Lola Rose’s Blog: Intersectional Feminism in the First Wave Movement

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Intersectional feminism and its lack of representation in the first wave movement

‘Wollstonecraft and Woolf will forever both be known as remarkable writers and pioneers in feminist theory but the development of women’s virtue in recent decades has left their work outdated as a result of their class indifference. ‘

Every feminist writer has their own concerns regarding what is needed to be done to rebel against the patriarchy and continue the movement of women’s power. Some authors’ sole focus is the oppression faced by race, religion, and its historical roots, as seen in the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and other noted black feminist writers. Other famous literary authors completely disregard these important factors that and instead write about the class and education they are familiar with. Two authors’ works that are arguably guilty of such acts are Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own ’and Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of The Rights of Women’. Both are considered important modernist authors for their time and their work laid the foundations for much of feminist literary criticism, yet their audience seemed to only be aimed towards white middle-class women like themselves, and their resolution to the conflict they faced lay heavily upon education. This blatant privileged indifference was a consequence of the British Imperialism, slave trade, and slavery that began in the mid-16th century, which misled African and/or African American women into believing that feminism and the nationalist movement were claimed by western audiences. Both Woolf and Wollstonecraft argue for Coleridge’s theory that androgyny is essential to a great mind. So, if feminism is synonymous with gender equality, I struggle to come to terms with why so many authors refused to believe what part intersectionality plays within this. There are, of course, other valid points made within the books selected that I shall later discuss, yet, I cannot compliment this without criticising the refusal to acknowledge and refusal to inform those who did not experience overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was renowned as a women’s rights activist, philosopher, writer and a strong advocate for the French Revolution. Much of her work, which centered around the topic of feminism, was inspired by the revolt as its ideologies were considered key principles of Western liberal democracy in its fight for equality. Although the term ‘feminism’ had not yet come to fruition until the late 19th century, Wollstonecraft was still very much apart of the first wave movement. Wollstonecraft wrote her most famous work ‘A Vindication of The Rights of Women ’in 1791, which was then further published the following year. Shortly after this, Wollstonecraft went to France to support the revolution which was reaching a crescendo at that time. Although the revolution’s aims were liberty, equality and fraternity, its emphasis on equality leaned towards that of the working man, rather than equality of the sexes and her interest in the revolution was perhaps motivated by a desire to see the aristocracy defeated rather than any concern for the working classes. Her work railed against the generally accepted notion that women should only be interested in their appearance and instead argued for female education so that they could achieve virtue. But when reading this, it stood out to me how little mention there was of such lower working classes and instead seemed to focus on her own small bubble of intellectual, educated and radical figures to whom she could relate. Wollstonecraft explains early on in the book that this was because middle-class women were the ‘natural state’ (1). Yet even if this is so, and they did indeed win over the majority at that time, I question why Wollstonecraft chose to disregard the women whose social identities overlapped and created a further heightened experience of discrimination because of the poverty and or racism they were challenged with. Wollstonecraft’s work was not just a contrarianism of the power men had compared to women. Her words held real anger and she was one of the first feminist writers to express the frustration many centuries of women have had to face. So, imagine how let down the hearts of many women were when dismissed in the book as a result of their inferiority. Especially, when it is regarded as one of the most important pieces of female literature to this day. My belief behind why Wollstonecraft purposely chose to do this was because of the fact its main subject matter focused around education, which was already so far out of reach for working-class women in the 18th century that it clearly never occurred to Wollstonecraft its possibility as it was only the middle class who could have any prospect of obtaining tuition. For example, in her plan for how equal education should be attained, Wollstonecraft suggested that after the age of nine, unless a child who came from a poor family held any real intelligence, they should be separated from the rich and taught in an entirely different school (2). To me, it seems that Wollstonecraft clearly did not like the poor or consider them to be equals and this prejudice came as a consequence of personal circumstances and other figures in her life who probably looked down on the lower classes’ potential. She was a product of the society she lived in and she simply would not have considered the working and or lower classes to be in any way equal to herself.
She also often described a middle-class women’s lack of freedom as being similar to that of a slave. Early on in the book when Wollstonecraft is describing a females mistreatment she states ‘Let them not be treated like slaves; or, like the brutes who are dependent on the reason of man’ (3). This comparison is astounding in its ignorance and lack of sensitivity as it is still only applied to her own class. Of course, it is true that European women were considered the property of their fathers and then their husbands, that domestic violence was commonplace and considered acceptable, that women could not own property, or vote, that they were not provided with quality education and few women could support themselves financially. But to compare all these factors and their current situation with that of enslaved people, whose lives were so much harsher and who had every aspect of their life and death controlled by their owner is insulting and shameful. Especially, when Wollstonecraft had decided it would not be in her interest to mention any of the complex issues (economic, social, cultural, etc.) a woman of colour faced and continues to face to this day, in addition to the discrimination of her sex in general, compared to that of a woman who is blessed with white privilege.

