1.3 SOCIAL AND POLITICAL TURMOIL


I have considered essential to become aware of what took place some years before Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) to a better understanding of  her writings. It is clear Wollstonecraft’s work is a reaction against her society, against what was being considered extremely important in that moment without taking into account women also existed.

 

The Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft in Early America:

The Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft in Early America

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First of all, her ides emerged basically from the social and political turmoil caused by the French Revolution. During this time of the American and French revolutions, there were debates on the nature of freedom, of rationality, of human rights, etc. Two declarations resulted from these:

-The American Declaration of Independence (1776).

 ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

But certainly they excluded women when saying “all men are created equal” because women had to wait until 1920 to vote.

 

-The French Declaration of Man and Citizen (1789).

1.  Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2.  The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

3.  The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

4.  Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

5.  Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

6.  Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.

7.  No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.

8.  The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.

9.  As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner’s person shall be severely repressed by law.

10.  No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.

11.  The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.

12.  The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.

13.  A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.

14.  All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.

15.  Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.

16.  A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.

17.  Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.

 

A common element in both was a general belief in human progress through human reason and education ; but, as far as women’s rights were concerned, both Declarations probably fall short of expectations.

Anyway, women played a crucial role in the 1789 French Revolution and it was seen as an opportunity for women’s improvement. So Wollstonecraft knew the ideal of ‘Republican Motherhood’ and the proliferation of feminist pamphlets. An example of it could be the Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1790) written by Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) in response to the french Declaration of Man and Citizen (1789):

‘Woman is born free and her rights are the same as those of man…if women have the right to go to the scaffold, they must also have the right to go to Parliament.[…] All citizens, be they men or women, being equal in its eyes, must be equally eligible for all public offices, positions and jobs, according to their capacity and without any other criteria than those of their virtues and talents.’

Moreover, French women formed political clubs and associations to defend their rights. But the male leaders of the Revolution were profoundly hostile to them and in 1793 outlawed all women’s associations, such as Les Amies de la vérité or Les Citoyennes republicaines revolutionaries. There was an agreement that the principles of rational individualism should not be applied to women, as it was believed that by their very nature women were incapable of full rationality. In the 18th century philosophical tradition (Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and especially Rousseau), we find the idea that women are essentially creatures of emotion and passion, with no appertaining political rights. This hostility towards women persisted in France throughout the 19th century and the ‘Napoleonic Code’ (1804), for instance, decreed that all the family funds were to remain in the husband’s hands. In fact, French women did not have, until 1909, control over their own earnings.



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