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“She Seems Smart”

April 7, 2015

She Seems Smart, but Look at Her Hair!


Mary Wollstonecraft would have loved Pamela Paul’s piece in last Sunday’s New York Times (3/27). Women in leadership positions face criticism for their appearance, not their ideas, says Paul, citing her own experience of being attacked for her hairstyle after a public talk.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fought against the idea that women were meant to be beautiful objects,  “playthings” of men. She hated the restraints of female fashion, and urged women (and men) to drop their preoccupation with feminine beauty. Women needed to develop their minds and strengthen their bodies, not waste their time in front of the mirror, she said, urging women to escape from the chains of fashion: “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.”

18th century gown, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

18th century gown, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In her own life, she rejected tight stays that made it impossible to take deep breaths and skirts that impeded one’s ability to walk. She refused to powder her hair, and topped everything off with an ugly beaver cap that earned her the epithet, “philosophical sloven.” For Wollstonecraft, being frumpy was a badge of honor, evidence of her freedom from the shackles of society.

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