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Review Of Feminism From 18th Century To The 21st English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 4362 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The fight for women’s rights, the most controversial topic of them all, even at the beginning of the twenty first century. It has been one of the most influential and highly debated topics of all time. My aim is to historically review feminism from its birth to the present day. I will start by discussing Mary Wollstonecraft who has been labelled the mother of feminism and the first feminist. Her works delve deep in to the subordination that men present on women in the eighteenth century. These works are still relevant in today’s modern context because we as women are still subject to patriarchy in our society. Wollstonecraft argued extensively that women can be more than mere objects to men. She felt that women could be colleagues, friends and companions to their husbands, not just wives and servants. Women have more roles to fulfil other than just the role of a wife (Wollstonecraft, 1995).

I will then discuss the life and works of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the British Suffragette movement. She was the main driving force behind the radical suffragettes and helped British women win the right to vote. She established her own single sex organisation called the Women’s Social and Political Union, (WSPU) in October 1903 (Pugh, 2000).

Purvis believed that the aim of the WSPU was to; “campaign for the parliamentary vote for women on the same terms as it is, or shall be, granted to men, and also keep itself free from party affiliation (Purvis, 2002: 67).” This is why Emmeline Pankhurst is a key influential thinker and contributor to modern day radical feminism.

Wollstonecraft’s work is based at the end of the eighteenth century, when industrialisation and the establishment of Britain as a power was noted world wide; it “embodied the political and artistic changes that occurred during this period and the attempts to reconcile the philosophical pursuit of reason with sympathetic sensibility (Wollstonecraft, 1996: 1).”

Wollstonecraft’s work contained many issues which were of key importance at that period in time. Her main argument was for the idea that women deserve to be educated. She argued that:

“The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove that their minds are not in a healthy state; for, like the flowers which are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived at maturity (Wollstonecraft, 1995:74).

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In the above quote Wollstonecraft argues that women are accessories to men, they are uneducated and see being superficially beautiful and only useful to men as their main life goals. Women are created by society to be dainty and delicate; they do not mentally mature as their minds are closed. Men see women as objects which are of no importance but have a purpose. Women therefore have no minds of their own and with an education it could be much different. She argues that; “…the minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement…they are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as part of the human species (Wollstonecraft, 1995: 74).”

The second important issue that arises frequently in her works is the idea of equality between men and women. She says “I wish to show that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex (Wollstonecraft, 1995: 77).” She felt that

“To see one half of the human race excluded by the other from all participation of government was a political phænomenon that…was impossible to explain (Wollstonecraft, 1996: 3).”

In the above quote she argued that women not being able to have any influence over governmental decisions, not just regarding women and education, but everything, was not only unfair but also meaningless. She felt that there was no reasonable explanation as to why women could not have a say over what was best for them but also what was best for the nation (Wollstonecraft. 1996).

Wollstonecraft believed that key characteristics in which women attain to, that is fragility and childish beauty have no comparison to traits like wisdom, logic, rationale and ambition which at the time were seen as strictly male characteristics. She felt that there was nothing wrong with a woman aiming to grasp values such as taking on board specifically male behaviours to better ones self and to be seen as equal in the eyes of the opposite sex.

“…From every quarter have I heard exclamations against masculine women; but where are they to be found? If by this appellation men mean to inveigh against their ardour in hunting, shooting, and gaming, I shall most cordially join in the cry; but if it be against the imitation of manly virtues, or, more properly speaking, the attainment of those talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character, and which raises females in the scale of animal being, when they are comprehensively termed mankind; all those who view them with a philosophic eye must, I should think, wish with me, that they may everyday grow more and more masculine (Wollstonecraft, 1995: 75).”

She fought dearly for equality between men and women and her published book, “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” is a clear indication of this. Wollstonecraft spent a great deal of her working life struggling financially, and used the trials and tribulations she lived through as inspiration and fuel to succeed in her arguments. According to Kreis, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” is;

“an important work which, advocating equality of the sexes, and the main doctrines of the later women’s movement, made her both famous and infamous in her own time. She ridiculed prevailing notions about women as helpless, charming adornments in the household. Society had bred “gentle domestic brutes.” “Educated in slavish dependence and enervated by luxury and sloth,” women were too often nauseatingly sentimental and foolish. A confined existence also produced the sheer frustration that transformed these angels of the household into tyrants over child and servant. Education held the key to achieving a sense of self-respect and anew self-image that would enable women to put their capacities to good use (Kreis, 2009: Online).”

