Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman may be examined as one of the most important feminist texts of the century. The author discusses a wide variety of topics, including education, marriage institution, and gendered abuse. This paper, in particular, focuses on her thoughts on marriage, the friendship it entails, and the traps it holds for a young feminist. It then proceeds to compare Mary Wollstonecraft’s opinion on free choice in marital affairs to the opinion of Rachel Thwaites on the same topic. Thwaites, although significantly less influential, was published in 2017 by the Feminist Theory journal and can be considered a reliable academic source for a requested comparison.
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Mary Wollstonecraft on Marriage
Mary Wollstonecraft primarily views an acceptable, or even ideal marriage, as the union of intellectual equals who share a friendship of a special kind. Her arguments on a woman’s role in marriage are curious since they simultaneously emphasize the importance of a meaningful connection between mutually respectful partners and fall in line with preaching characteristics for the era. She critiques the institution of marriage but still allows for the underlying assumption that becoming a better wife and mother is most often one of the main goals for women.
Despite the progressive parts of her liberalism, Wollstonecraft supports the conventional concept that marriage and motherhood are female responsibilities, as stated most recently in her day by Jean Jacques Rousseau. She, like Rousseau, criticizes the way women are socialized because it makes them unsuited to be spouses and mothers. Her credentials and standards for being a good wife and mother, on the other hand, are vastly different from his. She emphasizes, in contrast to his depiction of the cloistered wife and mother, that women engage with the larger world and its political and moral issues. Her critique of women’s socialization is twofold: she believes that the feminine traits fostered by her culture and embodied in Rousseau’s image of Sophie produce lousy spouses and hazardous mothers. On the other hand, she claims that if marriage adopted many of the characteristics of friendship, marriage, and motherhood, as well as society as a whole, it would be significantly enhanced because marriage is “the basis of nearly every social virtue.”
Part of being a woman in Wollstonecraft’s society is, therefore, training in the art of pleasing, which is training in deceit. Women who have been taught this method from an early age are unlikely to abandon it after they marry. Instead, ladies would continue to flirt even after marriage in order to obtain male attention because “a spouse cannot long pay such attention with the intensity necessary to stimulate vibrant emotions.” The socialization of girls, according to Wollstonecraft, is intrinsically paradoxical; it is aimed toward finding a spouse, yet the type of woman so created will be forced to seek attention from men other than her husband.
Wollstonecraft’s second criticism of marriage was that feminine women make lousy mothers. In Wollstonecraft’s society, women become insignificant beings concerned with looks, games, and frivolity because they are not permitted to discover, let alone realize, their rational potential and since their primary goal in life is to please men. They are unfit to raise children because they have nothing of value to pass on to them, and they are nothing more than children themselves. Wollstonecraft ponders rhetorically whether weak individuals can be trusted to lead their families wisely. Women’s crucial function as a child’s first educator is successfully incapacitated by socialization.
Wollstonecraft’s twin arguments for making women better spouses and mothers reinforce one other because she believes that if men and women marry for love and friendship, the husband will be more inclined to stay at home and be a better father to his children. Coquetry and flirting would not become a way of life if women married for friendship. They may be able to become committed spouses and moms without feeling forced to seek male praise and affection. When Wollstonecraft says that, she paints a picture of a happy, sensible household built on community and collaboration rather than a fleeting passion. The author’s position on marriage and its role in the life of a woman is contradictory, fusing progressivism and conservativism at the same time. She aspires to the intellectual ideal of an equal partnership with little to no element of sexual conflict involved but upholds this family ideal as a moral duty of men and women alike.
According to her, a marriage that is infused with quiet contentment will free its members from petty jealousies and allow them to focus their energy on fulfilling their responsibilities. Although such a relationship may not provide the big passion and high thrill of romantic love, the sort of care it provides is priceless: When the intensity of romance fades into friendship, Wollstonecraft says, a “tender closeness, which is the finest shelter from concern; yet is built on such pure, quiet affections” arises. Thus, young people considering marriage should look beyond the present moment and strive to make all of life respectable by devising a strategy to govern friendship that, as the Bible governs, only death can destroy. Such postulates are in line with the author’s general perception of the topic, full of guidelines and perceived ideals that are promising women marital happiness.
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Overall, Wollstonecraft examines the wide range of topics that remain relevant in modern feminist scholarship but primarily analyzes them through the outdated lens of inherent female duties. Naturally, her conviction in the idea that a woman’s purpose lies in being a wife and a mother would not have been popular among modern feminists or even the general public. However, the ideas of a pre-conditioned and contradictory development young girls undergo that influences them, as well as the negative correlation between early managers and level of education, have been confirmed by later research. To guarantee that critical conceptions of choice become more widely recognized, academic and popular feminism must communicate and enlighten one another. Choice feminism, often unintentionally, links itself with certain harmful and anti-feminist ideologies.
