Wollstonecraft’s book is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. The author is responding to the widely held belief of the time that women should not receive an equal education to men, and the majority of the work focuses on the importance of education to women.
Feminism was not a known term or philosophy in the late 18th century. It is not even clear whether Wollstonecraft herself believed men and women to be necessarily equal in all spheres; her main point is that, if women are deemed unequal to men, then they cannot be held responsible for the superficial way they behave. To educate them, she insists, would be to equip them with the same rights – and therefore responsibilities – as men, and society could only benefit as a result.
The book was intended as the first of three volumes, but sadly the author died before she could complete the rest. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly direct attack on the educational system of the time, and lays the responsibility for change – and the betterment of society – firmly at the door of the men in power.
Where did I get hold of the book?
This was another one from the university library, which I took out at the same time as Faust. When I went back to return Faust, having already renewed both books once, I ended up spending an entire afternoon in the library finishing this book, so that I could return it at the same time and not have to renew it again. There’s nothing like a deadline to get you working!
- Find the book in a library near you.
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
I learned a fair amount about the educational system in the UK in the late 18th century, and how that has developed into what we have today. For example, in the 21st century the term ‘public school’ in the UK (although not in the US) means what many of us would actually refer to as a ‘private school’. But back in Wollstonecraft’s day, the word ‘public’ differentiated these schools (predominantly all-male and boarding) from private education carried out at home.
Wollstonecraft raises issues with both systems – boarding and home schooling – and states that it would benefit both girls and boys to attend co-educational day schools. This would enable them to mix with each other, allowing them to see the opposite sex as companions rather than strangers, and would also help both sexes remain aware of the importance of the domestic sphere.
How did it make me see the world differently?
As with several of the other books I’ve read in recent months, there’s a recognition that, although we have clearly made progress since the author’s day, human nature is such that bad things will still happen.
Women, at least in the UK, are now educated in essentially the same way as men, and many go on to achievements in traditionally male spheres in far greater numbers than was possible in 1792. However, for every woman (or man…) who is keen to develop themselves with a view to fixing the world’s issues, there is another who prefers to skim over the hard work in favour of surface niceties.
I have an optimistic view of human nature, and I am not convinced that this is down to any innate defect in individuals. Rather, I suspect it is a matter of what we are raised to believe. Are we encouraged to think that we hold the power to change our lives, or are we suckered into a hamster wheel of meaningless, underpaid, overworked jobs? If the latter, it’s not surprising that we fall back on easy treats and superficial cares to make life bearable. Ironically, it may even be the very system of education desired by the likes of Wollstonecraft that is now depriving people of the habit of thinking for themselves.
The question is how everyone can be encouraged to realise that they (a) have the power to act independently and (b) can actually make a difference. Everyone has some quality that makes them stand out from the rest, even if that is not in the areas Wollstonecraft envisaged. And if everyone were to recognise their power for good and their ability to create change, the chances of their turning the other way would be much smaller.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
I’m pretty well educated, but I am just as guilty as the next person at listening overmuch to what others tell me. Now, obviously that is not in itself a bad thing! We need to take on board others’ views if we wish to develop a tolerant, balanced perspective of the world.
But what can happen, when you try to honour other people’s attitudes too much, is that you lose sight of your own way. Even – or perhaps especially – when those you’re listening to are good, helpful, insightful people, it’s easy to get caught up in the shoulds, the oughts and the mustn’ts. By paying too much attention to what others think, we lose the ability to discern what we, deep down, in our hearts feel to be true. The constant stream of likes, favourites and shares on social media only adds to this problem: our inner wisdom gets drowned out by the noise, and it can be a struggle to regain it. ‘Other people who had this view also thought…‘ could be the algorithm for our times.
I decided at the start of this year that my word for 2015 would be ‘Intuition’. I would use this as a focus for homing in on what I believe to be my truth, my way in the world, and not let my path be muddied by what the masses around me might want from me. To some extent I’ve achieved this, but I realised recently that I still have an inclination to ask others what I should do when, really, I already know what I want to do and am only seeking validation.
And so I am taking the step of disengaging from some of the communities I have been frequenting: mostly online groups populated by people just like me. I’ve grown too used to asking what they think before I do something new, and I have far too many ideas to be checking each and every one of them before I start. So I’m removing the temptation to do that, and will be leaving a number of these groups in the next few days. I will still seek practical help when I need it – but I won’t let my own truth be tempered by the many other truths out there.
I intend to write my own algorithm for life.
Over to you…
Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?
If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?
Please share in the comments below!