Wollstonecraft’s work took my attention when my interest in feminism was first ignited back at the beginning of my university career. She offers logical explanations for patriarchy but provides alternatives as a more equal way for both sexes.

It is her words “Justice for one half of the human race (Wollstonecraft, 1996: 4).” That struck the interest most of all because those words are the words of a revolutionary influence whose work is still regarded as significant within the field of feminism. Kreis argued that Wollstonecraft was a radical thinker, she argued;

“Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical in the sense that she desired to bridge the gap between mankind’s present circumstances and ultimate perfection…She was truly a child of the French Revolution and saw a new age of reason and benevolence close at hand… Mary undertook the task of helping women to achieve a better life, not only for themselves and for their children, but also for their husbands (Kreis, 2009: Online).”

She is a very important historical figure and I chose her as my main historical subject because she has laid the foundations for modern feminists and her works are still providing us with explanations for why society is the way it is.

Historically Wollstonecraft was the first publically acknowledged female author to systematically critique patriarchy in the modern world, and she played a huge role in changing the perspectives of both men and women. She opened up the minds of all and helped women speak out against the injustices they were and still are suffering.

She is a key figure because she is living proof that no matter what background you come from you can make something of yourself if you stick to and stand up for your beliefs. She proves that it is possible for one person to make a real, substantial difference to the lives of many, even a whole nation.

Her works are extremely important because they had the potential to enlighten women to their situations. If women were educated like Wollstonecraft plead for, the majority of women would have been able to understand her works and could have revolted, perhaps giving women rights much quicker.

Wollstonecraft tried her hardest to communicate to people of social stature through her works. Her aim was to influence middle classed men and scholars, she thought that if she could produce a logical and coherent argument to them they will see the way the future should be and educate their women properly.

Wollstonecraft once declared that “In France there is undoubtedly a more general diffusion of knowledge than in any part of the European world, and I attribute it…to the social intercourse which has long subsisted between the sexes (Wollstonecraft, 2006: 1).”

In the works of Wollstonecraft her tone appears envious of the way the French society operated. Her aim was to produce a sound argument for why Britain should follow the lead of France in to a more liberalised society.

France during the eighteenth century had a more liberal society than in Britain. Both men and women socially interacted on a rational level and women of France frowned upon the ideologies at the time in Britain about household cleanliness and the woman’s role as a fully subordinate being (Adams, Censer and Graham, 1997).

She wrote many letters to scholars and men of social stature. The first to Talleyrand-Périgord, he was once the prime minister of France. She dedicated her book “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” to him as a reply to his belief that women should only receive a basic domestic education. Wollstonecraft was pleased that Talleyrand was open to the idea of giving women rights but was frustrated that his views were closed minded. Her aim was to persuade him to change his mind on the subject of educating women, she argued to him that if woman;

“be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice (Wollstonecraft, 1996: 2).”

Wollstonecraft is arguing, in the above quote, that if women don’t become educated at a certain level which will ensure she properly knows her role as a woman she will remain illogical and unreasonable. She will remain childlike and will not be able to follow her role correctly (Wollstonecraft, 1996). She pleaded to him;

“How can woman be expected to co-operate unless she know why she ought to be virtuous? Unless freedom strengthen her reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected with her real good? If children are to be educated to understand the true principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such investigations (Wollstonecraft, 1996: 2).”

In the above declaration, Wollstonecraft argues that education is freedom, and that the broadening of women’s education will help them gain more of a rational approach to the female role. The female role at the time was that women were accessories; they were there to be admired and useful to men in a sexual and domestic way. Women were not responsible enough to discuss philosophical and political topics because it was though their minds were not capable of understanding such things. Women will understand what must be done to be useful to themselves and their husbands. She argued that at her current time period women were closed off from education and therefore closed off from becoming rational (Taylor, 2003).

Wollstonecraft believed that if men would educate women they would be proved wrong from their ideas that women were too emotional to handle any responsibilities. She believed that it was the mis-education of woman by man that made females irrational and irresponsible because women were taught about silly irrelevant stereotypes; Such as the idea that women should be delicate, reserved and virtuous (Wollstonecraft, 1995).

She argued that the inequalities women suffer are unjustified. She wants to know why men have taken it upon themselves to decide what is best for women, when no one has been made the judge. She believes each individual should be responsible for their own pursuit of happiness and she aims to show that women are fully capable of doing this (Wollstonecraft, 1995). She argues that;

“When men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason? (Wollstonecraft, 1996: 3).”

