Women, Wollstonecraft & Wealth

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman title pag...

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For those concerned with equality, wealth presents something of a two-edged sword. Or, to present a slightly better metaphor, a two-sided coin. In her Vindication of the Rights of Women Mary Wollstonecraft considers this coin.

On the negative side of the coin, Wollstonecraft contends that a focus on wealth is harmful to both men and women. In the case of men, the focus on wealth distracts them from their moral duties. In the case of the women of her time, their main hope for wealth rested in working hard on the beauty and charm needed to win a wealthy man. Of course, she regards this as both a waste of the woman’s life and a distraction from being virtuous (in the classic sense).

On the positive side of the coin, Wollstonecraft argues that women need to be able to have respectable jobs so as to avoid being dependent on men or being forced to work subservient and menial jobs. She also argues that women need property of their own so as to exercise certain virtues, such as generosity. As such, the possession of wealth is a critical factor for women achieving equality with men (or at least a greater equality).

Fast forwarding from 1792 to 2009, it is evident that much of what Wollstonecraft hoped for has come about. In the U.S. and the E.U. women are now the majority in colleges and universities, some estimates place women in control of $12 trillion of the world’s $18.4 trillion consumer spending, and in some major Western cities 25-30 year old women make more than men in the same age bracket. Ironically, the world economic mess has also changed matters since most of the jobs lost were held by men. Interestingly, this shift in favor of women has been marked by a general silence in regards to concerns about inequality. Perhaps this is because such concerns are masked under the belief that such a shift will be beneficial.

One commonly made claim is that women spend more wisely than men. This is often used to explicitly or implicitly to present the shift in favor of women as a good thing. In terms of what this wisdom means,  it is that women tend to spend their money on health and education while also saving more  than men and avoiding many of the financial risks men take. It has also been claimed that women in politics take a similar approach and are more inclined than men to focus on what are regarded as family issues. Put a bit roughly, women are cast as natural liberals.

Interestingly enough, Wollstonecraft anticipated this when she urged that women be allowed to enter into politics and thus “settle their benevolence on the broadest basis.” This view, of course, fits nicely in with stereotypes of men and women. Of course, the mere fact that something is a stereotype does not entail that it is not true.

While the progress of women has clearly been generally good, it is also wise to consider the other side of the coin. As Wollstonecraft argued, a focus on wealth can have a rather negative impact on people and, of course, inequality spawns a wide variety of evils. As noted above, there are signs that the scales of inequality have tipped in the favor of women in some areas (and some parts of the world). While this might be due to factors that are not unfair or oppressive, this is something that needs to be watched, lest a new inequality be created and institutionalized. If arguments are needed for this, we can simply help ourselves to the feminist arguments used to argue against the unequal situation of women in regards to pay and education.

A final point of concern is whether the more benevolent approach of women to spending and politics is something intrinsic to women (that is, part of their nature) or if it is actually artificial. After all, while women are said to spend and engage in politics in ways that focus on family matters, this could very well be due to social conditioning and expectations rather than a natural female benevolence. We might find that women will start acting more like men as they continue to gain wealth and political power. Also, as feminists have often argued, what is taken as female nature might merely be the result of education and social conditioning. Women might generally exhibit this alleged benevolence because they have been trained and shaped to have those tendencies. If so, as social conditions and education changes, then the behavior of women would change as well. One indication of the shape of things to come is that there has been a significant increase in violence on the part of girls and women. As such, it is not unreasonable to expect this special benevolence to fade and that women will act more and more like men.

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