How Far Feminism?

It is rare that I ever have the pleasure of walking into my classroom to find students enthusiastically discussing our subject matter. Since for the most part I teach courses on poetry or nineteenth-century novels, my eighteen-year-old, twenty-first-century students tend not to get too riled up about the nuances of iambic tetrameter or “ye olden days” characters found in historic fiction (and can I blame them, really?).

Recently, however, I witnessed what other courses with more obviously controversial material might be experiencing on a more regular basis: my students were animated—and not just animated, but even aggravated!!—by the readings for their latest assigned task. They were asked to compare Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and her fictional Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman with a few contemporary articles. These latter essays suggest that women who choose today to “opt out” of the work force for the sake of raising children are still, at heart, somehow in line with the feminist agenda.

When I stepped into the room, the students were arguing about just how far—or not—feminism has come.  

“If the choice between motherhood and work were presented to Maria, she would probably laugh at the outlandishness of the whole thing,” one student wrote. And in many ways, she’s right.

As we Romanticists may well know, Mary Wollstonecraft presented her proto-feminist agenda as a push for educational equality. Though women and men may be physically unequal, Wollstonecraft acknowledges in her Vindication, it is their unequal education and training that had, for far too long, perpetuated those unnecessary and wrongful myths that women are simply artificial, dainty objects suited only for domestic accomplishments. She critiques the patriarchal system for its unchallenged subjugation of women, its refusal to believe women can attain logic and reason, and its confinement of women to the domestic realm:

“Contending for the rights of woman, my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue…”

“Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, outward obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for, at least, twenty years of their lives.”

(My almost-twenty-year-old female students of course loved that one.)

Wollstonecraft’s utmost indignation arises in light of what women are being educated to perform: domestic accomplishments: “In the education of women, the cultivation of the understanding is subordinate to the acquirement of some corporeal accomplishment…”

One cannot help thinking here of the Bingley sisters, as they mock Elizabeth Bennet in a memorable scene from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“Oh certainly! No one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.”

Such an emphasis on manners over morals, Wollstonecraft laments, turns women into children and men into their unjust rulers. “Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a play-thing.”

While Miss Bingley would be more than happy to become Mr. Darcy’s play-thing, Wollstonecraft would rather society be eradicated of such useless dainties, who seem interested in nothing more than cultivating a love of fine dresses and flowery accouterments.

In her unfinished novel Maria, Wollstonecraft illustrates the risky ramifications of this unfair and illogical subordination of women into the role of domestic housekeepers, wives, and mothers. Her central characters, Maria and Jemima, have both become mothers at the hands of duplicitous, licentious, and adulterous men. As the result of (and cause of) their impregnations, they suffer gravely at the hands of the patriarchy. They are, in turns, imprisoned, impoverished, bankrupt, beaten, raped, drugged, and prostituted. They have no means to financial, social, or even bodily freedoms.

In the notes to Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel (she died soon after birthing the future Mary Shelley), Maria’s options end as tragically as much of the Shelley-Godwin family’s own fates: in depression, betrayal, suicide, and death. The only potential scenario that Wollstonecraft entertains is a brief possible scene of reconciliation between Maria and her supposedly dead child—a future that can only be recuperated through a homosocial bond with Jemima, her female prison guard, with no men in sight.

Throughout Wollstonecraft’s writings, both the political and the fictional, womanhood is equated to motherhood, but that in itself is the problem. There are simply no other options. Of her sister, Maria laments,

“Is it then surprising, that so many forlorn women, with human passions and feelings, take refuge in infamy?… She had abilities sufficient to have shone in any profession, had there been any professions for women…”

Woman’s plight in life is that she has no control over her own property or resources. Maria writes to her daughter that “a wife being as much a man’s property as his horse, or his ass, she has nothing she can call her own.” The acquisition of monetary, legal, or social standing was, for Wollstonecraft’s women, entirely impossible.

So, when young readers today encounter these words, they hope to register the fact that an immense shift has since occurred in the political and cultural situations for women. What we found, however, is that many of these same issues arise today, ableit in surprising ways.

