A Selection of Significant Women’s Rights Writers in Late 18th and Early 19th Century Britain

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, many new ideas and opinions about women’s rights emerged, particularly in written works. One author, Mary Wollstonecraft, has long been regarded as a pioneer of women’s rights beginning with her first work published in 1786 titled Thoughts on the Education of Daughters and continuing on to write her most popular work in 1792 titled A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft, among other things, advocates for the equality between men’s and women’s education. Admittedly, although many of her ideas were considered “revolutionary,” Wollstonecraft is just one of many feminist authors such as Catherine Macaulay in Letters on Education, Mary Hays in Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women, and William Thompson and Anna Wheeler in Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, To Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery that touched upon this topic, generally using similar arguments.

The uniformity in the type of arguments these authors use can no doubt be attributed to the particular historical, political, and cultural climate in which they were writing which was influenced by the recent French Revolution. Although these writings seemed to spur little action in the actual women’s rights movement during their time period, they paved the way and set up arguments which would then be used more in the women’s rights movement more than 50 years later (BBC).

In this particular time period, the authors had both the benefit as well as the detriment of the French Revolution. The benefit was that it opened the door and offered inspiration for many new ideas and thoughts that England had not yet explored or considered, such as the overthrow of a monarchy or the extension of certain rights to women (University of Warwick). Therefore, as liberation and revolution (regardless of whether or not an individual agreed or disagreed with them) were on the minds of many Englanders, this particular time period offered the writers a prime opportunity to introduce their ideas and arguments.

However, the “conservative backlash” caused by the French Revolution also hurt the authors and caused progression in women’s rights to actually move quite slowly. Although yes, the revolution absolutely spurred some discussion on liberation, the majority of Englanders remained loyal to their king and feared the possibility of such a revolution and violence taking place in England (Warwick). Therefore, many Englanders simply rejected or ignored these “revolutionary” women’s rights texts as they were anxious and wary of any change they might bring about. Knowing this, these authors had to be careful about the way they structured their arguments so as to convince the fearful society of the validity of their arguments and the necessity of social change. Therefore, the authors needed to write in a way that appealed to those in power who were no doubt content with the lowly status of women: the men.

To do this, Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, begins Vindication with a discussion which essentially boosts the morale of men by reminding them their power over women, which they would like to hear, while also demonstrating how this is negative. She argues that women of her time are obsessed with beauty and focus on trite, useless amusements without any real desire to better themselves as they have been “intoxicated by the adoration of men” and therefore only seek to please them (154). Because of this “intoxication”, Wollstonecraft believes that men are essentially to blame for the faults of women as the men have encouraged and paid the most attention to those women who possess such feminine traits as vanity, docility, and weakness which, in turn, allow men to be dominant over women. Effectively, this then suggests that if men have the power to influence such negative traits in women, they also have the power to eliminate them and encourage traits which would allow women to better themselves. To help convince the men this kind of activity should stop, she likens their power over women to that of an owner over his or her slave as she suggests that praising these negative traits in women as “feminine” and “desirable” are something “the men condescendingly use to soften [women’s] slavish dependence” (153).

The argument that the women’s faults are caused by their desire to please men in a way that forces them into a kind of slavery can also be seen in the works of both Hays and Thompson and Wheeler. In Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women, Hays argues that women are essentially chained into these stereotypical gender “illusions” without an escape as they are being repressed by men to whom she refers as “tyrants” (37). Thompson and Wheeler also make a reference to slavery by directly likening women in bondage of marriage to the slaves bonded to their slave owners in the West Indies and arguing that this submission is caused by the men’s treatment of women as childlike and simpleminded which, in turn, will make them act as such (185). As a great debate about the legality of the slave trade was very prominent and known to English society, comparing a woman and her man to a slave and his owner offered a powerful imagery that would capture the attention and stick with readers (BBC).

After reminding men of their power, the authors continue encouraging the men to make change by arguing from a religious standpoint that men and women are equal in their morals and virtues. By including this idea in their arguments, these women were trying to eliminate the typical stereotype of the time that women were best suited for domestic tasks as they simply didn’t have to mental capacity or ability to pursue anything greater. Until these stereotypes were eliminated, these writers knew that women would never have a chance at equal education as they wouldn’t be expected to succeed. As religion played a large role in English society at this time as a direct link to morality (BBC), those reading these writings would have a hard time disagreeing and neglecting this type of reasoning for fear of going against their religion.