In summary, Wollstonecraft was angry at how she as a woman had been treated by society but she was not a feminist by today’s understanding of the term and she certainly did not see equality for women as part of a wider goal of social equality for the world. Her thoughts on the subject matter were somewhat confused and self-centred, based on her own life experiences and were influenced by the snobbery and rigid class distinctions of her time. She was a pioneer in feminist theory but with no history of past feminist literature to draw on, her own radicalism could only go so far. There would only be moderate progress in achieving emancipation for women over the next century and moderate progress in the development of feminist ideas.

Virginia Woolf

If we skip forward to the early 20th century, we find Virginia Woolf making similar demands for women’s education in her essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This essay started as two Cambridge lectures in 1928, which addressed the topic of ‘women and fiction’. It laid the foundations for much of feminist literary criticism and its main focus was that women should be seen as authors and objects of representation. In this book, Woolf often expresses how money is the primary element which leads a woman to a successful educated life and if she fails to be able to provide for herself and hold such power it will systematically stifle her creative potential.

However, even though this was over a century after Wollstonecraft argued for the same rights, it was still extremely rare for women to attend higher education as they were seen as caregivers who should not be handed the same virtue as the opposite dominant sex who were deemed as the inferior. Men liked to keep women subordinate as it maintained and amplified their own importance, but Woolf questioned why women have sat back and accepted this fate when they are and will continue to be the natural inheritor’s of civilisation. The title of this book reflected a recurring argument as to why women needed a room of their own to be able to demonstrate their own abilities, but this meant that those who came from a lower-class background were automatically denied the chance of resonating with Woolf’s point as most women who fell under this category could barely afford the upkeep of their own survival never mind a dedicated office for their tasks. Instead of addressing these complex issues, Woolf instead sympathised with the upper-class women who had the ability to read and write yet were still severely frowned upon and discouraged if they did dare choose to produce work showcasing their individual thoughts as this would only grant them moderate skill or success. They were pressured to write as men write not as women write. This was because the women who held great literary potential belittled themselves due to society’s perception of how they should behave and were intimidated by the patriarchy. Their lives were designed by male misogynistic beliefs about how women’s pleasures should lay solely around domesticity and appearance and female writers at that time were much more likely to provide an anodyne than an antidote in their work. Although Woolf was precise and passionate in her message as to why women need to obtain intellectual freedom, she, perhaps unintentionally, excluded so many in this feminist message. In order for one category of women to thrive, the rest had to stand back and observe.

Woolf also often questioned the power men held over women in this book which can be seen when she says ‘Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?’ (4). This highlights the paradoxical view Woolf seemed to obtain consistently throughout her approach and as a result earned her much criticism in the literary world. I, like many, appreciate Woolf’s critiques on the patriarchy, yet, it is clear that her class bias reflected heavily in her work and thus diminishes the prospect of ‘A Room of One’s Own’ being a book that all women can resonate with. It seems that the poverty she acknowledged was that of women compared to men rather than poverty in general and those of her own sex who faced such were invisible to her. It was clear that Woolf did not want to damage the image she obtained as she was a lady of leisure with a high stature in Victorian society who’s worth would be diminished by her fellow acquaintances if she went against their class prejudice.

