Saturday, June 28, 2008

Feminist Reading

I recently finished reading a book that I was extremely impressed by - I even underlined certain lines to revisit later. Let me put some of those down here:

On marriage:
"The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is to be hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger". (second emphasis mine)
"(Women) must marry advantageously, and to this object their time is sacrificed, and their persons often legally prostituted."
"The affection of husbands and wives cannot be pure when they have so few sentiments in common, and when so little confidence is established at home, as must be the case when their pursuits are so different. That intimacy from which tenderness should flow, will not, cannot subsist between the vicious."

On what are perceived as feminine qualities:
"Let (women) beware of the fallacious light of sentiment; too often used as a softer phrase for sensuality".
"It will also require some time to convince women that they act contrary to their real interest on an enlarged scale, when they cherish or affect weakness under the name of delicacy."
"To become respectable, the exercise of their understanding is necessary, there is no other foundation for independence of character; I mean explicitly to say, that they must only bow to the authority of reason, instead of being the modest slaves of opinion."
"Exalted by their inferiority (this sounds like a contradiction) they constantly demand homage as women, though experience should teach them that the men who pride themselves upon paying this arbitrary insolent respect to the sex, with the most scrupulous exactness, are most inclined to tyrannize over, and despise the very weakness they cherish."
"I do earnestly wish to see the distinction of sex confounded in society, unless where love animates the behaviour. For this distinction is, I am firmly persuaded, the foundation of the weakness of character ascribed to woman; is the cause why the understanding is neglected, whilst accomplishments are acquired with sedulous care: and the same cause accounts for their preferring the graceful before the heroic virtues."[1]
"Women, commonly called ladies, are not to be contradicted in company, are not allowed to exert any manual strength; and from them the negative virtues only are expected, when any virtues are expected, patience, docility, good-humour, and flexibility; virtues incompatible with any vigorous exertion of intellect."[2]
"What were we created for? To remain, it may be said, innocent; they mean in a state of childhood."
"Writers have too often considered virtue in a very limited sense, and made the foundation of it solely worldly utility; nay, a still more fragile base has been given to this stupendous fabric, and the wayward fluctuating feelings of men have been made the standard of virtue."
"The pernicious tendency of those books, in which the writers insidiously degrade the sex, whilst they are prostrate before their personal charms, cannot be too often or too severely exposed."
"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 like angels when they are young and beautiful; consequently, it is their persons, not their virtues, that procure them this homage."
"Allowing women to be rational creatures they should be incited to acquire virtues which they may call their own, for how can a rational being beennobled by any thing that is not obtained by its own exertions?"

On the endurance of women:
"The being who patiently endures injustice, and silently bears insults, will soon become unjust, or unable to discern right from wrong...
"Of what materials can that heart be composed, which can melt when insulted, and instead of revolting at injustice, kiss the rod? Is it unfair to infer, that her virtue is built on narrow views and selfishness, who can caress a man, with true feminine softness, the very moment when he treats her tyrannically? Nature never dictated such insincerity; and though prudence of this sort be termed a virtue, morality becomes vague when any part is supposed to rest on falsehood... Let the husband beware of trusting too implicitly to this servile obedience; for if his wife can with winning sweetness caress him when angry, and when she ought to be angry, unless contempt had stifled a natural effervescence, she may do the same after parting with a lover. These are all preparations for adultery; or, should the fear of the world, or of hell, restrain her desire of pleasing other men, when she can no longer please her husband, what substitute can be found by a being who was only formed by nature and art to please man? what can make her amends for this privation, or where is she to seek for a fresh employment? where find sufficient strength of mind to determine to begin the search, when her habits are fixed, and vanity has long ruled her chaotic mind?"

On "fondness for dress":
"A strong inclination for external ornaments ever appears in barbarous states, only the men not the women adorn themselves; for where women are allowed to be so far on a level with men, society has advanced at least one step in civilization."
"An immoderate fondness for dress, for pleasure and for sway, are the passions of savages; the passions that occupy those uncivilized beings who have not yet extended the dominion of the mind, or even learned to think with the energy necessary to concatenate that abstract train of thought which produces principles."