Chronology of key influential events in Mary Wollstonecraft’s life.


(27 April) The Birth of Mary Wollstonecraft (Spitalfields, London).


The family moves to Epping Forest.


The family moves to Barking and her paternal Grandfather dies leaving a great fortune to her father and elder brother.


Family moves to Yorkshire and Mary meets her first intellectual influence, John Arden, the father of her friend, Jane Arden.


Family moves to North London.


Mary meets Fanny Blood, another influence on her.


Family moves to south-east Wales.


Family moves back to London, close to Fanny Blood.


Mary becomes gets her first employment as a paid companion to a wealth widow, Mrs Dawson, who travelled frequently with Mary.


Mary’s parents and younger siblings move to Enfield, North London.


Mary returns home to nurse her dying mother.


Mary’s mother dies, her sister Eliza marries and her father re-marries and returns to Wales. Mary goes to live with the blood family.


Mary engineers Eliza’s separation from her husband after her sister suffers a post-partum breakdown.


Mary, her sisters Eliza and Everina, and Fanny Blood opened a school for girls in Newington Green. Mary meets Richard Price and other radical Dissenters.

The key events in Wollstonecraft’s life inspired her and the contents of her work. When she was young her family moved areas numerous amounts of times and this provided her with a feeling of instability and insecurity. She had to leave friends behind and particularly in the case of Jane and John Arden; she had to leave important intellectual influences that helped her become one of the most influential feminists for the school of radical feminism in the twenty first century.

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Her works are very important as social explanations because her works were saying what the majority of middle class women thought and felt at that time. Wollstonecraft is an essential historical figure because she had the courage and the social smarts to stand up to the injustices she was forced to suffer by society. She had the ingenuity to make do with what she had and enjoy her independence. She was a revolutionary thinker and predictor and did her absolute best to voice her opinions to whomever would listen and through that process became a successful published author.

The next woman of key importance to historically contribute to the school of feminism is Emmeline Pankhurst. Pankhurst was a revolutionary and fought long and hard for women’s rights. She was the leader of the suffragette movement and succeeded in getting women the vote in 1918 when the Representation of the People Act was enacted to give women over the age of thirty the vote (Purvis and Holton, 2000).

The Women’s social and political union was the creation of a politically aware Pankhurst. She aimed to inspire women to protest for their right to vote with the motto “Deeds, not words (Purvis, 2002: 67).”

The above quote was Pankhurst showing people that she did not pander to lip service. She showed evidence that she was making a difference not providing people with excuses, she was going against what all political parties did at the time. She acted upon her words and worked for her cause showing women that they can make a physical difference to their situation.

Pankhurst’s aim was to establish a sound political group that was all female and ready for the physical trials of political rebellion. She said about her fellow fighters for the cause;

“Those women had followed me to the house of Commons…They had defied the police…They were awake at last…They were prepared to do something that women had never done before – fight for themselves…Women had always fought for men, and their children…Now they were ready to fight for their own human rights…Our own militant movement was established (Pankhurst, 1914: 56).”

The above quote shows that Pankhurst was proud of her adversaries and fought along side them like family. They all looked out for one another and all equally believed in the cause to end the suffering of women and by fighting for their right to vote they fought for the future generation’s freedom, they fought for our political freedom that we receive today, not in full, but more than they had ever received.

Pankhurst was bought up in a political environment where both her parents were interested in helping others. Her parents taught her that she can make a difference to others early on. At the age of five years old Emmeline Pankhurst collected money with the aid of her parents to free the slaves in America, she says in her own book, “My own story”;

“Young as I was…I knew perfectly well the meaning of the words slavery and emancipation…From infancy I had been accustomed to hear pro and con discussions of slavery and the American Civil War (Pankhurst, 1914: 1).”

Pankhurst learned two lessons early on in childhood which readily affected her future endeavours as a political heroine to many. She believed these were;

“…admiration for that spirit of fighting and heroic sacrifice by which alone the soul of civilisation is saved; and next after that, appreciation of the gentler spirit which is moved to mend and repair the ravages of war (Pankhurst, 1914: 3).”

Pankhurst stated in her autobiography, “I had always been an unconscious suffragist (Bartley, 2002: 22).” She had always been aware of what she felt were her human rights, she believed she deserved the same opportunities that her brother had regarding his education, and as she got older she believed she deserved the same rights regarding political opportunities that men had (Bartley, 2002).

The term suffragist was used to describe any member of a female suffrage movement, whether male, female, young or old. The term suffragette was a term used by the women of the movements who believed that only women should fight for their cause and used it as a pejorative term to emphasise the “ette” making the word, strong, threatening and feminine (Holton, 1996).

