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Breaking Down Patriarchy - Amy McPhie Allebest EPISODE 9, 20th January 2021
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, Part 1
00:00:00 00:59:40

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, Part 1

Amy: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. During our last episode we discussed Olympe de Gouges, and her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. We learned how de Gouges was accused of treason and beheaded, and her work never really took off in France or elsewhere, as evidenced by the fact that if you say the name Olympe de Gouges, most people will not have heard of her. However, there was a woman in England writing at the very same time on the very same subject. This was the famous Mary Wollstonecraft, and her book,  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects is one of the most famous and influential works on this subject in history. Like some of our other texts, this book is so densely packed with material that we’ve decided to break it into two parts. So today we will introduce Wollstonecraft and talk about the historical context in which she wrote, we’ll talk about the Enlightenment and some of the contemporary authors with whom Wollstonecraft was arguing, and we’ll talk about the balance of Reason and Emotion.  But before we start, I want to introduce my reading partner, Meagan Cahoon Alder. Hi, Meagan!

Meagan: Hi, Amy!

Amy: Meagan and I met in Santiago, Chile when we were 21 years old. We were kindred spirits right from the very first moment, and even though we haven’t lived near each other in many years, every time we reconnect I am amazed at both how much we are still alike, and how much I admire you, Meagan.  I feel like you’re a trailblazer and a role model for me, and I’m so grateful for your example as we’ve gone through all these years of life. So thank you sooo much for being here. and could you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself?


Sure, thank you Amy. I am really honored to be a part of your project. Thank you for having me.

A little about me. I come from a large blended family. My oldest sister and I come from my mom and dad, and 6 siblings from my dad and step mom. 8 altogether, 7 girls and 1 boy. We are all pretty close and I wouldn’t trade those relationships for anything. 

I grew up mostly in Northern California with just my mom and visited my dad twice a year for summers and Christmas. 

Around 16, after having an incredible experience in therapy myself, I decided I wanted to be a therapist when I grew up. At 16 I wasn’t totally sure what *kind* of therapist, but I knew that I wanted to help people the way that I had been helped. 

I’m also a 7th generation Mormon, which is pretty relevant to this podcast as its entire structure is based on a patriarchal foundation and definitely has a huge part to play in how I view and experience the world. And it is through my service in the Mormon church that I met you in Chile at the ripe ol’ age of 21 like you said. And while I have so many things to say about that experience, it is probably best left for another podcast. 

Fast forward to coming back from Chile, I got married, graduated from the University of Utah and we headed out to Maryland for graduate school. I went to Virginia Tech in Northern Virginia for a Master’s in Marriage and Family Therapy. I worked for a couple of years with adolescents and their families before we had our first daughter in 2007. Our son came just 18 months after that and then three years later, our third. We struggled to get and stay pregnant so while I had some pretty complicated feelings about quitting my job as a therapist, I looked forward to being at home with them. 

As time passed though, I felt like a very important part of me was put on ice. As the ice started to melt, that part of me became pretty restless and I realized that staying home without attending to the therapist aspect of myself was not going to be sustainable. I began a little life coaching practice on the side and it was great at the time. But didn’t quite quench that thirst to be back in the therapy room.

In 2014, Jon was offered a job at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah and one of the perks was free education for spouses. We both had some serious reservations about going back to Utah after being away for 12 years, but decided to go for it. And I was going to go back to school for a PhD in MFT. 

The same week I received my acceptance letter to the PhD program, my mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She had also recently moved to Utah to take care of my grandfather. So we had her come live with us while she had surgery and went through chemo for the first time. Her cancer grew back about 16 months later just as Jon was recruited for a job at the University of Pittsburgh. 

Turns out BYU was a terrible fit for Jon and he was miserable in his professional life. I had one more year left that could all be done remotely, so we packed up our four generation household and moved to Pittsburgh. We had my grandpa with us for those last years of his life and it was a gift to be with him when he passed last year. 

Currently, my mom’s cancer is back and we’ve all decided that cancer is the worst and we are trying to make the best of a really crummy situation. 

I finished my PhD about 2 years ago and started a private practice. I have a great little office downtown Pittsburgh that has been sitting empty because of the COVID global pandemic for about 8 months and that is killing me, but I’m very hopeful that I will return to it someday in the not too distant future. 

