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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, Part 2
Episode 820th January 2021 • Breaking Down Patriarchy • Amy McPhie Allebest
00:00:00 01:03:14

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Education: The next theme that really stands out to me is her vision for the education of women. 

  1. Women are not the inferior sex, maybe physically but not intellectually. They have not been given the chance to prove themselves otherwise. Women are not inferior by nature but by consequence of miseducation. 
  1. Women have been relegated to the realm of sensibility or emotion. To the frivolous and shallow, but then are mocked or scorned for it. Yet, she argues, what do we expect of them if that is the only education they are receiving. We cannot expect more from them if this is all they’re given. Like let’s cut women some slack and stop mocking them, since it’s society’s fault that they are “like this”. 
  1. She also argued for women to be educated so that they were not left destitute if a man decides he no longer wants to take care of her. 
  2. “Girls who have been thus weakly educated, are often cruelly left by their parents without provision; and, of course, are dependent on, not only the reason, but the bounty of their brothers. In this equivocal humiliating situation, a docile female may remain some time, with a tolerable degree of comfort. But, when the brother marries, a probable circumstance, from being considered as the mistress of the family, she is viewed with averted looks as an intruder, an unnecessary burden on the benevolence of the master of the house, and his new partner”
  3. Basically she not only has to be dependent on the kindness of her brother or other family members that might take pity on her, but she is not equipped in the slightest to deal with what life has dealt her. 
  4. This message to women that their role in life is to be a wife and then a mother definitely was the message that my mom was given. She dropped out of college, after one semester, when my dad proposed, got married, had my sister pretty quickly and 3 years later, there she was 23, divorced with a toddler and one on the way--that was me. No education. No real job training. This was the early 70’s during second wave feminism so it wasn’t like there was no counter-messaging happening in the greater world about getting an education or training so you can support yourself. But in her world, in the Mormon world, there seemed to be a doubling down on a woman’s place and one that, because she had great faith in the Mormon church, she believed whole-heartedly. 

  1. There was always a tension between growing up with a single mom and the idealized version of what a family was supposed to look like in the Mormon church--namely father at the head, mother at the hearth and the children kneeling at their feet. Not quite how I grew up living with my single working mom, but then I would visit my dad twice a year from California to Utah and see it play out that way with my dad and stepmom and siblings and it was mostly confusing and painful for me. 

  1. It wasn’t that I wanted my parents to be married and thought that would make everything better for us. All I had ever known was life with my mom. It was more that my siblings had what appeared to be financial stability that we did not have. I know now that my dad and stepmom scrimped and took extra jobs to meet all of their financial obligations but as a kid, it was not lost on me that my dad had an education, a better paying job, and more income than my mom. It was a struggle for my mom. 

  1. However,  because of her experience as a young bride with no education and then finding herself as a single mother, I grew up with the message that a college education is not an option. Not necessarily because I’m worth being educated, but more because “what if something happens to your husband” you will be left alone and struggling. She didn’t want that for me. I certainly did not want that for myself. But the “in case something happens to your husband” part was lost on me. I was going to college because I had a vision for what I wanted for myself. I wanted a career and I wanted to help people. I really had to grow into those other parts of myself as wife and mother. I did not see myself in those roles. 

This is so important, Meagan. Actually my daughter Lindsay just wrote a paper in college on Mormon Women in the 1970’s, and how they responded to the Women’s Lib movement. Most of the women she interviewed - now in their 60’s and 70’s - didn’t even know it was happening. It was like they had a big force field bubble over them. And of those who were aware of it most of the women she interviewed believed the church’s message that the Women’s movement was dangerous, so they dug in even harder on the ideology of female dependence and self-sacrifice.

That is so fascinating! I would love to read her paper! I’ve talked to my mom about this time period in her life and definitely feminism was a dirty four letter word. So yeah, it was going on “out there” but definitely not soaking in to her daily life in any meaningful way that impacted her choices. 

So, Wollstonecraft’s view was pretty out there for the time and was out there for many women in the 70’s! Educate women because they will make better wives, mothers, and citizens. Here she kind of takes a turn and starts talking about how motherhood, a very natural thing, and the unnatural preoccupation with being beautiful and admired get pitted against each other when education is so limited. She says: 

“...When a woman is admired for her beauty, and suffers herself to be so far intoxicated by the admiration she receives, as to neglect to discharge the indispensable duty of a mother…Men are not aware of the misery they cause, and the vicious weakness they cherish, by only inciting women to render themselves pleasing; they do not consider that they thus make natural and artificial duties clash…”

She makes several of these arguments of the natural predisposition for women to become mothers and she even argues in several places that women who do not breastfeed are neglecting their natural bond and failing in a severe way. I believe she is mindful of placing the woman in context of the patriarchy and acknowledging that the expectation is going to be low when women are not taught to be thinking more philosophically or rationally. They will tend towards the silly and frivolous. And neglecting their duties as a mother. But she does get a little judgy about motherhood and breastfeeding. 

