Since the birth of civilization, half of the human race has been forced to exist in an inferior station. Valued primarily for their beauty and ability to produce offspring, women lived for centuries under the jurisdiction of male authority. Overtime, women fought for the respect, recognition, and independent identity now granted to them in many parts of the world. This is a stark contrast to the 16th century when women were essentially property of their fathers or husbands: unable to inherit property, hold clerical positions, or independently run a business.1 One woman in particular, Mary Wollstonecraft, is considered to be the founder of the feminist movement that inspired women to fight for independence and rights equal to that of man. Her 18th century literary works attack the lack of education available to females and defend their intellectual abilities. Wollstonecraft systematically breaks down the flawed views used by men as justification for their oppression of women in a way that resembles the method of reasoning born during the 16th century scientific revolution. During the revolution, people began to question and find errors in scientific theories that had been established for hundreds of years, just as Wollstonecraft identifies faults in the common beliefs responsible for the abysmal education of women. In particular, the ideas developed by Francis Bacon, a 16th century English philosopher who was critical of human thought, are reflected in her A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Bacon labels four idols, or fallacies, of human thought as the source of error in scientific work and the impediment to intellectual advancement.2 In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft dismantles the male viewpoints of the 18th century that were responsible for the limited education of women and their descent into helpless beings using logical reasoning that identifies fallacies similar to those proposed by Francis Bacon.
Mary Wollstonecraft was an advocate for women’s rights and educational reform in the 18th century and demonstrates that women have the ability to be independent. Wollstonecraft was born in London in 1759. Her father’s mismanagement of the family fortune sunk them into financial ruin, and at nineteen Wollstonecraft left home to support herself.3 In 1784 she helped her sister escape an abusive marriage, and later the two women established a private school with a family friend.3 Unfortunately, the school was not successful and put further financial strain on Wollstonecraft, but she was saved by the publication of her first book.3 Although she never received a formal education, Wollstonecraft was a skilled translator and her literary works demonstrate a developed understanding of ancient philosophers and the bible.3 This suggests that she was largely self-taught, as women of the time were primarily educated to be doting wives rather than critical thinkers.4 Another one of her most well-known publications, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, was published in 1792 during another time of personal stress. Wollstonecraft met a merchant while traveling with whom she had a long and difficult relationship. They never married and he was unfaithful to her even though they had a child together.3 Wollstonecraft’s poor experiences with men were likely motivating factors behind her work that focuses on the numerous ways in which men keep women oppressed and dependent on them. Wollstonecraft herself is an example of a woman who was able to educate herself, establish a literary career, and live independently free from the shackles of marriage for much of her life. A Vindication of the Rights of Women is a piece that encompasses her views on the flaws of women’s education in a way that resembles the innovation of the scientific revolution.
The scientific revolution, sparked at the beginning of the 16th century by a renewed interest in nature and the discovery of previously unknown scientific texts, caused a permanent change in society’s desire for knowledge and mode of thought. Europeans used to base their natural studies off of the works of ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and Ptolemy.5 However, modern observations became increasingly difficult to fit within the constraints these ancient theories.5 For a while, scientists were hesitant to discount the Greek theories completely and simply modified them to account for new information. Finally, they were dismantled by the humanist discovery of a collection of works from previously unknown ancient scientists with views that differed from those of the accepted theories and Europeans were pushed to seek a higher understanding of the universe.5 As science became more widespread, monarchies sought to sponsor research to bring the most modern technology to their states.6 Numerous scientists, including Francis Bacon, gained fame for their work and made a permanent impact on society.7
Bacon was critical towards the defaults of human reasoning and perception and believed that such fallacies of thought were responsible for errors and misattributions in scientific work. Francis Bacon, 1561-1626, attended the Trinity College, Cambridge in his youth where he was traditionally trained, however, he was skeptical towards scholastic modes of thought.8 He later studied to become a barrister and became a member of parliament in 1595.8 Under James I Bacon rapidly ascended to become Viscount of St. Albans.8 In addition to his political career, Bacon published numerous literary works. Novum Organum, perhaps his most well-known piece, reflects his skepticism towards human thought and proposes a new method that reduces the influence of past philosophies and presence of logical fallicies.8 Bacon identifies four idols – flaws of human thought – that cause people to make incorrect assumptions and conclusions about the world. Idols of the tribe are innate to human nature and the human race as a whole.9 People believe that what they perceive about the world is correct without acknowledging that their perceptions have been distorted based on common thought. While the tribe focuses on the influence of societal standards, idols of the den are unique to each individual. The effect of individual experiences, education, interpersonal relationships, and authority figures on thoughts and perception encompass idols of the den.9 Idols of market manifest in communication. Thoughts can be altered by the words used to convey them, words can be misleading, and the names of objects are often poor representations of the natural world. Essentially, a person’s understanding of a word limits their ability to think abstractly about it or the concepts it is involved with.10 Lastly, idols of theatre represent the influence of past philosophies and ways of thinking that limit modern progress. Bacon labeled religion and monarchies as institutions that were responsible for many idols of the theatre.11 Over 100 years later, Mary Wollstonecraft’s attack on female oppression seems to identify Bacon’s four idols in the minds of the men responsible.
