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Romantic Feminism

With its emphasis on feeling and reflection, the Romantic Period is often seen as a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment's desire to acquire knowledge. This shift in values allowed men to engage with each other more democratically, since feeling is more about personal response than rational control. The Romantic atmosphere, vibrating with ideas about individual liberty, seemed ideal for recognizing women as deserving equals. However, the fertile Romantic mood did not prove immediately fruitful for women. Thus, advocates for female equality during the period fought to obtain better rights for women by explaining that equality was a logical extension of the liberty argument. If individual liberty was a natural human right, then it must apply to women, too, in order to be true.

Before bringing these challenges to the legal front, these early feminists sought to redefine common understandings about women and to change social standards first. Many women writers contributed to these debates but none more so than Mary Wollstonecraft. Her essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) provided a solid platform for the cause. By responding to prominent intellects like Edmund Burke and Emile Rousseau, Wollstonecraft positioned herself within a very public and typically masculine conversation. Often described as a manifesto-and the first feminist manifesto-Wollstonecraft's work influenced a multitude of women writers during the period and long after. While not all women writers agreed with Wollstonecraft and her more radical contemporaries, it is clear that they were all engaged in a discourse meant to improve the lives of women.

Regardless of which particular issue was being addressed, women in the Romantic period claimed that improper education was the source of the problem. Notably disproportionate to that of men, women's education (at least for middle- and upper-class women) emphasized form at the expense of content. For example, women were taught how to dance, paint, and sew but were not introduced to philosophy, politics, history, economics or the like. The main curriculum of women's education centered on helping women attract husbands, and to that end, taught them how to dress and behave rather than how to think. Women were encouraged to pay more attention to their bodies rather than their minds. In turn, the display of body and behavior became the principle means by which women were evaluated.

Without a proper education, Romantic feminists argued, feminine sensibility was artificially constituted. In other words, if women did not know why they should behave in certain ways, then their behavior was merely superficial response and not based on true virtue. Thus, education in its current state actually threatened marriage. Instead of focusing on attraction, advocates argued that education should develop women's minds so that they could be more helpful mates in marriage. An understanding between minds could foster genuine affection. Beauty and passionate love were concepts too temporary to serve as a good foundation on which build a lasting partnership. However, a marriage built on friendship would prove advantageous for both home and country. Romantic feminists worked to redefine the terms with which society saw, valued, and educated women. Though many of these issues were unresolved at the end of the era, these women's efforts paved the way for future advocates. By focusing so much energy on the issue of education, Romantic feminists pointed to both the source of women's inequality and also its potential solution

Kat Powell