teaching system. Using the medium of the novel, Rousseau was able to dramatize such that they reached a wide audience. Rousseau saw the system of education as married to nature that had characteristics of harmony, and concern for the learner as well as the learning process itself. The premise of this argument was the preservation of the original perfection of nature by the method of careful and selective control of education and the educational environment. In order to do this, education was to be mastered on by taking into consideration that the different physical and psychological stages upon which an individual passed from birth to maturity. According to Rousseau, learning was a function of growth of the individual and that the teacher or the educator only needed to facilitate the process.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written by British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft in 1792. It is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft responds to those educational and political theorists of the eighteenth century who did not believe women should have an education. She argues that women should not have the same education as men, but they ought to have an education that corresponds with their position in society. She asserts that women are essential to the nation. This is because women educate their children and are "companions" to their husbands, and not 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. This paper aims to explore how Wollstonecraft’s feminism differs from modern feminism, as illustrated in the book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
In order to understand this criticism, one needs to first understand the meaning of feminism. Feminism is a movement for the political, social, and educational equality of women with men; the movement has occurred mainly in Europe and the United States and it is now emerging strongly in Africa and Latin America. It has its roots in the humanism of the 18thC and in the Industrial Revolution. Feminist issues range from access to employment, education, child care, contraception, and abortion, to equality in the workplace, changing family roles, redress for sexual harassment in the workplace, and the need for equal political representation. Historically, women had been regarded as inferior to men physically and intellectually. Both law and theology had ordered their subjection. Women could not possess property in their own names, engage in business, or control the disposal of their children or even of their own personsand others had pleaded earlier for larger opportunities for women, the first feminist document was Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). For the most part, Wollstonecraft’s document laid down foundation for feminists. Her ideas became the reference points for most feminists. However, there are issues that she greatly differs with modern feminists. The following paragraphs discuss those issues in details.
While Wollstonecraft does call for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life, such as morality, she does not explicitly state that men and women are equal. Her ambiguous statements regarding the equality of the sexes have since made it difficult to classify Wollstonecraft as a modern feminist. In fact she admits that women are inferior to men when she writes, “In the government of the physical world it is observable that the female in point of strength is, in general, inferior to the male. This is the law of nature; and it does not appear to be suspended or abrogated in favour of the woman” (Wollstonecraft, 226). Because Wollstonecraft admits that men are superior to women, she goes contrary to the primary principles of modern feminism that agitate for gender equality. However, it is worth noticing that Wollstonecraft’s argument bases men’s superiority on physical strength. Indeed, this view varies with modern feminism that argues that men are not superior to women in any way.
Wollstonecraft's arguments for equality stand in contrast to her statements respecting the superiority of masculine strength and power. Moreover, Wollstonecraft calls on men, rather than women, to initiate the social and political changes she outlines in the Rights of Woman. Because women are uneducated, they cannot alter their own situation—men must come to their aid. Wollstonecraft famously states:
The quote opens with the line of warning that her intention is not to ‘invert the order of things’ but there is overwhelming evidence that men, with their power, could do more in terms of virtue. She goes further to emphasize that men should act honorably like God. Besides, in the quote, Wollstonecraft does not make the claim for gender equality using the same arguments or the same language that late nineteenth- and twentieth-century feminists later would. For instance, rather than explicitly stating that men and women are equal, Wollstonecraft contends that men and women are equal in the eyes of God, which means that they are both subject to the same moral law. For Wollstonecraft, men and women are equal in the most important areas of life. This implies that both men and women should be modest and respect the sanctity of marriage and reaming unequal in other areas of life. Even though, Wollstonecraft's argument exposed the sexual double standard of the late eighteenth century and demanded that men adhere to the same virtues demanded of women, it did not clearly show the equality between the sexes. As such, Wollstonecraft was different to modern feminists both in her argument and her approach to feminism.
Wollstonecraft also argues that is useless to expect virtues from women because they are dependent on men. She even diminishes women and calls them selfish, mean, and cunning. She argues that if women are to have good virtues, then they have to stand on their own. Because Wollstonecraft terms women as selfish and cunning when with men, then one can argue that she preaches for female independence, a postulation that suggest that women do not need men to survive. In Rights of Woman, she writes,
As much as modern feminism argues for female independence, there is almost a unanimous agreement that the two sexes need each other. In that case, Wollstonecraft’s argument does not go in concordance with modern feminism.
Wollstonecraft’s argument goes beyond women’s rights and their education. She also addresses issues that affect other minorities. Macdonald and Scherf, two famous critiques of Wollstonecraft’s, make some hints as to the types of issues to which Wollstonecraft’s work still speaks. At one point they discuss contemporary charges that Wollstonecraft’s second Vindication had "unwittingly subjected the radical cause to a reductio ad absurdum" (Graham, 14) and that it shifts from the "rights of man" to the rights of children and even of "brutes". One of the contemporary distortions of Wollstonecraft's position (attributed to Thomas Taylor) was entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes. The second Vindication makes very plain that the rights of women and of men is inextricably tied to respect for the rights of children. Whether Wollstonecraft can be as easily established as a source for modern civil rights activists seems to me much less obvious, and the concluding analysis is that Wollstonecraft was not a feminist but more of a social reformer. She was concerned with divisiveness in the society and not only the unfairness to the women. As such it is hard to classify her equally with modern feminists who pretty much are focused only with gender inequality.
As much as Wollstonecraft’s argument presents one of the most liberal, radical, and vibrant thoughts and calls for gender equality, specifically in regards to education and social standings, she still depicts characteristics that differentiate her from modern feminists. Her work may be very radical, but she admits that men are physically stronger and that women should be independent from men. Evidently, she goes contrary to the values of modern feminists in some ways.
In her conclusion, Wollstonecraft concludes her debate with Rousseau on civilization of mankind by asserting three main things. Rousseau is on the premise that “and that it will always be all right. The purpose of the enlightened society to salvage the civilization of mankind is a rational political system and a rational moral consciousness made possible by well-founded educational system. It must be understood Jean Jacque Rousseau was one of the important philosophers who played a key role in the occurrence of the French revolution. As such, Wollstonecraft criticism of Rousseau could be thus read as the criticism of the French revolution. On education, Wollstonecraft main argument is that character, if taken in large sense of selfhood, is a function of nurture and culture as opposed to nature. Here, Wollstonecraft argument is that culture is a societal construct usually formed as a result of politics, social, economic, and cultural ecosystem.
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