Wollstonecraft diagnoses the view that women are physically weaker than men as the core belief responsible for the oppression of women and source of idols of tribe: using a commonly held belief as a hasty explanation for natural occurrences. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a political and moral philosopher, wrote extensively on the education and purpose of women using their physical weakness as the basis for his work.12 Wollstonecraft references and refutes many of his claims in A Vindication of the Rights of Women. According to Rousseau, a woman should never feel independent and should only strive to make herself more desirable to men. Women must be dependent on men because they rely on them for protection and satisfaction of sexual needs. A man, however, only requires a woman to fulfill his primal desires.13 While Wollstonecraft acknowledges that nature has dictated for women to be physically weaker than men, she asserts that this has no correlation to an inferior mental capacity and inability to be independent.14 Rousseau and other proponents of the objectification of women attribute the tendency for young girls to play with dolls and adult women to focus on their physical appearance to a delicate disposition.15 Wollstonecraft refutes these claims as the actions of girls and women are the result of the societal standards forced upon them.16 It is likely that dolls, dress-up, and other traditionally feminine toys were the only ones provided to girls so they played with them because there were simply no other options. In addition, aristocratic men and women of the time both delighted in their physical appearance and dress, but women appeared vainer because they were not permitted to have other interests.17 Rousseau, and men of the era as a whole, fell for an idol of the tribe because they used a commonly held belief, that women are physically and as such mentally weak, to explain the behavior of women without acknowledging the societal pressures imposed on them from a young age. The upbringing of women inevitably affected the way they viewed themselves and degraded their minds to an unhealthy state.
Men were not the only ones to fall prey to fallacies of thought. Based on Wollstonecraft’s work, women were especially susceptible to idols of the den, individual biases born from personal experience, based on their superficial education, and forced dependence on men. From childhood, women were taught by their mothers that they only needed to be docile, obedient, and pretty to earn the attention and protection of a man.18 As such, their limited educational experience was based around how to please men, be useful to men, be loved by men, and make the lives of men easier.13 This warped their minds into believing that they did in fact need the protection of men to survive and the lack of formal education prevented their brains from developing the same intellectual skills as men. In the words of Wollstonecraft – their minds were not in a healthy state.14 One example Wollstonecraft provides is that women were particularly likely to fall for charlatans in the medical field peddling magical cures for illness such as hypnosis.19 As their education lacked in medical or bodily knowledge, women fell for idols of the den by trusting false medical authority simply because they did not know any better. This could have put them or their children at risk if they relied on fraudulent medical “miracles” instead of actual treatments. In addition, women tended to prefer reading novels and stories as opposed to political or scientific texts, which men used as further evidence of an inferior mental capacity.20 However, as Wollstonecraft addresses, women read simpler books because they lacked the educational background to appreciate intellectual works.20 They were never taught how to think critically, or really anything related to science or politics, forcing them to believe, through the idol of the den, that they were not capable of understanding advanced literature. Wollstonecraft believes that the superficial education of women turns them into something that is less than human.
Men oppressed women to the extent that the word “woman” was no longer a division of sex, but an entirely different species below that of a human being. Wollstonecraft believes that men developed their ideas of female education by regarding them “…rather as women than human creatures…”14 The male idea of a woman became so warped and centered around invoking desire that they were no longer of the same breed. This is a prime example of an idol of the market in which the definition and meaning of words can limit new ways of thought. When a man thought of a woman, he could only conjure an image of a beautiful seductress ready to bend and serve at his will. This limited definition of the word “woman” was part of what prevented men from viewing women as equals capable of rational thought. Further, Wollstonecraft identifies that many of the phrases and adjectives used to complement and flatter woman were really derogatory ways to define their weakness. For instance, women wanted to be considered innocent and have “susceptibility of heart, “delicacy of sentiment,” and “refinement of taste.”21 To Wollstonecraft, these were all just flowery ways of saying weak.22 This double meaning tricked women into striving for the very characteristics that made them seem child-like and incapable of independence. Wollstonecraft urges women to stop being fooled by male flattery and to instead strive for virtue and rationality as human beings.