Wollstonecraft and Woolf will forever both be known as remarkable writers and pioneers in feminist theory but the development of women’s virtue in recent decades has left their work outdated as a result of their class indifference. To suggest that an education should be granted free for all women, regardless of their background, would have been ridiculed by critics as a utopian ideology at that time, and the elitism from which both authors stemmed meant they would not have willingly encouraged this profound idea in any case. They simply did not consider the lower classes to be their equals, so the idea that working women deserved a high-quality education and room of their own to express themselves would not have even occurred to them. Their privileged lives were dependent on the labor of invisible, working class women.

But all of this is not to say that the two writers were identical in their beliefs, as most would agree that Woolf’s arguments, in modern sense, was much more radical and progressive in contemporary terms compared to that of Mary Wollstonecraft. What we must remember here is that there was more than a century between both of their works and much had changed within this time. In the late 18th-century, the terms ‘feminism’, ‘new women’ and the ‘first wave movement’ were unknown but by the time Woolf’s work was beginning to be published and praised there had been progress in many tiers. Amongst them included women gaining the right to vote as a result of the suffragette’s movement which influenced many women to rebel against the patriarchy and finally be given a voice.

A New Awareness Has Been Born

Now, a new awareness has been born. We live in a society where women are free to express themselves as they wish without fear of disapproval from men. Although there is still much progress to be made, it is a major historical breakthrough in feminism compared to when the term was first used. None of this would have been possible without giving credit to Wollstonecraft and Woolf who bravely spoke out and initiated the demand for the equality of sexes and for that they should be praised.
References
(3) Wollstonecraft, M., 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. pp.2.1.

(1) Wollstonecraft, M., 1792. A vindication of the rights of woman. pp.Introduction,

page 3, line 23.

(2) En.wikipedia.org. 2021. Mary Wollstonecraft – Wikipedia. [online] Available at:

<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Wollstonecraft> [Accessed 8 April 2021].

(4) Woolf, V., 1929. A Room of One’s Own. 1st ed. London: Hogarth Press,

pp.Chapter 2, Page 19, Line 12. Intersectional feminism and its lack of representation in the first wave movement