In our current moment, the question of education seems to be less problematic than this latter concern over work and professional resources, of women’s potential for roles in the business and public realms.

In a New York Times article from 2003, “The Opt-Out Revolution,” writer Lisa Belkin discusses the current state of such equal opportunities, which stem from the realm of—as Wollstonecraft predicted—equal education:

“Arguably, the barriers of 40 years ago are down. Fifty percent of the undergraduate class of 2003 at Yale was female; this year’s graduating class at Berkeley Law School was 63 percent women; Harvard was 46 percent; Columbia was 51. Nearly 47 percent of medical students are women, as are 50 percent of undergraduate business majors (though, interestingly, about 30 percent of MBA candidates). They are recruited by top firms in all fields. They start strong out of the gate.”

Such statistics would imply that women (at least, presumably white women of a certain socioeconomic class—but that’s entirely another post) are gaining strides in opportunities for higher education and equivalent training with their male compatriots. Wollstonecraft would likely be satisfied by such numbers. But what might not please the mother of feminism are some of the unexpected results. Belkin goes on:

“And then, suddenly, they stop. Despite all those women graduating from law school, they comprise only 16 percent of partners in law firms. Although men and women enter corporate training programs in equal numbers, just 16 percent of corporate officers are women, and only eight companies in the Fortune 500 have female CEO’s. Of 435 members of the House of Representatives, 62 are women; there are 14 women in the 100-member Senate.”

Where have all the women gone?

According to Belkin, along with Anne-Marie Slaughter in her more recent Atlantic essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” (2012), the issue is that women who choose to become mothers are dropping out of the workforce at alarming rates—even at those highest levels of social and governmental movers-and-shakers. Even women on Hilary Clinton’s political team!

Women are opting out, and they’re happy about it, because they couldn’t do full-time motherhood and full-time career at the same time, and do both jobs well. Most importantly: they do not believe this choice lets down the feminist cause. 

Despite many people’s assumption, or desire, that there should be a female president by now, or at least equal representation in the business world, Belkin suggests that this omission may not be due so much to the wage gap and gender-based discrimination as it is due to a matter of choice—on the part of those same ambitious women who once rose through the academic ranks:

“Why don’t women run the world?

Maybe it’s because they don’t want to.”

What?!?! That was how my students reacted. Having just read Wollstonecraft’s 200-year-old polemics on women’s equality, they were completely aghast at the supposition that women may now be consciously abdicating those very avenues that so many generations before them have fought to attain.

Belkin and Slaughter both seem to be suggesting this: Women cannot have it all, because that “all”—combining motherhood and career, all rolled into one—has itself always been a myth.

“Women of my generation,” Slaughter writes, “have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.”

And, indeed, it is. The women in Belkin’s and Slaughter’s essays feel a modicum of guilt at letting down “the cause,” but they also celebrate this choice as a distinct victory of the feminist movement. If the workforce is not going to accommodate motherhood—or parenting—the way it should, these women are not yet willing to sacrifice the pleasures and obligations of raising children for, say, the publish-or-perish lifestyle of academia or the 100-hour-work-week required of making partner at a law firm.

What’s interesting is that my young (mostly female) students did feel let down. Is freedom of choice enough? they wondered. If women aren’t ruling the world, how will they ever change it? How can they institute a new way of living if they’re not doing it from the inside??

Slaughter, who herself opted out of Washington to spend more time at home with her teenage boys, seems to have a slightly more optimistic vision about the egalitarian, gender-parenting-neutral future that may lie ahead, if only society itself would shift into a more family-friendly work ethos:

Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers will we create a society that genuinely works for all women. That will be a society that works for everyone . . .

Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier. . . .

Seeking out a more balanced life is not a women’s issue; balance would be better for us all.

But my newly-Wollstonecraftian students were not so sure about the strategy of getting there. Sure, we want more balance, but is backing out—”opting out”—really the best way forward for women? Is society truly going to shift to an ethics of care from its current masculinist standards of success, if well-educated women aren’t in those positions to make changes? Can we really not have it all? We guess: only time will tell.