This does sting in some ways knowing that motherhood is not available to everyone who wants it, it sometimes happens to those who are not yet ready for it, and for others still, they will thoughtfully make the choice to not have children. There’s such a huge spectrum of a woman’s experience when it comes to motherhood. And it’s so complicated, right? But in Mary’s world, it’s a forgone conclusion that women will become mothers. And breastfeeding as well. So much pain for those for whom it doesn’t work, or the judgement that is passed for those that choose not to. I think one thing is for sure: When we take the time to get to know the person, there is usually a really good reason for the choice that they have made, and if there isn’t, it still isn’t really our place to judge. So let’s try and support each other. :) 

Yes! So often these arguments about men’s and women’s roles assume that every woman is a mother. And that’s not true. So we should be careful not to assume, not to conflate motherhood with other things, and then as you said, so importantly, not judge each other.

There are a lot of places where she is pretty harsh to women who are preoccupied with beauty and the vain things of the world. I have to admit that I was pretty judgey like her about girly girl stuff. This started when I was really young and lasted until after we got back from Chile. I definitely had a chip on my shoulder when it came to femininity and things that were considered shallow and flashy and what seemed designed just to get men’s attention. I wanted to be taken seriously. For my ideas. For what I brought to the table intellectually. I did not want to be noticed for what I was wearing or what I looked like. 

 I think that is what Mary is trying to say here is that when a woman is told that her only way of being valued is through her attractiveness or sexuality, then it stands to reason these parts of herself will be focused on and developed. Is there anything wrong with liking to look attractive and feeling sexual. No. And also, they are not the only parts of us that exist and not the only parts of us that have value.

However, for me, I had to really grow into those parts of myself because a rejection of them meant that I was playing by my own rules. In reality, I was still playing by the patriarchy’s rules, just in a slightly different way. Downplay those parts of myself to achieve a different goal. Denigrate what I saw as the obvious rules of the patriarchy: Women be sexy so you can get a man, please him, and be fulfilled by his attention. No instead, I was playing by the equally insidious rules of the patriarchy that equate femininity with inferiority. My internal monologue was: If you want to be successful, downplay anything feminine, do not dress to be noticed, and reject the idea that it’s your role to be a wife and a mother. 

Now I can see the patriarchal system that was not obvious to me before and I can be harsh on the system and soft on the person within the system.

Yes, exactly, that’s exactly what I was doing during that period of my life in college. Thinking I was rebelling, I was actually denigrating what the patriarchy had determined was “feminine.” So I was just playing into the narrative that the “feminine” was inferior.

And I do have to throw in one of my favorites of her quotes on this topic:

“Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilded cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention, and give character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views.” (56)

“The mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its gilded cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” I think we do have to be mindful of this issue. Later in the podcast we will be covering the book The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, that talks about how this very same phenomenon is still plaguing women in the 20th/21st Century. Women are still spending inordinate amounts of time and thought and money on “adornment,” and in some cases it truly is because women are in a mental prison and they’re wasting their “one wild and precious life” on trivial, ephemeral beauty and worrying about how they are perceived every waking moment of their lives. And I think social media is only making that worse. But on the other hand, as you and I both talked about, it’s not healthy either to pretend we don’t care how we look at all or to reject any interest in our appearance because we associate that with “weakness” or femininity.” So it’s super complicated.

Actually, I have to share one more thing: In our house we have a quote on the wall from Little Women, where Marmee says:

“If you feel your value lies in being merely decorative, I fear that someday you might find yourself believing that’s all that you really are. Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind: your humor, your kindness, and your moral courage. These are the things I cherish so in you.”

I love this quote. But. Apparently I have been doing too good of a job inculcating that message that “adornment” is not a worthy way to spend our time and attention, because recently my teenage daughter Sophie came to me and said “Mom, sometimes I feel worried that you’re judging me because I care about clothes and makeup more than you do.” Sophie is an artist and she loves doing makeup and hair and experimenting with clothes… and there’s nothing wrong with that! And I’m so grateful she told me so that I could apologize for making her feel that way, and do some course-correction so she feels free to be herself.

The fact that she was able to come to you and express her worry or fear speaks volumes about the safety and trust you have created with her. That kind of honesty can feel so very risky and yet she trusted that you would handle her fears gently. And allowed you the opportunity to offer reassurance. That is so beautiful. 

