March 8th is recognized around the world as International Woman’s Day, and by coincidence, if you believe in that sort of thing, this morning I found myself reading the chapter on the beginning of woman’s resistance to a male dominated society in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
This book is by turns shocking me, angering me, puzzling me, making me hopeful, very nearly making me laugh, and this chapter – The Intimately Oppressed – was no different, but felt quite a bit more personal. I had already been reminded that the language of the Declaration of Independence excluded slaves and free men of color, Native Americans, and women. According to Zinn and his historical sources, I now learned that a fellow named Edmund Burke had written in his Reflections on the Revolution in France that “a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order.” To which Mary Wollstonecraft responded in A Vindication of the Rights of Women:
I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love…will soon become objects of contempt…
I wish to show that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinctions of sex.
As a society and as women we’ve come a long way since the time when this was written (1792), to which I say (since we are celebrating such things today) “Hurray!” I don’t pause often enough to be grateful that I am a woman today, with privileges and a place in the world that Wollstonecraft probably couldn’t have imagine in her wildest dreams. I am reminded that the struggles of women in America in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s (that’s as far as I’ve gotten!) is a struggle that has persisted to this day in other parts of the world. I am embarrassed that Zinn’s story gets a rise out of me while too often I sail through my comfy life oblivious to the continuing oppression of women in other countries and even still here in the US.
Time to change that. It’s time I endeavored to acquire a bit more strength in mind, as Wollstonecraft asked. (I’m more on the ball with the strength of body side of things…timber framing will do that to a girl!)
Having never considered myself a feminist, exactly, I appreciate Wollstonecraft’s comment about obtaining “a character as a human being, regardless of the distinctions of sex.” The root of oppression is not placing any value on the individual, whether they be male or female, black or white, native or European. I want to actively care more about the people around me than politics, ideologies, or movements. Those things should follow by default, since caring for the person will cause me to care about the issues that effect them.
For today, for this moment, I want to appreciate all the amazing women in my life (especially my Mom and my six beautiful sisters – who are very strong in mind and body!), and give thanks for those like Wollstonecraft who stuck out their necks for the rest of us. Happy International Woman’s Day!
(Incidentally, Wollstonecraft was Mary Shelley’s mother – I think it’s high time I got round to reading Frankenstein, don’t you?)