Amy: Thanks so much, Meagan. Again, you are such an example to me. And best wishes from the bottom of my heart for your mom. I can’t even imagine how hard that is for your whole family, but your mom is so very lucky to have you. 

Next, if you don’t mind, I usually ask my reading partners what interested them in the project.


A couple things come to mind. First, because it was you asking and I knew it would be high quality. My experience with you around issues of patriarchy and feminism have been so important because you have a way of expressing what is deepest in your heart in a way that matches what is in my heart. I knew I could trust how you would handle this topic with such care and thoughtfulness. 

Second, because a year or so ago we were chatting about feminism, our experiences in the patriarchy and you mentioned the book Creation of the Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner. I think I went and bought a used copy that same day. Then as I was reading it, I would text rant to you about how maddening it all was and how can it be that after all of these centuries we are still in this place? And you said something to the effect of, we should start a book club so we can discuss all of this and understand it better. I said, sign me up! And this turned out to be a bigger project than a book club but I really am honored to be a part of it. 

Amy: Thank you so much for those kind words and for that reminder of this process together! I do remember both of us saying that we had to take breaks from The Creation of Patriarchy because it brought up so many feelings of frustration and anger… but it was therapeutic for us personally and really important for us to understand. You told me earlier that reading this text was a similar experience - it was hard to keep reading sometimes, right?

Meagan: Yes, I had a really hard time with Vindications of the Rights of Woman. I would get through a chapter and just have to set it down and walk away for a while. I think we’ll discuss some of the main reasons why later on, but the arguments she has to make to just be taken seriously were often painful to read and hit close to home. And that same feeling that here we are so many years later still having to argue for our value and worth. 

Amy: Yeah, this education is not for the faint of heart, but in the spirit of the Enlightenment, when Wollstonecraft was writing, we can quote Immanuel Kant, who said “Sapare Aude,” Dare to Know. (file:///Users/amy/Downloads/Kant-Enlightenment.pdf)  Sometimes knowing hurts, so it requires courage. But it’s worth it. 

So I want to start with a couple of background topics as we launch our discussion.

If you look up A Vindication of the Rights of Woman on Wikipedia, the first sentence describes Mary Wollstonecraft as an 18th Century British proto-feminist. The second sentence describes her book as one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. So by now listeners know that word definitions are important to me, and we’re going to pause here and talk briefly about the word “feminist.” We also could have covered this during the episode on The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, but it’s appropriate here as well.

First of all, using the terms “feminism” or “feminist” can be controversial among historians, when applied to people before the term was used. The Oxford English Dictionary lists 1852 as the year of the first appearance of "feminist" and 1895 for "feminism,” and it was first introduced in France. The word “feminism” didn’t appear in the United States until 1910.

Second, the word “feminist” can be controversial in the general discourse, because some people interpret it (in my view, they misunderstand it) to mean an effort to elevate women above men and subjugate men. That idea doesn’t come out of thin air - some feminists in the 1970’s Women’s Lib movement did advocate for female supremacy.

However, I know a whole lot of self-described feminists, and I don’t know a single one who thinks that. Every single feminist that I know subscribes to the definition that is in the Oxford dictionary, which is this:

“Feminism: the advocacy of women's rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes.”

And if you look up Oxford Reference, there’s an expansion of the term, a portion of which reads:

“The approach to social life, philosophy, and ethics that commits itself to correcting biases leading to the subordination of women.”

This is the definition we will be working with when that word comes up anywhere on this podcast. So I think it’s interesting that Wollstonecraft is described in retrospect as a “protofeminist,” meaning of course “the earliest,” or “a precursor to” a feminist. And we’ll see why she’s described this way as we discuss her work.


Ok, and one last thing before we dive into the book: let’s talk about who Mary Wollstonecraft was and what led her to produce the work that made her famous. We’re going to take turns talking about her, so Meagan, do you want to take the first part?



Mary Wollstonecraft was born in London on April 27, 1759, the second of seven children. Her father was a violent alcoholic who mismanaged the family fortune and would sometimes beat his wife in drunken rages. As a teenager, Mary used to lie outside the door of her mother's bedroom to protect her. She played a similar maternal role for her sisters, Everina and Eliza, throughout her life. 