Wollstonecraft depicts the institution of marriage as essential for women’s fulfillment and happiness but remains critical of its flaws. The general pattern in the flaws identified remains surprisingly relevant to the modern feminist narrative (Hartman 826). It concerns the contradictory demands and expectations women are faced within marriage. A woman is expected to be a mother, a housekeeper, and a coquette at the same time, despite the radical incompatibility of the archetypes. Despite the slow societal evolution in the area of gender equality, the idea of all-encompassing and sometimes mutually exclusive demands targeted at a female partner is still discussed by modern feminists. Furthermore, despite the layer of the conservative approach in her way of thinking about female duties, the author perceives obedience as practically obsolete provided the true equality of minds has been achieved.
Rachel Thwaites on Marriage
The common (non-academic) picture of feminism is that of a movement that demands greater options for women in their daily lives: more possibilities, more freedom, less constraint, and fewer constrained roles to play. This image might be linked with any ‘wave’ of feminism, but it is most closely associated with the ‘third wave,’ which began in the 1990s. ‘Choice’ is the most important term in this popular feminist notion and story, primarily in relation to marriage, childbirth, and other traditionally controversial topics. Women have the freedom to work or stay at home, to marry or not to marry, to have children, or not to have children as the world grows equal. This type of feminism appears to be inspirational, inviting, and upbeat.
Choice feminism, as liberating and accepting as it appears at first, has downsides that go to the heart of the question of what feminism is about. Feminists who criticize choice feminism’s narratives call attention to these flaws. Indeed, others have questioned whether third-wave feminism is truly inclusive, casting doubt on the concept that the choice narrative allows everyone in the modern feminist movement to follow their own interests and aspirations. As recently as 2017, Rachel Thwaites has published a paper that critiques the lack of criticism displayed by the choice feminism towards the marriage institution. She is concerned by a purely positivist approach to any choice made by women in socially charged areas, emphasizing that to a degree, said choices are bound to be influenced by the imbalance in society. While not condemning the institute of marriage in its entirety, the author focuses on a smaller-scale problem, researching the surname change cases among married women.
The issue of what to do with one’s last name after the marriage has been linked to the Western feminist movement for a long time. Lucy Stone was the first American woman to keep her maiden name after marriage in the United States. Lucy Stone was a nineteenth-century abolitionist and suffragist whose actions prompted the creation of the ‘Lucy Stone League,’ which continues to advocate for neutral naming procedures in the United States. Feminists have linked the practice of name change to a patriarchal culture that regards women as second-class citizens. The naming custom in the United Kingdom evolved from disparate customs throughout the country’s four countries to merge with the long-standing English custom of women changing their names to their husbands’ when they married. Coverture, the legal status women entered after marriage in which they were ‘under’ their husbands’ protection and were not distinct people, was linked to this practice in England. The historical background of the name-changing procedures and their roles in the traditional marital institution provides an important context for why Thwaites is examining them.
Furthermore, it connects her paper to the one of Mary Wollstonecraft, who was seriously concerned with the threats marriage may present for a female individuality. The concept that husbands and wives were one in law, with the male as the more significant of the two, was symbolized by the shared last name, but there were exceptions. Feminists have reacted to this practice and its meanings, as well as the lived repercussions for actual people, considering the retention of one’s name as an act of defiance against patriarchal culture. As a result, preserving one’s name might be regarded as a typical or “normal” feminist action. The author points out later on that the artificial unity created by such legislation is likely to perpetuate the already established majority in their behaviors (Thwaites 2017). The patriarchal order benefits not only from the active support but from passive compliance, and thus the author of the titular paper doubts the neutrality promised by the free choice.
The discussion stays primarily on the subject of changing the last name in response to marriage as a choice, yet the general paradigm can be applied outside of the topic as long as the theme is maintained. Certain subsets of modern feminist scholars wonder if a woman’s decision to get married can be perceived as entirely free, considering the existing mechanisms of social pressure. Moving forward, Rachel provides an alternative: feminist bridal sites, where women might seek advice and guidance on how to organize the upcoming family life in an equal way (Thwaites 58). Because these websites are open to the public, no ethical approval was sought to use the women’s words; however, rather than single people out, yet the general sentiment exhibited by the users aligns with the outlined concerns. A growing number of women are interested in marrying their significant others but would not want to give up their feminist lifestyle. As a result, they create safe spaces to discuss and potentially reinvent the way people interact with the institution of marriage.
