On the eve of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d address a question I am asked frequently: ‘was Oscar Wilde a feminist?’ I could write far more but this is just a short look at his views on puritanical women and their opposition to the sexual double standard. You’ll have to read my book Wilde’s Women to learn more.
Although Wilde believed in equality of opportunity for everyone, men and women alike, a sentiment that resonates with feminist thinking today, he was, first and foremost, an individualist who embraced self-determination. Certainly, he supported the efforts of many women of his acquaintance in their efforts to access the opportunities afforded to men, and he campaigned in The Women’s World for voting rights, education, and the opening of the professions to women. Yet, he disagreed fundamentally with those first wave feminists who believed that the eradication of the sexual double standard could best be achieved by holding men to the same strict moral code that had traditionally been imposed upon women.
Wilde’s opposition to this approach is best exemplified perhaps in the character of Hester Worsley, a puritanical young American who appears in his play A Woman of No Importance. Hester sees herself as a defender of women: ‘you are unjust to women in England,’ she declares, ‘and till you count what is a shame in a woman to be an infamy in a man, you will always be unjust’. By condemning the system of ‘one law for men and another for women,’ she is echoing feminist reformer Josephine Butler.
Hester’s declaration that ‘immoral men are welcomed in the highest society and the best company’ parodies Butler’s assertion that dissolute men were ‘received in society and entrusted with moral and social responsibilities, while the lapse of a woman of the humbler class…is made the portal for her of a life of misery and shame’.[i] Laudable as this seems, Oscar was utterly opposed to such thinking. When interviewed about A Woman of No Importance, he contended:
Several plays have been written lately that deal with the monstrous injustice of the social code of morality at the present time. It is indeed a burning shame that there should be one law for men and another law for women. I think…I think there should be no law for anybody.[ii]
This was not new thinking on Oscar’s part. Describing the doctrine of ‘sheer individualism’ in a speech he gave to the Royal General Theatrical Fund on 26 May 1892, he insisted: ‘It is not for anyone to censure what anyone else does, and everyone should go his own way, to whatever place he chooses, in exactly the way that he chooses’.[iii]
He certainly followed his own advice.
[i] Quoted in Joseph Bristow, Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions (Toronto; Buffalo: Published by the University of Toronto Press in association with the UCLA Center for Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Studies and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 2003), p.135
[ii] Gilbert Burgess, ‘A Talk with Mr. Oscar Wilde’, The Sketch, 9 January 1895, quoted in Mason, Bibliography, p.440
[iii] Richard Ellmann. Oscar Wilde. p.348