Mary's education was somewhat haphazard, which was not entirely unusual for someone of her sex and position. Mary read a lot, and her mind was shaped by relationships with families who mentored her, and by her friendship with Fanny (Frances) Blood. The two were best friends, and after Mary’s mother died in 1780 (when Mary was 21), Mary moved in with the Bloods.

In the winter of 1783, Mary left the Bloods in order to attend to her sister Eliza, who had just given birth to a daughter. When she arrived she found her sister in a terrible state of depression (scholars now wonder if it was postpartum depression), and Mary’s solution was for Eliza to leave her family. So Mary and Eliza left Eliza’s husband and baby and went into hiding for a time.  The baby died the following August, and Eliza, unable to remarry, lived the rest of her life in poverty.

This was a terrible time for Mary. Prior to Mary’s visit to Eliza, Mary, her other sisters, and Fanny Blood had set up a school together. But Fanny soon became engaged and moved to Lisbon, Portugal with her husband, in hopes that it would improve her health, which had always been poor. Despite the change of surroundings, Blood's health further deteriorated when she became pregnant, and in 1785 Mary left the school and went to Portugal to help Fanny after the birth of her baby. Tragically, Mary’s abandonment of the school led to its failure, and even more tragically, after giving birth, both Fanny and her baby died. Fanny's death devastated Mary and was part of the inspiration for her first novel, Mary: A Fiction (1788).

After Fanny’s death, Mary got a job as a governess. Frustrated by the limited career options open to respectable yet poor women - which is a topic she would write about a lot in her life - she decided to quit her job as a governess and embark upon a career as an author. This was a radical choice, since, at the time, few women could support themselves by writing (let’s be honest, it’s still a risky choice). As she wrote to her sister Everina in 1787, she was trying to become 'the first of a new genus'. She moved to London and, assisted by the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, found a place to live and work to support herself. She learned French and German and translated texts.

She also wrote reviews for Joseph Johnson's periodical, the Analytical Review. Wollstonecraft's intellectual universe expanded during this time, not only from the reading that she did for her reviews but also from the company she kept: she attended Johnson's famous dinners and met such luminaries as the radical pamphleteer Thomas Paine and the philosopher William Godwin. Godwin and Wollstonecraft did not like each other at first - they met at a dinner party and Godwin said Wollstonecraft followed him around all night, disagreeing with everything he said. (But keep Godwin in mind, because he’ll come back into the story later!)

In 1787 Mary started to write her own work, in the form of essays and books, one of which, Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness, was illustrated by the famous artist and poet William Blake. 

The French Revolution was underway, and the English were watching it with careful attention. In 1790 a conservative member of the English parliament named Edmund Burke had written a critique of the French Revolution called Reflections on the Revolution in France, and it so angered Mary that she spent a month writing a rebuttal called A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, which supported the values of the revolutionaries. It was originally published anonymously, but a second edition revealed her as the author, and she became famous overnight. 


Wollstonecraft called the French Revolution a 'glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe'. About the events of 5–6 October 1789, when the royal family was marched from Versailles to Paris by a group of angry housewives, Burke praised Queen Marie Antoinette as a symbol of the refined elegance of the old regime, and he called the women who captured her 'furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women'. Wollstonecraft by contrast wrote of the same event: 'Probably you [Burke] mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.’



It was around this time that Olympe de Gouge published her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen, in 1791. Mary began a work of her own in agreement with de Gouge’s declaration, and also in disagreement with an address to the French National Assembly, which stated that women’s education should consist only of domestic training. Wollstonecraft wrote the Rights of Woman to launch a broad attack against sexual double standards. She published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, and it was relatively well received.

On December 26, 1792, Wollstonecraft saw the former king, Louis XVI, being taken to be tried before the National Assembly, and much to her own surprise, found 'the tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death.”

France declared war on Britain in February 1793, and Mary was stranded in France. Despite her sympathy for the revolution, life became very uncomfortable and as an English citizen and she was in frequent danger. Some of Wollstonecraft's French friends lost their heads to the guillotine. 

Having just written the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft met and fell passionately in love with Gilbert Imlay, an American adventurer. She put her own principles in practice by sleeping with Imlay even though they were not married, which was unacceptable behavior from a 'respectable' British woman. 