This approach discussed in Thwaites’ paper demonstrates the need for analysis, understanding, and evolution rather than aggressive rejection. Marrying and changing one’s name in marriage are social traditions, which can, in many cases, be difficult to recognize as the sources of influence in choices. Yet, the institution of marriage has also historically been used to connect with significant others culturally, emotionally, and legally. It cannot be erased from an overall human culture, and thus feminism does not expect its practitioners to give it up. The feminist bridal forums provide a welcoming and confidential space to discuss the emotionally charged elements of the marriage tradition while acknowledging its importance. Finally, Rachel’s survey has demonstrated that the majority of women who changed their surnames after marriage regret it. Many of the respondents particularly specified that to them, rejecting their original family name meant a transition into adulthood and becoming a wife in the most culturally acceptable sense. It is therefore clear that marriage as an institution and the attributes associated with it need to be critiqued, re-evaluated, and tested.
The debates on whether a marriage can be truly feminist continue to this day outside of the works of the two authors picked for this assignment. The key question concerns both the initial role of the marriage institution and its legal implications in many countries. Originally designed to secure land and ensure convenient inheritance procedures, marriage has been yielded against women countless times throughout history. As, up until relatively recently, a severely marginalized group with little rights, women have been easy targets for marital abuse on an individual and systemic level. They were perceived as parts of the property or a means to an end of securing property by virtue of producing male heirs. Consecutively, even though the role of marriage has evolved in modern society, its initial purpose and high rates of domestic abuse worldwide are some of the reasons feminist scholars are reluctant to consider marriage to be a variable choice.
In their respective works, both Wollstonecraft and Thwaites question whether a free choice a woman makes under a patriarchal system in relation to something that aids the prosperity of said system is truly free. Not everything personal can or should be perceived as political, yet a decision to get married might be admittedly influenced by factors other than love or friendship. Despite drastically different ideas regarding a woman’s place in society and her general duties, both scholars recognize the role the patriarchal system plays in shaping a woman’s desires and insecurities. A desire to get married or to be a feminine, appealing wife stems from the social pressure of constantly performing and outperforming oneself in the never-ending game of femininity.
An alternative to such unflattering arrangements is presented as possible by both of the authors, with both agreeing further on the importance of friendship in a hypothetical feminist marriage. Intellectual equality, mutual willingness to communicate and debate as well as genuine affection might secure a marital partnership between two equal persons. Yet, one might argue that the fact that both of these studies arrive at a similar conclusion despite being this separated chronologically is somewhat concerning. It implies that little has changed between the publication of the two works in the area, with marriage still largely presenting a threat to a feminine worldview and self-identification. No proper feminist scholarship demands of a woman to give up her right to experience romantic feelings and act on them, but reflection and introspection might be necessary before committing to one another. Marriages may happen without contradicting the feminist paradigm, yet it requires work not only on a relationship in question but on oneself.
Yet, from another point of view, implying that a woman is incapable of choosing to marry freely is akin to infantilization and disrespect. Scholastic rivals of the choice feminism critics encourage self-targeted trust in which a woman benefits from convincing herself of being able to make major decisions in life. To imply that one is incapable of understanding the potential risks of a marriage in a patriarchal system would also mean implying a woman in question lacks self-awareness and understanding of her surroundings. Such a position might come off as patronizing, particularly since the marital question is more often than not tied into matters of the heart. Feminism acknowledges marriage to be a fundamentally flawed institution but should not condemn a woman for love or desire to start a family with a significant other.
In conclusion, the topics of choice, duty, and equality in martial partnerships continue to remain relevant across decades. Both Mary Wollstonecraft and Rachel Thwaites discuss the role an existing patriarchal society plays in a woman’s decision-making process in the area of marriage. However, despite acknowledging the negative social impact on the affected women, both studies remain optimistic towards the idea of establishing an equal partnership in marriage. Despite the calls for caution and care, such partnership is painted as achievable by both scholars. The relationship between marriage and feminism will forever remain, but the partners ‘ treating each other with respect results in much higher chances of a healthy psychological environment for any women involved.
Hartman, Matthew. “An Aristotelian paradox: Wollstonecraft and the Implications of Marriage s Friendship.” Journal of Gender Studies, vol. 28, no. 7, 2019, pp.826-836. Web.
Thwaites, Rachel. “Making a Choice or Taking a Stand? Choice Feminism, Political Engagement and The Contemporary Feminist Movement.” Feminist Theory, vol. 18, no. 10, 2017, pp. 55-68.
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