Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), mother of Mary Shelley, was a feminist author who wrote in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an exhaustive critique of women’s education in her time, and their consequent place in society. To a contemporary reader, Wollstonecraft’s feminism may be similar to Christian or conservative feminism: she bases women’s right to education on its importance to be a good female Christian, that is mostly, to be a good wife and daughter, and, simultaneously, she exalts the virtue of chastity. Wollstonecraft’s text gives to the reader a good insight of what might be going on in genre relationships at the end of the 18th C. The author repeatedly shows her distress with the position women were left to: objects of desire. The lack of intellectual education was the cause, according to the author, of adultery and debauchery in marriage and within the family, affecting the whole of society. Women’s education taught them to be superficial limiting themselves to elegance and in being worshipped by men, or, and that is the dangerous point for Wollstonecraft, by seducers: ‘The sensualist, indeed, has been the most dangerous of tyrants, and women have been duped by their lovers, as princes by their ministers, whilst dreaming that they reigned over them’.
Understanding is placed as touchstone of domestic virtue and social freedom, while mere female slaves will never really understand their duties becoming thus completely vulnerable and morally weak. Wollstonecraft claims that her contemporary females obeyed without understanding, and, mostly were flattered by their husbands-to-be which supposed that once passion finished, the wife may be in need of another flatterer. If there is an author Wollstonecraft attacks is, easily to imagine, Rousseau who created the ‘angel of the house’ which pervaded the whole 19th C and beyond. Rousseau related knowledge with evil, therefore women should not need the reasons but the aims they were intended to achieved. Wollstonecraft’s reply is: ‘The great misfortune is this, that they both acquire manners before morals, and knowledge of life before they have from reflection any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. The consequence is natural. Satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority. So that if they have any sense, it is a kind of instinctive glance that catches proportions, and decides with respect to manners, but fails when arguments are to be pursued below the surface, or opinions analyzed’.
Women, follows the author, only learn to imagine and dream with romantic and passionate love; they are taught how to please and expect a perpetual worship from their husbands for the rest of their marriages without any need for intellectual affinities or friendship. The relationship between imagination and adultery, as well as the exaltation of feelings in women brings close the figure of Mme Bovary, especially in this comment: ‘I own it frequently happens, that women who have fostered a romantic unnatural delicacy of feeling, waste their lives in imagining how happy they should have been with a husband who could love them with a fervid affection every day, and all day. But they might as well pine as single, and would not be a jot more unhappy with a bad husband than longing for a good one’. Mme Bovary is a work from 1856, and it is the work of adultery par excellence as the obsessive nightmare of the bourgeoisie. Flaubert describes a situation and a character which Wollstonecraft warned against more than half a century earlier.
Another treat of Emma Bovary is her fetichism and need for consumption, consumption to improve her body, her appearance once she is completely led astray by her multiple affairs. Emma’s debt can be seen as an unlimited desire for physical self which is fed by an unstoppable need for being desired. Wollstonecraft argues women were enslaved to their bodies because they were made weak since childhood paying not enough attention to their health, this situation endured her subjection: ‘Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison’.
Wollstonecraft finally relates the private with the public sphere, a very Victorian idea: the good inside makes the good outside. The notion of Victorian privacy was crucial (and still is, just look for example to the American relationship between politics and private life) to a welfare state, and here are already some thoughts on that: ‘Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens’.
The author also criticizes the difference in what is expected from men and women: while women are insisted in being chaste, men are forgiven for their lust. Mme Bovary could only die, as it does Anna Karenina or Effi Briest, but there is no a bit of social critique to their lovers. However, as Tolstoi exemplifies in his book The Kreutzer Sonata, male promiscuity affects as much as female the wellbeing of marriage; being women the only bearers of the fault was of course naturally unfair but the conclusion of the whole system of thought Bourgeoisie society depended on.