Wollstonecraft soon became pregnant by Imlay, and on May 14, 1794 she gave birth to her first child, Fanny. Wollstonecraft was overjoyed; she wrote to a friend, 'My little Girl begins to suck so MANFULLY that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the R[igh]ts of Woman' (emphasis hers). She continued to write avidly, despite the burdens of being a new mother in a foreign country, and the growing tumult of the French Revolution. 

Imlay, unhappy with the domestic-minded and maternal Wollstonecraft, eventually left her. He promised that he would return to her and Fanny, but his delays in writing to her and his long absences convinced Wollstonecraft that he had found another woman. Her letters to him are anguished and depressed - she was a foreign woman alone with an infant in the middle of a revolution and she had seen good friends imprisoned or executed. In May 1795 she attempted to commit suicide twice… and she finally accepted that Imlay wasn’t coming back.

Wollstonecraft returned to England and gradually went back to her literary life, becoming involved with Joseph Johnson's circle again, in particular with William Godwin (remember him from the dinner party where they disliked each other). Godwin and Wollstonecraft's unique courtship began slowly, but it eventually became a passionate love affair. Once Wollstonecraft became pregnant, they decided to marry so that their child would be legitimate. But their marriage revealed the fact that Wollstonecraft had never been married to Imlay, and as a result she and Godwin lost many friends. After their marriage in 1797, Godwin and Wollstonecraft lived together, and Godwin rented an apartment 20 doors away as a study, so that they could both still retain their independence; they often communicated by letter. By all accounts, theirs was a happy and stable  relationship.


On August 30 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter, Mary, who would grow up to marry the great Romantic poet Percy Shelley and become a famous writer in her own right, as the author of the novel Frankenstein. Although the labor and delivery seemed to go well initially, the placenta broke apart during the birth and became infected; “childbed fever” was a common and often fatal occurrence in the eighteenth century. After several days of agony, Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia on September 10, 1797. Godwin was devastated: he wrote to his friend Thomas Holcroft, "I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again." She was buried at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, where her tombstone reads, "Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: Born 27 April 1759: Died 10 September 1797."

Meagan:Usually we stop the biography at the author’s death, but there are some other important details regarding the way Wollstonecraft’s work was remembered. 

A year after Mary’s death, her husband William Godwin published Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although Godwin felt that he was portraying his wife with love, compassion, and sincerity, many readers were shocked that he would reveal Wollstonecraft's illegitimate children, love affairs, and suicide attempts. Her reputation lay in tatters for nearly a century, and when her name was mentioned it was only in scandalized gossip about her personal life rather than her work. (And here we have to point out that this was never the case regarding male writers. Many male writers had illegitimate children and affairs and depression, and no one even batted an eye. The double-standard that is still alive and well today was even more severe in the 18th century.) However there were some writers who managed to read and take seriously Wollstonecraft’s work, thus keeping it alive. Jane Austen never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, but several of her novels contain positive allusions to Wollstonecraft's work. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who read Rights of Woman at age 12, composed her poem Aurora Leigh as a reflection of Wollstonecraft's unwavering focus on education. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Americans who met in 1840 at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, discovered they both had read Wollstonecraft. 

We will discuss those women in just a couple of episodes, and our next episode will highlight Sarah Grimke, who borrowed Lucretia Mott’s copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Women from off of her coffee table. 

By 1929 Wollstonecraft’s shame was beginning to fade somewhat; Virginia Woolf described her writing, arguments, and "experiments in living"—as immortal: Woolf said Wollstonecraft “...is alive and active, she argues and experiments, we hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” Finally, in the 1960’s and 70’s the world was ready to take her work seriously, and she was included in the canon of important women writers.



So now, finally, onto our text! We could spend hours talking about Wollstonecraft’s insights, but we only have time for a few key points. So we divided it up into main themes, and we’ll just take turns highlighting a few that we thought were most important.



I want to start by introducing the genius philosopher and real piece of work, Jean Jacques Rousseau. He’s most famous for the idea of the Social Contract, and he was a mightily influential public figure at the time. Wollstonecraft battles Rousseau all throughout A Vindication of the Rights of Women, so I want to start by talking about some of his ideas.

