Friday, April 22, 2011

Wollstonecraft & Rossetti: Using Literature to Challenge Traditions of Oppression

     Throughout history, women have experienced oppression by traditional, patriarchal society.  Cultures across the globe spent centuries teaching and believing that women were inferior to men, and while this belief diminishes as our societies evolve, it is still present in certain aspects of our cultures. 
      Returning to the Victorian Era, the English patriarchy expected women to play coy, innocent housewifes and mothers, whose personal needs and desires mirrored those of their husbands.  Developed during this time was the Cult of Domesticity, which was a code of conduct for women, explaining the qualities and guidelines a woman must have and follow to be considered a good English citizen.
      Despite their restraints, many females craved higher education, and success in a world of educated, professional, ambitious men.  However, and accepted their inferior status, with no desire to pursue anything more.  Ambition verses acceptance divided women - those who were brave and willing, challenged the traditional roles.  Two of those women were Victorian writers Mary Wollstonecraft and Christina Rossetti.  Female writers were criticized and dismissed by most; however, these two two writers used their literature to entertain the idea of female success and eventual equality.
Mary Wollstonecraft
Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication for the Rights of Women                    
Christina Rossetti: "Goblin Market"

Wollstonecraft -
  • Women should be educated in the same manner as men: "false system of education, gathered from books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures" (291).
  • Women "acquire manners before morals", because without education, they do not have the knowledge to appreciate or understand morals.
  • Wishes to "persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body" (292) instead of accepting the ideals that stem from years of "dependence on men the various relations of life" (293).
  • "Her (a woman's) first wish should be to make herself respectable, and not to rely for all her happiness on a being subject to like infirmities with herself" (299)

Christina Rossetti
Rossetti -
  • Lizzie - Woman accepting her place, making no effort to succeed otherwise.
  • Laura - Woman curious of what lies beyond the simple, female lifestyle.
  • The goblins and the Goblin Market - Represent the temptations which lie outside the household and caretaking lifestyle of Lizzie and Laura.  Regardless of their dangerous nature, they represent possibility of something new and exciting.
  • Depending on interpretation, Rossetti's poem can be a promotion of female curiosity, or acceptance of female inferiority.
Women's Beauty:
Wollstonecraft -
  • Women are expected to sacrifice education for beauty; "(For women) strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk" (290).

  • Beauty standards of Victorian Era:
  - Victorian men's desires for body shape, facial beauty, and overall beauty. 
  -  Expected to look innocent, unassuming and conservative, exactly how they were expected to act.
  • Once their beauty fades, women lost value. 
Rossetti -
  • Laura appears as, "her hair grew thin and gray;/she dwindled, as the fair full moon doth turn/to swift decay and burn/her fire away" (1657).  Laura becomes an aged woman who is useless, with no more "fire", and no more beauty.   
Wollstonecraft -
  • Women should not desire anything but "the protection of man" (295), because "women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers" (295), to believe that dependence is their ultimate goal.
  • Women SHOULD be curious, and unafraid to break out in search of own, individual passions, and independence.
Rossetti -
  • Because of her unquenched desire for the goblin's forbidden fruit, Laura ages and "she no more swept the house,/ tended the fowls or cows/... but sat down listeless in the chimney-nook/ and would not eat" (1657).
  • Laura knows her true desire, and as a result, no longer finds comfort in her daily duties, risking her life to experience what she wants.
  • Laura's dependence on her own, unusual desire can be:
POSITIVE:  depicting a woman finding desires of her own, outside of what she is expected to desire. 
NEGATIVE: depticting female curiosity as something harmful, as the goblins are to Laura.


  • More women than men studying in college undergraduate programs. 
  • Women still face some discrimination, mainly being confined into certain areas of study. 
  • Areas of study include those involving caretaking, such as Human Services, Elementary Education, Nursing, etc. 

  • More acceptable to define your own style of beauty.
  • A woman will be judged more harshly than a man for appearance.
  • Beauty and appearance has become more based around individual preference. 
  • Households run by single mothers, who do all of the housework and caretaking while being the breadwinner. 
  • More women who were/are never married - they prefer living without a partner, with financial, general independence. 
  • Women can hold higher occupational positions - make more money. 
  • Females voicing their opinions in English and American culture - acceptable and even encouraged. 
Issues Women Still Face Today
* Many of these stem from centuries of patriarchal beliefs and traditions presenting women as the weaker sex.
  • body image/appearance issues
  • respect/disrespect
  • expectations of motherhood and housekeeping
  • lower wages/ job discrimination
  •      violence/abuse against women (physical, mental, sexual)