Edited by Toby Sharpe
Art by Alice Markey
Two figures spring to mind as the key voices of feminism and women’s rights in modern history that every student should discover: Mary Wollstonecraft, and Sojourner Truth. In my experience, however, a undergraduate student would struggle to hear about these women fully in class, let alone appreciate the impact of their ideas on our society. Women’s experiences have been erased from our curricula, and great thought from women is denigrated even today.
In my Early Modern History exam, I faced an unfortunate situation which compounded this problem. The paper asked me to comment on three primary sources out of ten. All were written by men. As a result, I was examined solely on what certain men (mostly rich Europeans, of course) said sometime between 1500 and 1800. This was not simply a coincidental selection from the course, but instead a reflection of its reading list. Before I suggest how I would improve the course, I have to admit that I was in part struck positively by how it engaged with self-critique, attempting to challenge different canons. Minority voices were instrumental in this: for instance, we looked at how certain colonial subjects encountered the European colonisers in South America. However, I suggest more can be done to increase the diversity of voices provided in the reading list, which would make that kind of self-critique even sharper.
Some may argue that 1500-1800 world history is not the best place to look for a diverse range of voices. I would challenge this hypothetical, yet common, view by focussing on one particular problem I found. In my course, women were relegated to two topics: ‘Gender’ and ‘Consumption’. The week on the history of ideas (the study of the evolution of human ideas through history) bluntly omitted women. My tutor noted that perhaps I am asking too much from a pre-honours introductory course. I disagree: I think that a course that aspires to talk about a connected world history, especially if the handbook’s introduction mentions that this period saw ‘the emergence of women into the public sphere’, ought to present women’s contributions in a much more integrated and substantiated way. Before the end of our conversation, my tutor actually conceded that, were he to run the course, he would reshuffle a few things – and the first thing he would do would be to include the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft.
I first heard of Mary Wollstonecraft when my tutor brought up her writing during a tutorial about the 18th-century Enlightenment period. Despite not being in the material on offer, she was briefly mentioned in two instances, when discussing ‘The Declaration of the Rights of Man’ (1789) and again in opposition to Immanuel Kant’s androcentric perspective. I went on to read the introduction to Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ (1792) and I was shaken. Why were we asked to read Kant (who, as historian Barbara Taylor notes, held ‘a brutally negative position with regard to women’s rights’, (1999: 264)) without being presented with an opposing response to 18th-century misogyny?
The reason is unfortunately banal. Despite being politically active, an educationalist and a philosopher, Mary Wollstonecraft is simply not considered a leading Enlightenment thinker. On the course, I learned that apparently England had no important Enlightenment figures, unlike Scotland, France and Germany, who had Hume, Diderot and Kant respectively. It is simply appalling that England is seen as lacking a leading Enlightenment thinker, considering Mary Wollstonecraft was both English and an Enlightenment thinker who was pivotal in the development of early feminism. Through the deconstruction of contemporary social values, Wollstonecraft makes a compelling case for women’s rights. She proves that from birth men are privileged over women through socialisation and education. Wollstonecraft encouraged women to become active, politicised subjects.
However, it must be said that Wollstonecraft’s message was not directed at all women. In ‘Ain’t I a Woman? Racism in the Feminist Movement’, Claire writes that Wollstonecraft failed ‘to acknowledge how women are positioned by race’ (2016). Her comparison between the condition of upper class women and slaves is problematic and indeed upper-class women could be slave owners themselves (Gale Student Resources in Context, 2007). However, I believe this should not be an obstacle to the study of her work. In fact, it raises discussions of race and racism in the Enlightenment period that could inform contemporary ones as well.
When dreaming of potential courses, we cannot only hope to institutionalize white women’s voices. Sojourner Truth was a black activist in America, born into slavery, who became one of the foremost African-American figures in USA history, partly due to her famous speech Ain’t I A Woman. The following excerpt from Sojourner Truth’s speech is sharply eloquent:
‘Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’ (1851).
The speech was delivered at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, and, in Claire’s words, it represents ‘one of the earliest and most meaningful deconstructions of womanhood found within feminist theory, unpicking the racism and misogyny defining the cult of true womanhood’ (2017) as it was presented at a convention that only represented women of a certain class and race.
The reading list of history courses like the one I undertook this year should be updated and include voices like Wollstonecraft’s so as to create a fuller, more inclusive narrative of the history of ideas – but as well as Wollstonecraft and other white women thinkers, we need to hear voices like Sojourner Truth’s. ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ would of course be an appropriate addition to the reading list, because of its continued relevance to contemporary issues of gender inequality. When creating courses, though, it’s important to not just throw in one white woman and claim her experience reflect some kind of universal womanhood. When we want to write about Wollstonecraft and women like her, we cannot forget the importance of including women like Truth – women whose denigration by society has yet to been atoned for.
Heuchan, Claire. ‘Ain’t I a Woman? Racism in the Feminist Movement.’ Sister Outrider, 19th May 2016, sisteroutrider.wordpress.com/2016/05/19/aint-i-a-woman-racism-in-the-feminist-movement/ Accessed 22nd May 2017.
Howard, Carol. “Wollstonecraft’s Thoughts on Slavery and Corruption.” Gale Student Resources in Context, Gale, 2007. Student Resources in Context, link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ2181700566/SUIC?u=la99595&xid=8135f931. Accessed 22nd May 2017.
Taylor, Barbara. Feminism and The Enlightenment 1650-1850. Oxford University Press. 1999.
Truth, Sojourner. ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ [December 1851], Internet Modern History Sourcebook, ed. Paul Halsall, Fordham University, Aug 1997, https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/sojtruth-woman.asp. Accessed 22nd May 2017.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of The Rights of Woman. Penguin Books. 1992 .
About the author:
Mattia Ventre is a 2nd-year Social Anthropology student with a particular interest in de-constructivism.
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