One thing I remember from reading “The Discourse on Inequality,” which Rousseau wrote in 1755, was that he fancied himself an anthropologist, observing human behavior and then imagining a prehistoric story to explain the behavior. “In a state of nature, our earliest ancestors must have…” he had no proof - sometimes he is right and sometimes he is wrong. Just making conjectures but with quite an authoritative tone that makes him sound like he knows what he’s talking about. He does the same thing with women: he makes observations about women, and from those observations he makes bold claims about the “nature” of women and what their role is in relation to men.

Here are some choice quotes that Wollstonecraft grappled with in A Vindication of the Rights of Women:

“It being demonstrated that men and women are not, nor ought to be, constituted alike in temperament and character, it follows of course, that they should not be educated in the same manner. ...They should not be engaged in the same employments.” (89)

Meagan, could you read this next one?

“The education of the women should be always relative to the men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy. So long as we fail to recur to this principle, we run wide of the mark, and all the precepts which are given them contribute neither to their happiness nor our own.” (89)

This is a really important one because while Wollstonecraft does vigorously disagree with Rousseau that women exist “to please men, to take care of men, to be useful to men and make their lives easy and agreeable,” she does appeal to part of Rousseau’s reasoning: “to educate us when young” when she asks for better educational opportunities for women. She says:

“If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such investigations.” (Dedication - 20)

So she’s arguing that women were shut out from a high-quality education, which they needed in order to be better mothers. This idea was very popular in the United States as well, and is known as “Republican Motherhood.” After the American Revolution citizens of the United States were very invested in creating a virtuous, well-educated democratic Republic, and to that end they thought “well, to raise smart, virtuous boys, we need smart virtuous mothers teaching them.” So women were allowed to be educated in the service of the Republic.

I don’t have a problem with this if we change two things: first of all if we apply it also to fathers, observing that well-educated mothers and fathers produce well-educated children, which benefits society as a whole. I believe that that’s true. And second, if we emphasize that women and men have the right to education by virtue of being human beings, period. They are worthy of the investment of education whether or not they ever have children. 

And I just have to note that when I started my master’s degree I heard this argument all the time from very well-meaning friends. They would say cautiously, “how are you going to have the time to do it?” and “won’t it take you away from your kids?” - and by the way, people are never concerned if a woman is going to spend a ton of time away from her kids in church service or volunteering at the school, it’s only if she’s investing in her education or her career - and then, to be supportive of me they would say “well, your kids will really benefit from it - an educated mother benefits her kids.” It’s not that that’s untrue; it’s just that the implication is that on her own a woman isn’t worth educating; it was only if she benefited children - in Wollstonecraft’s time, that meant sons - then it was ok. 

A Thousand times yes. I had three children when I started my PhD program, the youngest was 3 years old. It would burn a bit when people would ask me “what about the children” and no one said a word to Jon about his extensive work hours and time away. As if his contribution was negligible or didn’t matter. No, it’s laid at the woman’s feet to manage and deal with those types of comments. And the implication being that it’s not ok to further your education if it’s just for your own sake. Of course your education is going to benefit the people around you, and that can be the beautiful byproduct, but does not have to be the sole purpose. 

Exactly. And Wollstonecraft did agree with that; though she did use the “Republican motherhood” justification in one part of the book, she also said, “The end, the grand end of [women’s] exertions should be to unfold their own faculties, and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue.” (40) 

Ok, the next gem from Rousseau:

“A man speaks of what he knows, a woman of what pleases her; the one requires knowledge, the other taste; the principal object of a man’s discourse should be what is useful, that of a woman’s what is agreeable. We ought not, therefore, to restrain the prattle of girls, in the same manner as we should that of boys, with that severe question, “To what purpose are you talking?” but by another, which is no less difficult to answer, “How will your discourse be received?” They ought to observe it as a law, never to say anything disagreeable to those whom they are speaking to.” (95)

I am so angry, reading this. I have had conversations with soooo many women and girls through the years who struggle with constantly worrying about how they are perceived. It feels like girls are trained - almost through osmosis, just picking it up from the culture from the time we are born - that our role as girls is always to please others. I think this constant anxiety about what others think of us can destroy our mental health…. And here is Rousseau prescribing that for girls!! I’m sure he wasn’t the first one to think this - we was probably expressing the belief of the time - but he had a platform in society, and he perpetuated that belief. And women and girls are still paying for it.