Every feminist writer has their own concerns regarding what is needed to be done to rebel against the patriarchy and continue the movement of women’s power. Some author’s sole focus is the oppression faced by race, religion, and its historical roots, as seen in the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and other noted black feminist writers. Whilst other famous literary authors completely disregard these important factors that they do not relate to and instead write about the class and education they are familiar with. Two authors’ works that are arguably guilty of such acts are Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own ’and Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of The Rights of Women’. Both are considered important modernist authors for their time and their work laid the foundations for much of feminist literary criticism, yet their audience seemed to only be aimed towards white middle-class women like themselves, and their resolution to the conflict they faced lay heavily upon education. This blatant privileged indifference was a consequence of the British Imperialism, slave trade, and slavery that began in the mid-16th century, which misled African and/or African American women into believing that feminism and the nationalist movement were claimed by western audiences. Both Woolf and Wollstonecraft argue for Coleridge’s theory that androgyny is essential to a great mind. So, if feminism is synonymous with gender equality, I struggle to come to terms with why so many authors refused to believe what part intersectionality plays within this. There are, of course, other valid points made within the books selected that I shall later discuss, yet, I cannot compliment this without criticising the refusal to acknowledge and refusal to inform those who did not experience overlapping, concurrent forms of oppression.
Mary Wollstonecraft was renowned as a women’s rights activist, philosopher, writer and a strong advocate for the French Revolution. Much of her work, which centered around the topic of feminism, was inspired by the revolt as its ideologies were considered key principles of Western liberal democracy in its fight for equality. Although the term ‘feminism’ had not yet come to fruition until the late 19th century, Wollstonecraft was still very much apart of the first wave movement. Wollstonecraft wrote her most famous work ‘A Vindication of The Rights of Women ’in 1791, which was then further published the following year. Shortly after this, Wollstonecraft went to France to support the revolution which was reaching a crescendo at that time. Although the revolution’s aims were liberty, equality and fraternity, it’s emphasis on equality leaned towards that of the working man, rather than equality of the sexes and her interest in the revolution was perhaps motivated by a desire to see the aristocracy defeated rather than any concern for the working classes. Her work railed against the generally accepted notion that women should only be interested in their appearance and instead argued for female education so that they could achieve virtue. But when reading this, it stood out to me how little mention there was of such lower working classes and instead seemed to be conveyed solely to her own small bubble of intellectual, educated and radical figures to whom she could relate. Wollstonecraft explains early on in the book that this was because middle-class women were the ‘natural state’ (1). Yet even if this is so, and they did indeed win over the majority at that time, I question why Wollstonecraft chose to disregard the women whose social identities overlapped and created a further heightened experience of discrimination because of the poverty and or racism they were challenged with. Wollstonecraft’s work was not just a contrarianism of the power men had compared to women. Her words held real anger and she was one of the first feminist writers to express the frustration many centuries of women have had to face. So, imagine how let down the hearts of many women were left to feel when dismissed in the book as a result of their inferiority. Especially, when it is regarded as one of the most important pieces of female literature to this day. My belief behind why Wollstonecraft purposely chose to do this was because of the fact its main subject matter focused around education, which was already so far out of reach for working-class women in the 18th century that it clearly never occurred to Wollstonecraft its possibility as it was only the middle class who could have any prospect of obtaining tuition. For example, in her plan for how equal education should be attained, Wollstonecraft suggested that after the age of nine, unless a child who came from a poor family held any real intelligence, they should be separated from the rich and taught in an entirely different school (2). To me, it seems that Wollstonecraft clearly did not like the poor or consider them to be equals and this prejudice came as a consequence of personal circumstances and other figures in her life who probably looked down on the lower classes’ potential. She was a product of the society she lived in and she simply would not have considered the working and or lower classes to be in any way equal to herself.
She also often described a middle-class women’s lack of freedom as being similar to that of a slave. Early on in the book when Wollstonecraft is describing a females mistreatment she states ‘Let them not be treated like slaves; or, like the brutes who are dependent on the reason of man’ (3). This comparison is astounding in its ignorance and lack of sensitivity as it is still only applied to her own class. Of course, it is true that European women were considered the property of their fathers and then their husbands, that domestic violence was commonplace and considered acceptable, that women could not own property, or vote, that they were not provided with quality education and few women could support themselves financially. But to compare all these factors and their current situation with that of enslaved people, whose lives were so much harsher and who had every aspect of their life and death controlled by their owner is insulting and shameful. Especially, when Wollstonecraft had decided it would not be in her interest to mention any of the complex issues (economic, social, cultural, etc.) a woman of colour faced and continues to face to this day, in addition to the discrimination of her sex in general, compared to that of a woman who is blessed with white privilege.