On equal and co-curricular education:
"Why, for instance, should the following caution be given... 'Be even cautious in displaying your good sense.* It will be thought you a ssume asuperiority 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'...(*Footnote. Let women once acquire good sense--and if it deserve the name, it will teach them; or, of what use will it be? how to employ it.)" [4]
"Marriage will never be held sacred till women by being brought up with men, are prepared to be their companions, rather than their mistresses."
"Let an enlightened nation then try what effect reason would have to bring them back to nature, and their duty; and allowing them to share the advantages of education and government with man, see whether they will become better, as they grow wiser and become free. They cannot be injured by the experiment; for it is not in the power of man to render them more insignificant than they are at present."[3]

On women working:
"How many women thus waste life away, the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave lustre; nay, I doubt whether pity and love are so near a-kin as poets feign, for I have seldom seen much compassion excited by the helplessness of females, unless they were fair; then, perhaps, pity was the soft handmaid of love, or the harbinger of lust.
"How much more respectable is the woman who earns her own bread by fulfilling any duty, than the most accomplished beauty!...
"Proud of their weakness, however, they must always be protected, guarded from care, and all the rough toils that dignify the mind."

On parental duties:
"There seems to be an indolent propensity in man to make prescription always take place of reason, and to place every duty on an arbitrary foundation."
"A slavish bondage to parents cramps every faculty of the mind."
"To be a good mother -- a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands."

On equal rights for women:
"I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves."
"It is plain from the history of all nations, that women cannot be confined to merely domestic pursuits, for they will not fulfil family duties, unless their minds take a wider range, and whilst they are kept in ignorance, they become in the same proportion, the slaves of pleasure as they are the slaves of man. Nor can they be shut out of great enterprises, though the narrowness of their minds often make them mar what they are unable to comprehend."
"Confined, then, in cages, like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock-majesty from perch to perch. It is true, they are provided with food and raiment, for which they neither toil nor spin; but health, liberty, and virtue are given in exchange."
"Let men take their choice, man and woman were made for each other, though not to become one being; and if they will not improve women, they will deprave them!"
"Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship, instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers--in a word, better citizens. We should then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect ourselves."
"But, till more equality be established in society, till ranks are confounded and women freed, we shall not see that dignified domestic happiness, the simple grandeur of which cannot be relished by ignorant or vitiated minds; nor will the important task of education ever be properly begun till the person of a woman is no longer preferred to her mind. For it would be as wise to expect corn from tares, or figs from thistles, as that a foolish ignorant woman should be a good mother."
"Asserting the rights which women in common with men ought to contend for, I have not attempted to extenuate their faults; but to prove them to be the natural consequence of their education andstation in society. If so, it is reasonable to suppose, that they will change their character, and correct their vices and follies, when they are allowed to be free in a physical, moral, and civil sense."

This book is "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" by Mary Wollstonecraft, first published in 1792. I am torn between admiration for her courage and clear-sightedness, and disappointment that change has been so slow.

[1] If I were to speak for myself, I would remove the caveat "unless where love animates the behaviour", for I do not believe even love should be confined within gendered roles.
[2] To say women are not contradicted might be a bit of a stretch now, but how often have you heard a man claiming to moderate his words due to the presence of a woman?
[3] The last statement is, of course, no longer true, but it illustrates that we have indeed, travelled some distance.
[4] Also read this.


chandu said...

hey....was travelling...back now!

Indian Home Maker said...

Added a line from this ("I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.")to my blog home page...and added you to my blog roll:)

D said...

That book was a turning point in the history of feminism. And we continue to go back to it to realise how those things still hold true. So much for progressing!

Unmana said...

IHM: Thanks!

D: Exactly. Isn't that sad?