And side note: our youngest sounds very similar to Sophie and both Jon and I have to be very mindful that we honor those parts of her that we don’t fully get on an experiential level. 

That’s so interesting! And that makes me wonder if I’m projecting some of my issues onto my girls. There’s that phrase “girls are praised for how they look; boys are praised for what they do.” 


That was definitely true as I was growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, and once that was pointed out to me I really started noticing how true that still is. And I observed sooooo many women around me who derived their value from their looks and their dress. But my girls have grown up in a totally different environment, at least in our family, and so when she’s experimenting with hairstyles and eyeliner and clothes, she’s doing that as an artist and as a teenager who’s experimenting with how she wants to express herself, which is a completely healthy part of growing up. [And by the way, I never ever say anything to Sophie about her clothes and makeup - it’s just that she notices my simple style… and the quotes I put on the wall. And the fact that the word “Kardashian” is a swear word in our family. But anyway… I want to be careful that I don’t project my own issues onto my kids.

Oh yes! I have found out more about myself through having kids than I did by being in therapy or being a therapist--which requires you understand yourself pretty well...but somehow our kids hold up mirrors for us to see all our rough edges, all the things that maybe we didn’t see before and once we see all that--boy it takes work to not put all our stuff onto them. 

Such a delicate balance and feels like we have to walk through fire to find it sometimes. 

Speaking of walking through fire, it brings me to my next point that Wollstonecraft makes about

  1. Women’s Role & God
  2. Rousseau’s whole premise that women are created for man and that man tries to obtain her consent that he is the strongest...which she labeled as nonsense. You quoted some of his delightful ideas about the purpose of women and Mary directly responds to him with bold declarations. This one I spoke to me in particular:

  1. “And though the cry of irreligion, or even atheism, be raised against me, I will simply declare, that were an angel from heaven to tell me that Moses’s beautiful, poeticial cosmogony, and the account of the fall of man, were literally true, I could not believe what my reason told me was derogatory to the character of the Supreme Being: and having no fear of the devil before mine eyes, I venture to call this suggestion of reason, instead of resting my weakness on the broad shoulders of the first seducer of my frail sex.” 

  1. This is a radical stance then and would be radical to many now. But I appreciate that she is separating her own experience of a Supreme Being, of God, and taking God out of that very small box and saying, this does not resonate with me and what I understand of God. Her reasoning tells her that this is not the character of God and therefore she can reject it. That God would not create women solely as pleasers of men and inferior to men. That goes against God’s character.

  1. Benevolent Patriarchy screams its way throughout this whole chapter when she’s quoting her contemporaries. Like all those quotes we read at the beginning and how they attempt to keep women subordinate by telling them how marvelous they are, that they need to be cared for, that their innocence, that like of children, needs to be safeguarded and protected by using flattery and compliments. She says “This is not the language of the heart, nor will it ever reach it, though the ear may be tickled.” (p.168). 

So it might feel good for a bit to be put on the pedestal. It may make you feel cared for, valued, and important. But she calls it out as a farce and nonsense. She bores into the heart of the matter by saying, do away with all that flattery and pretending. Allow women to fully come into themselves and know all the different parts of themselves, not just the parts they’re told they have to have to be acceptable. Let them learn like anybody else learns. Through experience. Not through borrowed reason that may get doled out here and there but through real lived experience to fully exercise their mental capacity. 

  1. Why are girls to be told that they resemble angels; but to sink them below women? Or, that a gentle innocent female is an object that comes nearer to the idea which we have formed of angels than any other. Yet they are told, at the same time, that they are only angels when they are young and beautiful; consequently, it is their person, not their virtues, that procure them this homage. Idle empty words! What can such delusive flattery lead to, but vanity and folly?”

This is all highly challenging for me as a Mormon woman. Mormon doctrine is steeped in the patriarchy and her arguments here are arguments that Mormon feminists have been making for decades. What is probably the most difficult aspect of this for me is that she was saying these things nearly 230 years ago. That’s a really long time to be having the same arguments. I would imagine for people not growing up in a church like the Mormon church and having a bit more freedom in how gender roles are conceptualized, the arguments of her contemporaries sound really outdated and kind of nuts. 

But they all ring so true to my experience within the Mormon church and the way women are lauded and placed divinely up on the pedestal. And my gut telling me, if we really were equal, we would not be having to make such a big deal about how special we are. We would understand it on a different level through representation, through women leaders guiding us in matters of doctrine and not just leading women and children, but leading men as well. That is certainly not the case, so on it goes as the men try to tell us women, and then women leaders also telling us, that no, in fact, that gut feeling you’re having that there’s something amiss? That something isn’t quite right? 

Ignore that and listen to my flattering words that say...