In summary, Wollstonecraft was angry at how she as a woman had been treated by society but she was not a feminist by today’s understanding of the term and she certainly did not see equality for women as part of a wider goal of social equality for the world. Her thoughts on the subject matter were somewhat confused and self-centered, based on her own life experiences and were influenced by the snobbery and rigid class distinctions of her time. She was a pioneer in feminist theory but with no history of past feminist literature to draw on, her own radicalism could only go so far. There would only be moderate progress in achieving emancipation for women over the next century and moderate progress in the development of feminist ideas.
If we skip forward to the early 20th century, we find Virginia Woolf making similar demands for women’s education in her essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This essay started as two Cambridge lectures in 1928, which addressed the topic of ‘women and fiction’. It laid the foundations for much of feminist literary criticism and its main focus was that women should be seen as authors and objects of representation. In this book, Woolf often expresses how money is the primary element which leads a woman to a successful educated life and if she fails to be able to provide for herself and hold such power it will systematically stifle her creative potential. However, even though this was over a century after Wollstonecraft argued for the same rights, it was still extremely rare for women to attend higher education as they were seen as caregivers who should not be handed the same virtue as the opposite dominant sex who were deemed as the inferior. Men liked to keep women subordinate as it maintained and amplified their own importance, but Woolf questioned why women have sat back and accepted this fate when they are and will continue to be the natural inheritor’s of civilisation. The title of this book reflected a recurring argument as to why women needed a room of their own to be able to demonstrate their own abilities, but this meant that those who came from a lower-class background were automatically denied the chance of resonating with Woolf’s point as most women who fell under this category could barely afford the upkeep of their own survival never mind a dedicated office for their tasks. Instead of addressing these complex issues, Woolf instead sympathised with the upper-class women who had the ability to read and write yet were still severely frowned upon and discouraged if they did dare choose to produce work showcasing their individual thoughts as this would only grant them moderate skill or success. They were pressured to write as men write not as women write. This was because the women who held great literary potential belittled themselves due to society’s perception of how they should behave and were intimidated by the patriarchy. Their lives were designed by male misogynistic beliefs about how women’s pleasures should lay solely around domesticity and appearance and female writers at that time were much more likely to provide an anodyne than an antidote in their work. Although Woolf was precise and passionate in her message as to why women need to obtain intellectual freedom, she, perhaps unintentionally, excluded so many in this feminist message. In order for one category of women to thrive, the rest had to stand back and observe.
Woolf also often questioned the power men held over women in this book which can be seen when she says ‘Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor?’ (4). This highlights the paradoxical view Woolf seemed to obtain consistently throughout her approach and as a result earned her much criticism in the literary world. I, like many, appreciate Woolf’s critiques on the patriarchy, yet, it is clear that her class bias reflected heavily in her work and thus diminishes the prospect of ‘A Room of One’s Own’ being a book that all women can resonate with. It seems that the poverty she acknowledged was that of women compared to men rather than poverty in general and those of her own sex who faced such were invisible to her. It was clear that Woolf did not want to damage the image she obtained as she was a lady of leisure with a high stature in Victorian society who’s worth would be diminished by her fellow acquaintances if she went against their class prejudice. Wollstonecraft and Woolf will forever both be known as remarkable writers and pioneers in feminist theory but the development of women’s virtue in recent decades has left their work outdated as a result of their class indifference. To suggest that an education should be granted free for all women, regardless of their background, would have been ridiculed by critics as a utopian ideology at that time, and the elitism from which both authors stemmed meant they would not have willingly encouraged this profound idea in any case. They simply did not consider the lower classes to be their equals, so the idea that working women deserved a high-quality education and room of their own to express themselves would not have even occurred to them. Their privileged lives were dependent on the labor of invisible, working class women.
But all of this is not to say that the two writers were identical in their beliefs, as most would agree that Woolf’s arguments, in modern sense, was much more radical and progressive in contemporary terms compared to that of Mary Wollstonecraft. What we must remember here is that there was more than a century between both of their works and much had changed within this time. In the late 18th-century, the terms ‘feminism’, ‘new women’ and the ‘first wave movement’ were unknown but by the time Woolf’s work was beginning to be published and praised there had been progress in many tiers. Amongst them included women gaining the right to vote as a result of the suffragette’s movement which influenced many women to rebel against the patriarchy and finally be given a voice.
Now, a new awareness has been born. We live in a society where women are free to express themselves as they wish without fear of disapproval from men. Although there is still much progress to be made, it is a major historical breakthrough in feminism compared to when the term was first used. None of this would have been possible without giving credit to Wollstonecraft and Woolf who bravely spoke out and initiated the demand for the equality of sexes and for that they should be praised.
References
(3) Wollstonecraft, M., 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. pp.2.1.

(1) Wollstonecraft, M., 1792. A vindication of the rights of woman. pp.Introduction,

page 3, line 23.

(2) En.wikipedia.org. 2021. Mary Wollstonecraft – Wikipedia. [online] Available at:

<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Wollstonecraft> [Accessed 8 April 2021].

(4) Woolf, V., 1929. A Room of One’s Own. 1st ed. London: Hogarth Press,

pp.Chapter 2, Page 19, Line 12.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Wolf – Review 

This section: Lola Rose: aspiring writer

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