“As the conduct of a woman is subservient to the public opinion, her faith in matters of religion, should for that very reason, be subject to authority. ‘Every daughter ought to be of the same religion as her mother, and every wife to be of the same religion as her husband, for though such religion should be false, that docility which induces the mother and daughter to submit to the order of nature, takes away, in the sight of God, the criminality of their error. As they are not in a capacity to judge for themselves, they ought to abide by the decision of their fathers and husbands as confidently as by that of the Church.” (96)

In the same atrocious vein as that last quote is a thought from another influential thinker of Wollstonecraft’s time, Dr. Gregory. Dr. Gregory writes advice to his daughters in his book, Dr. Gregory’s Legacy to his Daughters, and Wollstonecraft quotes him here

“Be even cautious in displaying your good sense. It will be thought you assume a superiority over the rest of the company - But if you happen to have any learning keep it a profound secret, especially from the men, who generally look with a jealous and malignant eye on a woman of great parts, and a cultivated understanding.” (106) 

So that gives us an idea of the prevalent beliefs about women from some of the most influential thinkers at the time. This is what Wollstonecraft was contending with when she wrote her book.

Reason over Emotion:Yeah with that as the backdrop it would make sense that 

  1. One of the strongest arguments she makes throughout the whole book is about elevating women’s ability to think rationally and use reason in order to become a virtuous human. She is fighting against the argument that there should be gendered ways of becoming virtuous. Women should attend to womanly virtues, and men to just regular virtues. Default virtues. But she argues that in reality, the path towards virtue should be the same for both men and women. And in order to help women along that path, they need to learn how to reason. She says: “women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue.” 

  1. And without that strength of mind, they are not going to be able to wrangle in those parts of themselves that can lead to bad habits or vice. Just like men. Reason is the attribute that is going to help keep all that in check. She says: “Women as well as men ought to have the common appetites and passions of their nature, they are only brutal when unchecked by reason: but the obligation to check them is the duty of mankind, not a sexual duty.” Thus arguing that everyone has the possibility of falling into vice or bad habits based on their desire or passions...but it is everyone’s responsibility to curb them. Which in turn will produce moral and upstanding citizens. And women need to be allowed to learn how to do that. 

  1. Throughout the book she places Reason above all else. This lens of “emotions are only something that get in the way, they are only for the weak and most of all they belong in the realm of women” has such tendrils that you can see its impact everywhere today. 
  2. This definitely found its way to marriage and family therapy in one of the most foundational theories in our field. One of the main theoretical underpinnings of this model is to help clients separate thinking from emotion to bring about what is called differentiation, which is the ability to still be in emotional contact with someone without getting caught up in the anxiety that comes with attachment relationships. On the surface this sounds like a good idea. When we are able to regulate our emotions, we are much more likely to have healthy relationships. If we are unable to do that, as the theory goes, we are likely to either emotionally cut off from because we are unable to manage the intensity of those relationships, or on the flip side, we run the risk of becoming codependent or enmeshed. Theoretically that all sounds fine. But the consequence of that approach is that emotions are deemed almost irresponsible, certainly lesser or inferior to reason. 
  3. I see Wollstonecraft doing the same thing here. She needs to make her argument this way because reason is the language of men. And men have the power. To get a toe in the door, she has to come from this angle, keeping the sensibilities or the emotional in its inferior status. And as a consequence of its inferior status it is cast aside, deemed as the realm of women. 

Yes! I think this stems from the ancient Greek notion that “chaos” is feminine and “reason” is masculine. And of course the Greeks disdained the feminine, and established the masculine as being, by definition, the rejection of all things feminine. 

This was the Enlightenment, after all, which followed the Scientific Revolution, and the pendulum was swinging hard against the centuries when the Church had had control over every aspect of life. So as people rejected the church and spirituality, they emphasized their own reason, and they turned to the philosophies and sensibilities of the Greeks and Romans. You could even see it in their architecture - if you think of Monticello or the white house, which were built at this time, the style is “Neoclassical,” meaning “new classical” and it’s very Greek. And music was very mathematical and precise - think of Mozart and Haydn - you can set a metronome to a lot of their music and it doesn’t deviate. (Interestingly the pendulum swung hard again the next century into the Romantic period where all the poetry and music got very touchy-feely and there was a resurgence of religion and “spiritual” life again.]

