300 Years of Feminism: Hypocrisy as the Downfall of Misogyny
When a person hears the names of Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf they can hardly be separated from the notion of women’s rights. Although two of them lived and died before the term feminism was even coined, their impact on the movement is undeniable. Each of their works were considered revolutionary in their time, but ultimately propelled the good fight for gender equality forward. Together they represent three hundred years of work in feminism. But, what made these women successful when so many others were not? Upon examination, it becomes clear that their success relied on utilizing the logical reasoning abilities they supposedly could not possess in order to point out the hypocrisy of men.
Many credit Mary Astell to be the first English feminist. Astell’s primary goal with Some Reflections upon Marriage was to warn women to be selective in who they chose to marry and convince mothers to teach their daughters what to expect from the marriage after the wedding. While these warnings are commonplace in today’s society, women in her time were expected to marry young. They chose their husbands based on who would bring the most wealth or status to themselves and their families. It is important to remember that this is a time period in which many women were not even taught what to expect on their wedding night, much less after it. This often resulted in miserable, frequently abusive marriages. In a world where marriage was similar to prison for women in many ways, her writing was groundbreaking. The likelihood is high that Astell’s stating women should choose a partner based on who would be kind to them throughout life saved many women from cruel marriages.
More radically, she questioned why women would choose to be married if in a marriage they were expected to be completely subservient to their husband. Logically, it did not make sense for women to consciously give up their freedom in order to enter into a contract that bordered on slavery. Beyond that, Astell offered a question to men: if they viewed women in such a negative light, how could they possibly respect their wives in any regard? She cited the litany of deplorable phrases that men had written about women as her evidence. Astell pioneered a new way of fighting feminine oppression: exercising logic as a combatant to social conventions.
Following in her footsteps, as well as expanding them, came Mary Wollstonecraft. In her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft called for a great many changes to the status of women. One of the most fundamental demands she made was a universal education system in which girls were given the same access to educational opportunities that boys were. This was her most well received request. Also among her complaints on the treatment of women were opposition to their exclusion from government. In her work, she wondered why men used the frivolity of women as their evidence that women were not fit to participate in government when it was men who confined them to those frivolous topics and pastimes. Her complaint was twofold: that men did not know the depth of women’s capacities because from birth they had constrained them to the shallow end of the pool, and that it was a flaw in logical reasoning for men to judge women based on their ability understand topics they had never been allowed to study. This was a continuation of Astell’s approach to the argument for women’s rights, and although this part of her work was largely ignored, it would still prove important.
Virginia Woolf’s work was almost certainly influenced by Astell and Wollstonecraft. While there are no direct comments made on either writer by Woolf, a quote from her book A Room of One’s Own makes it clear that she was familiar with the subjects they were writing about. Woolf stated, “towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.” (49). She knew that women taking control of words in this way would unavoidably increase demands for equality. Women writing created an audience for other women writers and provided a means to strengthen comradery among women.
In Woolf’s Three Guineas, she confronted the hypocrisy of men in a huge way. Her call for women to be citizens of the world as the members of her Outsiders Society was a remedy to the hypocrisy she saw. As she understood it, if women could not participate in government, own property, have access to education, or serve in the military then they were not truly members of man’s society. Thus, they belonged to a society of outsiders and their citizenship was owed to the world, not any country. If nothing else, Woolf inherited the legacy of using logic to denounce the justification men gave for their exclusion from Astell and Wollstonecraft.
While the rights women enjoy today would have baffled these three incredible writers, if anything can be derived from their work it is this: they would have examined the expression of these rights with a critical eye. Astell would have asked if all women had equal access to education? What about rights to terminate an unhealthy marriage? Wollstonecraft almost certainly would have questioned whether or not every woman had the right to vote? What about freedom of sexual expression? Woolf would have thought globally, asking questions such as these: does every woman have the same access to equal rights? Are they welcomed into every field of academia and every career? Their aggregate answer, it seems, would be a resounding no. The work of the feminist movement is not yet done. When it is argued that all women have access to equal rights, it contains an asterisk. Only women who are born in the right nation and income class do.
Clearly, these three women did not make this progress on their own. It took a global community of women working together. However, successfully using logic to display the incoherence of misogynistic arguments is what set them apart and made them leaders of the charge. Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf serve as visible representations of that global community. Together, they tell the story of how the metaphorical underdog in the fight for gender equality got onto its feet and overcame all odds. When examined from a few steps back, achieving such radical change in just three hundred years after millennia of discrimination based on gender is quite impressive proof that if you shout something loud enough for long enough, change can happen. Also, they show that if you want to achieve something it is always effective to make misogynistic men look ignorant.
Astell, Mary. “Some Reflections Upon Marriage.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 1C – The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, 4th ed., Pearson, 2010, pp. 2284-2293.
Digital Art of Mary Wollstonecraft with a quote from her work. Pinterest. www.pinterest.com/pin/399061216981089456/. 8 November 2019.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature: Volume 2A – The Romantics and Their Contemporaries, edited by David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar, 5th ed., Pearson, 2012, pp. 304-326.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London, Hogarth Press, 1929.
Woolf, Virginia. “Three Guineas.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Volume F – The Twentieth Century and After, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, 9th ed., Norton, 2012, pp. 2706-2710.