A couple of months ago I was fortunate enough to receive a reading copy of Jane Caro’s Accidental Feminists from Melbourne University Publishing. I immediately tucked it into my weekend bag to enjoy with my morning walks and coffee breaks.
It’s a slowish way to read a book, I know, but that’s the best way for me to enjoy and take in most non-fiction titles.
I had got to about the halfway mark, when I spotted that Ruth @A Great Book Study was hosting a month long readalong during April of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. After reading Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon last year, I had downloaded Vindication onto my ipad for another time. Suddenly that time was NOW!
As I was ploughing my way through her rather dense, convoluted prose, in early April, I decided that a more interesting way (for me) to proceed would be to compare and contrast one of the very first feminists texts with one of the most recent.
Ruth has done a wonderful job of summarising and commenting on A Vindication over four posts on her blog, but the entire text is also freely available from the lovely people at Project Gutenberg.
A Vindication was first published in 1792, and written as a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution, in which he argued for the preservation of traditional men’s rights. Wollstonecraft challenged this point in her essay, to include equal rights for women as well.
In 2019, Jane Caro has written a book about the women of her generation (the Baby Boomers) who didn’t expect to change the world, but accidentally found that the world they had been brought up to live in, no longer existed. They were the first generation of women to have earned money working for most of their adult lives, and thanks to advances in medicine and technology, were able to take control of their own bodies, in a way that no previous generations could ever have imagined possible.
Religion and tradition (as decreed by men) were the ways that society had ‘kept women in their place’ throughout time, history and culture, which meant that Wollstonecraft had to carefully couch her words to not upset this status quo. To make her ideas palatable to men (and no doubt, to many women too), she had to ensure that any so called god-given traits were acknowledged. She had to find a way to state her truths within the strict guidelines of the religious beliefs of the time.
As such, she declared that,
Nature, or to speak with strict propriety God, has made all things right; but man has sought him out many inventions to mar the work.
Once she had established that god was perfection and that mankind was the one who had messed things up, she could go on to discuss all the ways that had happened and what could be done about it. With the idea that this would allow mankind (and womankind) to advance to a state closer to god’s original perfection.
227 years later, Caro is able to squarely state that it is,
The male anxiety around women’s bodies (which) has dictated what women can wear, where they may go, whom they can marry and what they can do with their lives.
Not god or religion.
The rest of her discussion on religion and women is covered in a later chapter – Slags, Sluts, Gossips and Staceys – where she discusses the rise in fundamentalist groups of all faiths, and their impact on women’s rights, and even their lives.
Their God is a vengeful God. He (and he is very definitely a He) is about command and control….This murky soup of seething undercurrents, taboos, judgement, ignorance, shame and fear around women and their sexual pleasure is nasty, sticky and toxic….There are a lot of very angry men out there, and we ignore them at our peril.
Both women strongly advocate education as the way forward. For men and women.
Wollstonecraft had to tackle Rousseau’s idea of only educating women to please men (!), claiming that intelligent, well-educated women actually benefited the whole family given their important role as mother, teacher and care-giver to her family. Whereas Caro’s main issue is not with the getting of wisdom, but with the incredible number of women completing their high school and tertiary education at the top of their classes, yet still not getting the top jobs.
Physical differences are explored. Wollstonecraft is keen to stress that even though men may be physically stronger, it doesn’t make them superior. Many of the perceived ‘weaknesses’ of women were merely due to the enforced inactivity that was expected of young girls and the restricting clothes they had to wear.
The ‘weaker sex’ syndrome is still a factor for Caro,
somehow…we have decided that this difference in height, weight and upper-body strength is indicative of other perceived weaknesses, including intellectual, psychological and emotional weakness, and ability to endure….(this) idea of feminine weakness and fragility had a great deal to do with making men feel big and strong by comparison.
There is no denying that our bodies are built differently, but it doesn’t make one body type better than the other. Women can play sport and be active just like some men. And men can be gentle, nurturing and caring just like some women. Our different bodies will simply work this out in different ways.
Beauty and self-image naturally comes up as a big discussion point for both women. Given how often our feminine nature and womanly wiles are held up as sometime to aspire to (to attract men) or to be wary of (in case they attract too many men!) and certainly not something to be enjoyed, by women, at least, it is still one of the hot topics in feminist literature.
Taught from their infancy that beauty is a woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention, and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views beyond the triumph of the hour.
While Caro writes,
We’ve been trained since birth to believe that our looks are the most important thing about us. Girls are routinely complimented on their appearance rather than their capabilities….Arguably, the pressure to be gorgeous has intensified in this era of Instagram and Snapchat…this grooming starts painfully young.
