THE INFERIOR SEX?
Mary Wollstonecraft, a staunch pioneer of women’s liberation, fought against the exploitation and subordination of womem by men. Has her fight now been won?
In 1792 Mary Wollstonecraft published her book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It was not a well-received work, and many people at the time thought her book had dropped from the press as a silent and still-born child, a lamentable thing to be swiftly buried and forgotten. But Mary’s brainchild was not destined to be buried and forgotten, and even today her words still resonate with revolutionary inspiration and power.
What flows from Mary’s pen is a cogently reasoned and sustained argument against the immemorial tyranny of men over women. It is a powerful and impassioned plea for the emancipation of her sex from the yoke of male domination, and a call for women to assert their right to self-expression and the full development of their human faculties.
She demands that men should treat women as fellow human beings with minds that cry out for intellectual cultivation, and bodies that need meaningful exercise and employment. Women have natural rights and capacities that yearn for fulfillment, and these should be recognized and respected by men. She blasts the hypocrisy of men who pontificate about the “rights of humanity”, yet have not the slightest intention of extending these selfsame rights to one half of the human race.
Rousseau in particular comes in for a memorable lambasting, and Mary really dips her pen in the proverbial vitriol when she denounces his work, one can virtually sense the acid sizzling into the paper as she pours scorn upon his misogynistic rhetoric. She believes his work has demeaned women as a subservient sex, fit only to be the hand-maidens and entertainers of men. But Mary will have none of it. Her blood is up, and she is determined to “effect a revolution.” She is breathing the fiery spirit of her age, of the French and American revolutions, and Rousseau, the portrayer of women as an inferior species, receives the full onslaught of her “Bastile” assault.
Many years passed before women in the Western world were accorded the civil and human rights advocated by Mary in her Vindication of The Rights of Woman. Such rights, however, are not universally recognized, and in many parts of the world women are still subjugated and enslaved by men.
For example, many countries deny women political rights, and their legal right to own property and inherit land is prohibited. They are denied access to birth control and health services, meaningful employment and education, and face imprisonment, or much worse, if they protest against their discriminators. In several countries around the world women are routinely trafficked as sex slaves, or sweated slave labour. In others they are forced to undergo genital mutilation, subjected to beatings and whippings, and may become the victims of so-called honour killings for bringing “shame” upon their menfolk. Indeed, in some cultures contempt for women is deeply endemic, and extreme violence may be used against them with complete legal immunity.
A chilling example of this cultural contempt was exposed by Amnesty International when they reported the stoning to death of a woman in Somalia in 2008. The killing was staged as an entertainment in a football stadium before a crowd of over a thousand. The woman, who had been accused of adultery, cried and begged for her life as she was buried in a hole up to her neck. Amnesty International later revealed that the “woman” was a thirteen year old girl who had been sadistically tortured and brutally gang raped by the Somali military. The men who perpetrated this nauseating atrocity completely absolved themselves from any culpability. They had merely obeyed “The Law of GOD”.
The Law in such societies invariably legitimizes a system of patriarchal dominance, and is designed to crush anything that threatens the prevailing power relationships between men and women. Thus The Law is always a reflection of deeply-rooted cultural habits, attitudes and values. As Wollstonecraft pointed out in 1792, it is these cultural habits, attitudes and values that underpin the legalized oppression of women, and change in the law must begin with the way society values and educates its citizens. We have much to gain from her work, and her fight to promote women’s rights and expose male tyranny for the evil that it is, is just as urgent today as it was in 1792. Her revolutionary struggle is still being fought, and it still needs to be won!