Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792 and helped found the Feminist Movement of her time. The section of her book that provokes pause and consideration occurs when she talks about the “neglected education of women.”
Wollstonecraft aptly draws an analogy between flowers and women, saying that the “rich soil, strength and usefulness (of the flower) are sacrificed to beauty.” In the same manner, women in her time were treated like sexual objects, beautiful things, and this treatment prevented them from developing their strengths, their true value. Instead of blossoming into mature creatures, they allowed themselves to be treated by men as inferior in body and in mind. Instead of educating themselves and being productive human beings, they chose instead to define themselves as male writers defined them: weak-minded seductresses, frivolous child-like creatures that appealed to flattery and felt whole only when admired by men’s gazes.
Wollstonecraft doesn’t hold her punches when addressing the middle class women of her time. She found them silly, wasteful of their potential, and reduced to children rather than women of importance. By focusing on their looks and the effect their beauty had on men, these women were debasing the value of all women so that they were all looked upon as the second sex. They only had one purpose: they existed to please men. And it was only via men that women could go anywhere or become anything. This devalued status in their own self-image contributed to their low status in society, in politics, in government, and in their own family structure.
And one wonders if much has changed since 1792.
Women are still being impressed upon to define their relevancy through their looks, not their accomplishments. When we turn on our television sets, we are overwhelmed with images of sexy woman, sultry goddesses, perfect creatures whose perfection lies in their sex appeal—not their achievements.
Movies rarely depict strong female characters without also rendering them powerful in their sexuality—they cannot be strong unless they are also appealing to the male masses. Advertisements use the female flesh—naked, hairless, flawless—to sell everything from beer to cars. In music, the theme is similar and the double standard is alive and thriving. If a female artist wants to sell her albums, she has to be dressed provocatively and make love to the camera as she sings, while the male artists only pluck at the strings on their guitars, dressed casually in jeans and plaid shirts.
Women’s sexuality is still an appealing commodity—and it has become worse as we entrench both women and little girls with an identity that thrives on superficial vanity. Women are now selling themselves as products for fame and money—and they find power in this kind of behavior. They believe that their sexual appeal makes them strong and virile and powerful. But it’s as it was in 1792, when Mary Wollstonecraft sat down to write these observations in her book:
“[T]he civilized women of the present century, with a few exceptions, are only anxious to inspire love, when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect.”
How apt are these words? How they echo and resonate from the past—words like “nobler,” “ambition,” “abilities,” and “exact respect.” Powerful words. Words that transcend sex, beauty, frivolity, and the girly-fied, sexified femininity that is taking over our gender in the 21st century.
If we believe that our physical looks define us wholly, then we are contributing to the “neglected education” of our sisters and our daughters. We need to do better. We need to heed Wollstonecraft’s words as they reach out to us from the faded pages of the past. And we need to decide how we want to be treated and looked upon and talked about.
As long as we continue to subscribe to seeing ourselves through the eyes of men’s perceptions of womanhood—of us—then we are not blossoming to our full potential. Our growth, our development, will be stunted—limited only to our “beauty,” which will gradually fade until there is nothing left but the memory of what we looked like and how men used to adore us.
It is only when we use our abilities as individuals equal to that of men—not as objectified women—that we will achieve the greatness Wollstonecraft desired for her gender. It is only when we assert ourselves as smart, capable, and strong human beings that we will “exact respect” from the men who continue to define us according to our sex—as the weaker sex.