Starting in the mid nineteenth century women quietly protested for the right to vote, at that time period women were put in the category of non voters with the mentally ill, the imprisoned and the poorest people in society. All the women’s groups amalgamated in 1897 to become The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, (NUWSS).

After years of peaceful protest, writing letters to MPs and handing out leaflets many women realised the government were still ignoring their efforts. In 1903, the year Pankhurst created the WSPU, many women joined because she promised she would force change by doing instead of saying.

On the 17th of November 1911 the first act of violence by the suffragettes was recorded. Christabel Pankhurst, Mrs Pethwick Lawrence, Miss Annie Kenney, Lady Constance Lytton and Miss Elizabeth Robbins all attended a meeting, along with other members of women’s suffrage organisations to discuss The Manhood Suffrage Bill with the Prime Minister. The discussion became heated and the WSPU members started a violent protest (Pankhurst, 1914). In her autobiography Pankhurst discusses the event and says;

“The reply of the WSPU was immediate and forceful…our women went out with stones and hammers and broke hundreds of windows in the Home Office, the War and Foreign Offices, the Board of Education, the Privy Council Offices, The Board of Trade, the Treasury, Somerset House, the National Liberal Club, several post offices, the Old Banqueting Hall, the London and South Western Bank, and a dozen other buildings including the residence of Lord Haldane and Mr John Burns (Pankhurst, 1914: 209-210).”

Over two hundred and twenty members of the WSPU were arrested and one hundred and fifty were given prison sentences of various degrees. This was the first of the long line of violent protests in which Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters were at the helm of (Purvis, 2002).

Pankhurst was inspired by past events of injustice to fight for what she believed in. She once said, “Justice and judgement lie often a world apart (Pankhurst, 1914: 5).” She felt that this statement was one of the ghastly truths of life which people only found out for themselves once they experienced or witnessed injustice. She hated injustice and spent her whole life fighting for what she believed to be right and triumphed for womankind.

When the one hundred and fifty women were released after their prison sentences, Pankhurst proposed another riot due to more political discussion taking place about the same bill. She famously declared at a WSPU rally;

“…is not a woman’s life, is not her health, are not her limbs more valuable than panes of glass?…There is no doubt of that, but most important of all, does not the breaking of glass produce more effect upon the government?…In this Union we don’t lose our heads…We only go as far as we are obliged to go in order to win (Pankhurst, 1914: 213).”

In the above quote, Pankhurst declares her reasoning for why actions speak louder than words. She argued to her fellow comrades that the government only started taking note of their protests once they used force to declare their cause. She convinced hundreds of suffragettes that they needed to use force to achieve their goals; their prime goal was get the government to listen to what they had to say and to get women the vote. They succeeded in both these goals.

The second major demonstration began when Pankhurst herself with three other females of the WSPU threw stones through number ten Downing Streets windows; she was arrested with her fellow accomplices. After her arrest many hundreds of WSPU members proceeded to smash the windows of every shop and building they came across. This demonstration lasted for two days and in those two days well over two hundred women were arrested and tried at the magistrates (Pankhurst, 1914). One of the women who participated in the protest declared;

“We have tried every means – processions and meetings – which were of no avail…we have tried demonstrations, and now at last we have to break windows…you only have one point of view and that is the men’s, and while men have done the best they could, they cannot go far without the women and the women’s views (Pankhurst, 1914: 219).”

There is a correlation between both the work of Pankhurst and Wollstonecraft. They both discuss the education of women as a key issue that needed to be addressed politically in order to make a change. Pankhurst argued;

“…while still a very young child, I began instinctively to feel that there was something lacking, even in my own home, some false conception of family relations, some incomplete ideal…This vague feeling of mine began to shape itself into conviction about the time my brothers and I were sent to school…The education of the English boy, then as now, was considered a much more serious matter than the education of the English boy’s sister (Pankhurst, 1914: 5).”

Emmeline Pankhurst, aided by her daughters Sylvia and Christabel, led the  Women’s Suffrage Movement in late 19th-century Britain. She and the “suffragettes” used confrontational tactics, and went to prison repeatedly. During World War I the movement was suspended, and in 1918, Britain became the first Western democracy to permit some women the right to vote. (Only those over 30, and with a property qualification.) Emmeline Pankhurst herself went on to stand as a Conservative candidate for Parliment! Can use this as a conclusion to the end of chapter one Š



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