According to Wollstonecraft, as women have souls they are naturally destined by Providence to have virtue. She then argues that because all virtue is the same (or, in other words, that everything is simply either right or wrong without a debate), women must have the same level of virtue of men thus suggesting that they also have equal mental capacities. Catherine Macaulay further elaborates on this idea in Letters in Education. Here, she argues with a stronger emphasis on religion by explaining that as “there is but one rule of right,” men and women must have the same moral standpoint (34).

Using this explanation as a way to equalize the capabilities of the two sexes, Macaulay then argues that if the two sexes are equal in this manner, one should also treat them as equal in other manners such as education. Continuing with her religious argument, Macaulay explains that one’s “state of happiness” in heaven will depend on the level of happiness that he or she achieves in life on Earth as happiness and morality are directly related. As one’s highest level of happiness can only be achieved through the acquirement of knowledge (and therefore education), it is imperative that the sexes receive equal education as each individual must have an equal chance at making it to heaven. Although the other authors don’t make arguments so strongly based on religion, they have the exact same idea in mind: that it is time for equal education for men and women.

The biggest challenge that these authors were going to face was trying to convince those in power, the men, that a change was needed. Naturally, this presented a large problem as those in power were men and, since men were essentially free to do as they pleased and maintained all of the political and economic power, they were unlikely to welcome such a change. Therefore, these authors had to prove to the men that allowing women to be educated would somehow benefit them so that they need not worry that the women would begin a rebellion or “rise above their place” as it was said the women who garnered more rights from the French Revolution did (Warwick). Wollstonecraft, for example, argued that education would change women from “alluring mistresses,” which is only appealing short term to their husbands, to “affectionate wives and rational mothers,” which would be appealing long term to their husbands (152). Otherwise, if the wife is dull and uneducated the husband will begin to neglect her and she will turn to other men to find attention. However, Wollstonecraft believes that if the two are equally educated, friendship and therefore a good marriage can exist. Finally, she argues that a happy marriage will lead to happy children and therefore a better society overall (167). A similar argument can be seen throughout Hays’s Appeal. As Hays describes it, harmony is only possible if two people are “similar…of mind and principle” and that a husband will be much more content if his wife can serve as a companion instead of an object and a servant (37). Thompson and Wheeler also argue the same point by insisting that men will be happier with an educated women who will possess many of the same “merits” as they both have and appreciate such as “enlighten[ment], benevolen[ce]…[and] graceful[ness]” (186). Clearly, as these authors avoid a discussion as to how equal education will benefit women or encourage rebellion, they are suggesting to the men that they are the focus and the most important aspect of this argument as the women would like equal education simply so as to please the men.

Although Wollstonecraft is known to be at the forefront of women’s rights, it is important to remember and appreciate the other authors whom also wrote about the same topics focusing particularly on men’s responsibility for women’s faults, the equal morality of both sexes, and the benefits provided to men if women were to receive equal education. The authors used these particular ideas to make their argument as they suited the particular political and social climate of the time. Although their ideas may not have caused action in England immediately (due to a fear of change caused by the French Revolution), these writings and arguments would become vital with the emergence of the women’s rights movements shortly after and develop an enduring significance as we continue to read, study, and discuss their works today.

Works Cited

BBC. British History in Depth. British Broadcasting Corporation, 2013. Web. 27 February 2013.

Hays, Mary. “Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women.” British

Literature 1780-1830. Anne K. Mellor and Richard E. Matlak. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 1996. 37-41. Print.

Macaulay, Catherine. “Letters on Education.” British Literature 1780-1830. Anne K. Mellor and

Richard E. Matlak. Boston: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning, 1996. 34-35. Print.

Thompson, William, and Anna Wheeler. “Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women,

Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, To Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. David Damrosch. 2nd. New York: Longman Pub Group, 2004. 182-188. Print.

University of Warwick. “Week 11, Lecture : Separate Spheres and Women’s Status in 19th

Century England.” The University of Warwick. Web. 27 February 2013.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” The Longman Anthology of

            British Literature: The Romantics and Their Contemporaries. David Damrosch. 2nd.

New York: Longman Pub Group, 2004. 152-168.

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