As the step-mum of two young adult males, it has been curious and (often) disturbing to see just how much this focus on image is affecting both sexes now. The male Insta pages are full of buff, tanned men with shirts off, showing off their pecks, whilst the girls are equally tanned but in bikinis with pouting lips.
Caro spends quite a bit of time on the ‘past our used by date’ issue, which is fair enough, given that most of the Boomer women are now in their sixties and older, and this is their experience right now.
As an X-er, I recognise so many of the issues and concerns that Caro talks about, but I also see that my generation has experienced some things differently. My generation has benefited greatly by the first wave of women going through the workforce, the path has been easier, less trail-blazing, but many of the hurdles are still there – perhaps becoming more subtle and underground than of old though.
The men of my generation have also changed a lot. They are the first gen to embrace hands-on fathering and housekeeping in large numbers and the first gen of men to ask their work places to consider their family commitments.
The millennials (Gen Y) are in the thick of things right now. The few thirty year olds I know, male and female, are sleep deprived and struggling to have it all. Their embracing of technology and social media is overwhelming and future discussions around this and gender equity will be fascinating.
The Gen Z’s I know seem to fall into two categories, those wanting to pair off early, perhaps looking for emotional security and surety in a world of divorced parents and casual jobs. And those determined to stay single as long as they can. Many of the young girls I’ve spoken to are happy to have relationships, but they don’t want to live with anyone or get married, because they don’t want to have to take care of anyone else except themselves.
Sadly, this new gen still have the same old stories about unwanted comments and attention from men that all of us had to deal with since way before Caro, Greer, Woolf, Wollstonecraft et al ever dreamed of writing a word.
Chastity, purity and modesty are regular themes throughout Wollstonecraft’s essay. It is the double standard still being railed against by women today. Woman should be attractive and feminine to attract men, but not too sexy or flirtatious and she certainly shouldn’t enjoy it. And if she does, then she is the one who will be judged and condemned and considered morally bankrupt, while the man gets off scott free. The lives and romances of both Mary and her daughter and perfect examples. They have both been roundly denigrated throughout history for their ungodly, loose morals and behaviours, but at worst, the men they shared their messy lives with were called creative, free-living Bohemians.
As Caro explains, one of the roles women learn at a young age is that it is their job ‘to sexually police the relationship.’
It was up to us how far what was then called ‘petting’ went, and if it went too far, we were the ones to blame. It was our job…to be sexually alluring and up for a fair amount of sexual play (otherwise, we were ‘frigid’). Yet we were also supposed to intuitively know exactly when and how to draw the line….Teenage boys were no more ready for full-on sex than teenage girls, I think, but it was part of the masculine disguise they were forced to wear that they could not be one to say no. That was our duty. We were protecting ourselves…but we were also protecting them and taking responsibility for them – the beginning of a lifetime of doing so.
One of the difficulties faced by any book talking about a society, a group or a whole culture is the tendency for generalisations. Both Wollstonecraft and Caro travel down this path. It’s an unavoidable journey. But as modern readers we understand that the references to ‘we’, ‘women’, ‘men’, ‘us’ are generic and that we all live our individual lives with a great deal more complexity, ambiguity and nuance than the general suggests. Yet our lives are still lived within the confines of the society we are born into, whether we see and agree with these boundaries and traditions or not.
As Caro says in her Introduction,
Women are not a job lot (but)….what we share is the burden of assumptions that are made about what a woman should be like, what she should do, say, wear, think and express. To be a woman, no matter your background, is to have to fight for your territory in a way that most men never have to.
Many man (and women) are starting to see that the societal and cultural constructs around masculinity are just as limiting for men as the ones for women are.
Those of us living in the modern, western world have come a long way since 1792. The problems and issues of immediate concern to Wollstonecraft are different to those of Caro’s generation. But they still exist, it’s just that the goal posts have shifted. The journey is not over. Change happens generationally and will continue to do so, whether we want it to or not.
To finish, I will return to a section from my reading of Romantic Outlaws last year that struck me.
It is a sobering tale, the rise and fall of both Mary’s, since it so clearly points to how difficult it is to know the past and how mutable the historical record can be. For almost two hundred years, Wollstonecraft was written off, first as a whore and then as a hysteric, an irrational female hardly worth reading….Mary Shelley, on the other hand, would be condemned for compromising the revolutionary values of her genius husband and her pioneering mother. Viewed as a woman who cared more about her place in society than about political ideas or artistic integrity, she was discounted as an intellectual lightweight….
At the end of her life, Mary Shelley could never have suspected that she and her mother would be treated so differently by history….
To be themselves. The hurdles, the critics, the enemies, the insults, the ostracism, the betrayals, the neglect, even the heartbreaks – none of this had stopped them.
That’s all women ask. Is to be themselves.