Bacon’s final idol of the theatre plays a role in all of the explanations provided for the subjugation of women by men because, as Wollstonecraft asserts, they stem from the established thought that women were created as inferiors. Many used the words of Moses to claim that women are created for man because Eve was formed from the rib of Adam.23 Wollstonecraft counters that this should not be taken literally because it simply does not make sense logically and attacks the men of her time for continuing with this ancient philosophy.23 A philosophy that led them to see the mental capacities of women as reflections of their physical strength. From there, men fought to keep women in a state of permanent childhood at their disposal because they believed that the female mind was not strong enough to acquire virtue.24 Wollstonecraft appears to use virtue as a synonym for power and strength of mind. Bacon concludes that the idols of the theater, accepting past philosophies blindly as truth, have the power to drastically limit people’s ability to think beyond them, impeding the advancement of knowledge.11 In regards to Wollstonecraft’s battle for women’s educational rights, the prevailing opinion of women’s mental inferiority from biblical times limits the ability of women and the human race to advance intellectually.
Through A Vindication on the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft establishes that the apparent fragility of the female mind is the result of upbringing and lack of formal education. She maintains that if the roles were reversed, men would display a similar lack of intellectual depth. This is based on her observations that young men sent into war before their minds have fully developed do not obtain reasoning skills or independence as their sole purpose is to obey and survive.25 Becoming a soldier is paralleled to being married off as a young woman for the sole purpose of pleasing her husband. Wollstonecraft claims that women limit the progress of scientific knowledge because they have not been educated to think properly.26 Had Bacon been a feminist he surely would have agreed, as he believes that fallacies of thought, that were used to oppress women, were thorns in the side of progress. When half of the population has been essentially made into alluring, mindless dolls there is no way society can reach its full intellectual potential. It is impossible to know what scientific discoveries could have been made or accelerated if women’s minds had been equipped to join the revolution. Wollstonecraft’s ideal form of education, which would free women from their helpless state, begins in childhood and teaches children to recognize and control their thoughts so that they will be able to learn and think critically about the world as they mature.26 If women are given such an educational opportunity and are taught practical subjects, such as politics and nationalism, they will become useful members of society and equal companions to men.27 Wollstonecraft inspires humankind as a whole to overcome their idols and fight for the modern societies of today in which women are able to reach their full potential.
1 M. Chambers, B. Hanawalt, T. Rabb, I. Woloch, and L. Tiersten, The Western Experience, Vol. I, 10th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009), p. 470.
2 Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, in Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West, Vol. I, 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 781
3 Sylvana Tomaselli, “Mary Wollstonecraft,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, (2018), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/wollstonecraft/.
4 Wollstonecraft, p. 54.
5 Chambers, Hanawalt, Rabb, Woloch, and Tiersten, p. 450.
6 Chambers, Hanawalt, Rabb, Woloch, and Tiersten, p. 459.
7 Chambers, Hanawalt, Rabb, Woloch, and Tiersten, p. 456.
8 Bacon, p. 779.
9 Bacon, p. 781.
10 Bacon, p. 782.
11 Bacon, pp. 783-784.
12 Christopher Bertram, “Jean Jacques Rousseau,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, (2018), https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=rousseau.
13 Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, (Early Modern Texts, 2010), https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/wollstonecraft1792.pdf, p. 54. 14 Wollstonecraft, p. 4.
15 Wollstonecraft, p, 55,103.
16 Wollstonecraft, p. 56.
17 Wollstonecraft, p. 103.
18 Wollstonecraft, p. 13.
19 Wollstonecraft, p. 100.
20 Wollstonecraft, p. 102.
21 Wollstonecraft, p. 5, 13.
22 Wollstonecraft, p. 13.
23 Wollstonecraft, p. 17.
24 Wollstonecraft, p. 12, 13.
25 Wollstonecraft, p. 16.
26 Wollstonecraft, p. 14.
27 Wollstonecraft, p. 105.
Bacon, Francis. Novum Organum, in Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West, Vol. I, 3rd ed., New York: Columbia University Press, 1960.
Bertram, Christopher. “Jean Jacques Rousseau.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, (2018). Accessed November 30, 2019.
https://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=rousseau/. Chambers, Mortimer, Barbara Hanawalt, Theodore Rabb, Isser Woloch, and Lisa Tiersten. The Western Experience, Vol. I, 10th ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.
Tomaselli, Sylvana. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, (2018). Accessed November 30, 2019.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, Early Modern Texts, (2010). Accessed November 30, 2019. https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/wollstonecraft1792.pdf.