How democratic does the United States look if one takes gender equality seriously?” – A feminist might ask. Considering that, women comprise slightly more than 50 percent of the population, but in 2010 hold only 16.8 percent of the seats in the U.S. Congress and had not occupied the position of Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives until Nancy Pelosi designated to this position in 2007. Does this seem equal? What if the reason for the gaps in the older ideologies had something to do with the dynamics of power and language within those ideologies? Liberal feminists often trace their roots to eighteenth and nineteenth-century writings. Not surprisingly, given the revolutionary events happening worldwide during these centuries, many of the early feminist thinkers too rose up against this way of thinking. Mary Wollstonecraft raised the concerns of numerous literary figures, religious dissenters, and radical political thinkers in the eighteenth century. She wrote that women too had the right to be educated and to participate in the important work of reforming society. Similarly, in 1848, feminists held the Seneca Falls Convention, led by a prominent woman named Elizabeth Cady Stanton. In response to women empowerment, this convention revised the Declaration of Independence into a Declaration of Sentiments, which contained a specific list of grievances held by women against men.
This convention did not mark a sudden end to centuries of forced gender roles. However, both women offered literature concerning the disgruntled women raised their voice under this line of thinking. Marry Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s History of Woman Suffrage represent two starkly different genres approaching the same topic. These two examples of works explore the restrictions placed upon women, using rhetorical devices richly to show the harm of this paradigm. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) raised the concerns of numerous literary figures, religious dissenters, and radical political thinkers in the eighteenth century (Sayre, 2012, p. 900). However, Stanton placed her consideration on family roles, mutual obligations, and the ways in which gender expectations carry a heavy toll.
Wollstonecraft argued that gender equality must make up the institution of new principles within human relations (Taylor 1993, p. 2). She also powerfully condemned the exclusion of women from the promises of the democratic politics that contributed to the formulation of “Rights of Man” declarations. When Edmund Burke published his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), a treatise that attacked revolutionary ideas, as Joseph Black (2010, p. 101) wrote, “Johnson urged Wollstonecraft to write a reply”. She quickly replied with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), published in disguise less than a month after the appearance of Burke’s book (Black 2010, p. 101). In it, as Black pointed out, “she presented the case for universal rights, social equality, and women’s economic independence” (p. 101). As Wollstonecraft pointed out, the refusal of those, who had espoused revolutionary principles of equality to extend rights to women represented a betrayal of those supposedly universal principles.
When Elizabeth Cady Stanton drew back from the presidential campaign of 1880, she took up her project to edit a volume of reminiscences by pioneers in the movement for woman’s rights. Once anticipated as slim volume to be available by the end of the centennial year of 1876, her book swelled into the more ambitious, multi-volume History of Woman Suffrage, which traced antebellum agitation, wartime contributions of women, and postwar political work at the national and state capitals. Separate chapters recounted the annual meetings of the Annual Woman Suffrage Association, activism in Great Britain, and progress in the countries of Europe. This book, edited by Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, exploded into three volumes, totaling 2738 pages, which appeared in 1881, 1882, and 1886 (Adiletta, 2005, p. 1869).
When Wollstonecraft was alive, English women denied the right to hold office, to exercise custody over their children, to control property, and, in several cases, to divorce their husbands (cited in Mitchell, 2010, p. 370). Wollstonecraft’s Vindication attacked the logic of this patriarchy by drawing on classical liberal ideology of John Locke, who insisted that individuals had a natural right to be free and self-governing because individuals were naturally rational (cited in Mitchell, 2010, p. 370). John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau represent this strain of thought in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Close to Locke in spirit was Thomas Paine. Like Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790), Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791-1792) was written against Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) (Edmund & Clark, 2001). Burke condemned Paine’s inflammatory work for stirring the masses into action against the establishment. In fact, conservatives reacted barbarously to Paine’s work: in 1793, an effigy of Paine burned in Birmingham, and Joseph Priestley’s house was attacked. Priestley’s Unitarianism aligned him with “radical” egalitarian voices (Edmund & Clark, 2001). Both Wollstonecraft and, yes later, Harriet Taylor was among the many strong-minded women associated with the Unitarian circle.
The primary contrast between the two women involves the eventual fate of the protagonist. Stanton had come to believe that state and national legislature would never convince to change the law until public attitudes about a woman’s role in society changed. Stanton had been disheartened when the Kansas legislature defeated a referendum to give women and African Americans the franchise for the right to vote in November 1867. Kansas was the first state to vote on such a referendum. The problem, Wollstonecraft pointed out, however, was that these Lockean liberal thoughts and ideologies not applied to women in eighteenth century. That which was construed as “human nature” (rationality) was really interpreted as male nature by writers (including Locke himself), who simultaneously proclaimed humans to be rational and women to be emotional, intellectually weak, and irrational (Mitchell, 2010, p. 370). Wollstonecraft wanted women to be included within the concept of “human nature”: She wanted women, no less than men, to be regarded as rational beings capable of self-determination, and liberty (Mitchell, 2010, p. 370) did. She argued that reason is a human trait, not just a male one.
Both women use touching examples to support their particular rhetorical arguments. Because Stanton’s piece focuses on one family, and takes the time to give the members of that family a definite sense of depth and realism, the reader is more likely to sympathize with that reader, rather than a succession of quick takes about individuals. However, Wollstonecraft serves to express the brutal results of unfair gender roles in society, and how those roles take young, vibrant women and leave them as husks of their former selves, completely shriven of their ideals about love that had given them hope in their younger years. Stanton depicts family structures rife with repression. Both women artfully utilize a wealth of rhetorical devices to make their arguments richer, deeper, and ultimately more gripping in their societies.
Adiletta, Dawn. (2005). Elizabeth Cady Stanton: Women’s Suffrage and the First Vote. The Rosen Publishing Group.
Black, Joseph. (2010). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism, Vol 4. Broadview Press, pp. 101-105.
Burke, Edmund, & Clark, J. C. D. (2001). Reflections on the Revolution in France. Stanford University Press.
Mitchell, Helen Buss. (2010). Roots of Wisdom: A Tapestry of Philosophical Traditions. Cengage Learning, pp. 360-365.
Sayre, H. M. (2012). The humanities culture, continuity & change, volume II, 1600 to the present, second edition (Book V pages. 877-1113). Pearson.
Taylor, Barbara. (1993). Eve and the New Jerusalem: Socialism and Feminism in the Nineteenth Century (Reprinted 1993). Harvard University Press, pp. 1-10.