Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mary and the Dissenters

A Catalogue of the Severall Sects and Opinions
in England and other Nations
Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.
One metaphor often called upon in the early days of arguing for the rights of women was the parallel situation of slaves, who were, by that point, recognised as human beings with souls, but not thought to have full powers of intellect and reason. At best, slaves and women were treated legally as children, minors under the control of their masters or men, who could chastise them physically and restrict their existence in the world. This comparison is well known.
Another parallel is less so. Mary Wollstonecraft compared the situation of women in her day to that of a religious minority, those we now look back on under the name of Rational Dissenters. They had split from the Church of England, or, as they saw it, the established church had split from them. Protestant non-conformists then, Socinians or Arians later, Unitarians now. Mary spent a few years in their midst at Newington Green, befriended by the Dissenting minister, Dr Richard Price, and that fairy godmother, the widow Burgh. From her time there, she drew these impressions, which later found their way into A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:
Were not dissenters, for instance, a class of people, with strict truth characterized as cunning? And may I not lay some stress on this fact to prove, that when any power but reason curbs the free spirit of man, dissimulation is practised, and the various shifts of art are naturally called forth? Great attention to decorum, which was carried to a degree of scrupulosity, and all that puerile bustle about trifles and consequential solemnity, which Butler's caricature of a dissenter, brings before the imagination, shaped their persons as well as their minds in the mould of prim littleness.  
I speak collectively, for I know how many ornaments to human nature have been enrolled amongst sectaries [how many great people have been found among those who belong to religious sects]; yet, I assert, that the same narrow prejudice for their sect, which women have for their families, prevailed in the dissenting part of the community, however worthy in other respects; and also that the same timid prudence, or headstrong efforts, often disgraced the exertions of both. Oppression thus formed many of the features of their character perfectly to coincide with that of the oppressed half of mankind; for is it not notorious that dissenters were, like women, fond of deliberating together, and asking advice of each other, till by a complication of little contrivances, some little end was brought about? A similar attention to preserve their reputation was conspicuous in the dissenting and female world, and was produced by a similar cause.
Both Dissenters and women were denied political power or full education. The parallels are intriguing, and despite her many good reasons for gratitude, Mary Wollstonecraft is not blind to their faults. I'll be waiting to hear what Lyndall Gordon has to say about the matter in Oxford on 22 May.

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