But anyway… back to Mary Wollstonecraft’s rejection of Emotion: I went through a period in college where I wouldn’t wear pink, I didn’t wear any makeup, I always carried a man’s wallet in my back pocket, I remember telling people “I’m not a crier - I haven’t cried in years.” I think I had observed that I wasn’t taken seriously as a girl, and I certainly wasn’t taken seriously in the world if I showed any emotion. So I tried to divorce myself of that part of myself. I think that’s what Wollstonecraft was doing. And sadly, as a tangent, I think that boys and men are taught to dissociate from their emotions because they’re seen as “chaotic” and “feminine” and they’re not taken seriously - and they sometimes do that for their entire lives! To the detriment of their mental health and their relationships. 

  1. Yes! These disowned parts of ourselves show up in all kinds of ways and definitely shows up in the therapy room. 

  1. What’s interesting is that even though marriage and family therapy was founded on these notions of downplaying the chaotic and feminine, feminists came along and made all of this explicit, rather than just the accepted way. They said, hey you are presupposing that emotions are the enemy to quality relationships, and you are elevating reason beyond where it belongs. There is something wrong here. That can’t be the whole picture. 

  1. Soon theorists and researchers looked more deeply into emotional processes and began to understand that emotions are a crucial part of the human experience. Now what presents as a challenge is that we do not have the faintest idea how to express those emotions in a way that our partner can understand or in a way that ensures our needs, our longings, get met. And so we are really prone to getting caught in negative interactional cycles. What I see in my office is a lot of people thinking they have a real clear understanding of what their problem is, and if their partner would just do x,y, and z, then everything would be solved, and x,y,and z are typically very rational and reason-oriented actions. But those solutions do not tend to the underlying emotional experience of either partner and so they don’t usually work long term. And both people feel misunderstood and worse isolated in that feeling because they don’t have a way to express it. 

  1. So we’ve had centuries of placing reason above all else. Research and outcome studies have shown that we learn how to attend to our own emotional experience, learn how to communicate what it is that we’re feeling, we are going to create lasting change in a way that pure rationality and reason might not be able to accomplish. I’m not saying that approach doesn’t work at all. I’m saying that our emotions are such an important part of our human experience that our understanding of ourselves is enriched and deepened in such a profound way when we can attend to them and share that with another person. 

  1. I will also say what a travesty it is when men, who have the same vulnerabilities as women, wanting to know that they are loved, lovable, that they have value outside of just what they can provide, that they matter on a very deep level, are so stifled by the patriarchy and what they have been authorized to convey. They get to show anger or desire. If it is other than that, they better keep a lid on it. Don’t show sadness. Don’t show despair. Don’t show hurt. So when they experience those emotions, you may never know it. You might see anger. You might see an increase in libido. You might see silence. What you are not likely to see is expression of those vulnerabilities. Of course, I am making generalizations from my experience as a therapist and just an observer of humans. I know there are definitely people who do not fit into that description. 

Well they sure fit a lot of men I know!! Especially of our parents’ generation and older. I think during our generation the conversation started changing a bit, and many people are raising their boys differently now, so thank goodness things are changing. Although it depends on where you live and your particular family too - a lot of boys are still being completely emotionally stifled.

  1. Right?! Back to Mary...I know she had to present her argument this way. She had to argue for women to be allowed into the realm of reason. And 200 years later, we may finally be making room for men to be allowed in the realm of emotion. But I will say, being on the frontlines of that, there is a poignancy to seeing couples go through decades of disconnection and misunderstanding because they have not been taught to attend to this part of themselves. As they come through to the other side having learned about this emotional part of themselves, learning its value and learning that it usually has something really important to say and then learning how to say it; inevitably there is a shared grief for lost time they could have had together feeling connected and loved. But it is worth the effort.

Amy: Those are amazing insights, Meagan. I’m so grateful that you’re bringing your insights as a therapist to the conversation - this is so relevant and helpful!

OK, that is where we’re going to wrap up today’s discussion. Next time, we will discuss Wollstonecraft’s thoughts on subjects such as women’s education, beauty and fashion, women’s role in religion, and chivalry. So read up if you can, and then join us next time for part 2 of Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” next time on Breaking Down Patriarchy.