Mary Wollstonecraft: Knowing Not Milton’s Meaning
I started to take a look at this web site since I’ve linked to it twice now. I did not get too far before remembering a part of a presentation I gave my senior year at the University of Idaho—back in 1998 I believe. So I went to see if I could find it and I did. Academic thoughts from a perplexed Patriarch:
(for those new to all this, I am no longer a Patriarch)
… Mary Wollstonecraft identifies the opponent as well,
“Rousseau declares that a woman should never for a moment feel herself independent, that she should be … made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, …with respect to the female character, obedience is the grand lesson… What nonsense!”
… She notes how women are “kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence,” and describes the training of young girls:
“Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that … weakness, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man.”
But the more one studies her writings, the more it is apparent that her sentiments are attached primarily to one hideous reality—the vanity of the Englishwomen of wealth. Women weak in body and in mind, she writes, “cannot exert themselves unless to pursue some frothy pleasure, or to invent some frivolous fashion.” She watches the carriages go by containing what she calls “pale-faced creatures who are flying from themselves!,” and notes that “she has often wished to place some of them in a little shop…” The “blank cheeks” of these mannequins have lost their true dignity. “What are women to do in society?” she asks, “…but to loiter with easy grace.”
With a calming transition, almost at the expense of a contradiction in argument, Wollstonecraft turns to a more middle-class domestic situation. After arguing for the mutual independence of husband and wife, here is the picture she cherishes in her heart,
“The maternal solicitude of a reasonable affectionate woman is very interesting, and the chastened dignity with which a mother returns the caresses that she and her child receive from a father who has been fulfilling the serious duties of his station, is not only a respectable, but a beautiful sight. So singular indeed are my feelings, and I have endeavored not to catch factitious ones, that after having been fatigued with the sight of insipid grandeur and the slavish ceremonies that with cumbrous pomp supplied the place of domestic affections, I have turned to some other scene to relieve my eye by resting it on the refreshing green everywhere scattered by nature. I have then viewed with pleasure a woman nursing her children, and discharging the duties of her station with, perhaps, merely a servant maid to take off her hands the servile part of the household business. I have seen her prepare herself and her children, with only the luxury of cleanliness, to receive her husband, who returning weary home in the evening found smiling babes and a clean hearth. My heart has loitered in the midst of the group, and has even throbbed with sympathetic emotion, when the scraping of the well known foot has raised a pleasing tumult.”
Wollstonecraft then attempts to bring this aside into her argument, “…I have thought that a couple of this description, equally necessary and independent of each other, because each fulfilled the respective duties of their station…” The feminist editors of this work explain all this as Wollstonecraft being “a woman of her own time.”
… Mary Wollstonecraft could not bring herself to submission to a man. She writes, “I love man as my fellow; but his sceptre, real or usurped, extends not to me, unless the reason of an individual demands my homage; and even then the submission is to reason, and not to man.” Wollstonecraft considers weak women those who never “feel the dignity of a rational will that only bows to God…” And further, “…becoming dependent only on Him for the support of my virtue, I view with indignation, the mistaken notions that enslave my sex.”
We must ask ourselves at this point, is dependence enslavement? Is male authority in the home tyranny? From where did the enlightened mind receive such new revelation? Wollstonecraft appeals to her justification: “Surely there can be but one rule of right, if morality has an eternal foundation… Thanks to that Being who impressed them on my soul, and gave me sufficient strength of mind to dare to exert my own reason…” We are still left to ask in the face of all this enlightened confidence, which is more absurd, to say “God has spoken”, or to say “God has most certainly not spoken, for that would lead to tyranny, and here is what he has to say”? Perhaps if we do some more analysis of Wellstonecraft’s life…we can find a more probable base for the revelation she has received.
Two feminist Stanford scholars comment on the life of Wollstonecraft, “…unhappy childhood… stormy life… several intense love affairs, a daughter born out of wedlock, and two attempts at suicide.” Also, she is noted as being the daughter of an “improvident drunkard father”. Her first mother died when she was 21.
Maybe now we can get, as the Continentals might say, to the interum verbum of this famous woman known as Mary Wollstonecraft. Maybe now we can understand why it is she says of Milton’s description of our first mother, that she was created for “softness and sweet attractive grace”, why it is she responds, “I cannot comprehend his meaning…unless, in the true Mahometan strain, he meant to deprive us of souls, and insinuate that we were beings …[of] docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man ….” Indeed Mrs. Wollstonecraft. Unless he means deprivation, unless he means docile blind obedience, unless he means a gratification of unworthy men …she “cannot comprehend his meaning”. Unless the wise master-poet Milton meant oppression, tyranny, abdication, and arrogance of men, unless he meant for her loneliness, neglect, and rage, Mary Wollstonecraft “cannot comprehend his meaning.” When she has only seen a drunkard for a father, a bastard for a child, and abandonment from her lovers, when she has never been led by a gentle and strong man, tasted a non-tyrannical authority, when she has been left by all the men in the world to ruin and to suicide, how indeed can Mrs. Wollstonecraft “comprehend his meaning”? When there has been no man to depend on, how shall she delight in woman’s dependence on men? When there has been no man to represent her, how shall she glory in the fact that every woman should be represented by a man? Why is it that she should understand Milton’s meaning, when she has never heard from her own chair that “scraping of the well known foot [that] has raised a pleasing tumult”?
… Perhaps we have come to know a little better where Wollstonecraft has found her revelation on morality and the home. . . . Why do we turn to a woman who unfortunately knows nothing existentially of the world of Milton for his very refutation?
Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” English Romantic Poetry and Prose. Ed. Russell Noyes (New York: Oxford University Press 1956).
Susan Bell & Karen Offen. Women, the Family, and Freedom: The Debate In Documents (Stanford University Press, 1983). [This is a rockin’ volume]
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