Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft

This is the first book in the Year of Feminist Classics, and Mary Wollstonecraft could be called the first feminist writer. She dashed her book off in 6 weeks, and it was fairly well received for some time, until her private life became known after her death in 1797.

The book is passionate and scathing. Wollstonecraft has so much contempt for ordinary women of the middle and upper classes that it's a bit hard to get past, but it's clear that she considers them to be spoiled by bad education and a society that taught them to be strictly ornamental. She rails against the upper classes for their luxury, idleness, and immorality, and would have them earn their living. The poor she would elevate and educate; middle-class industry, economy and comfort is her ideal.

Wollstonecraft wants very much to put her thesis on rational grounds, and appeals to first principles: if God made people in His own image, then surely it is wrong to stunt the mental and spiritual growth of His daughters. With this argument, she is going against centuries of established Christian dogma, and using the church's own rules against it. She was a devout Christian, belonging to a radical group that included romantic poets such as Coleridge and Blake, and she brings religion into her argument much more than I think many of her contemporaries would do.

I wonder if her insistence on rationality is perhaps partly a reaction to Rousseau's romantic ideas. Wollstonecraft spends enormous energy on her disputations with Rousseau's philosophy, which she vilifies at every turn (to my entire satisfaction). Rousseau did not actually give much thought to women at all, but when he did it was only to consider them as beautiful objects to rule over.

I also thought that her aversion to romanticism might come from her own experience. The contrast between Wollstonecraft's ideals in her book and her personal life is strong, but then her choices led to suffering--so maybe she was searching for something that would work better.

The book is not very organized; it's obvious that she wrote the whole thing in one go, and the flowery circumlocutions of the Georgian era do not make her words easy to read (though she makes an effort at simplicity, the 18th century idea of simplicity is still very convoluted by modern standards). The bones of her argument come down to that she wants children of all classes to be well-educated together--boys and girls both. Girls should be allowed to run and play, and taught to use their minds. If men were more moral, and women more educated, both could be equal partners in life, supporting each other in friendship.

I think this is very much a book worth reading, though it is not at all in tune with modern tastes. Wollstonecraft served as an inspiration to feminists throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, but it's much more difficult for us to understand and sympathize with her.


dragonflyy419 said...

This is really well written.

I was thinking too that her aversion to romanticism might have come from her own personal experience. How hurt she was from love maybe made her rally against strong emotions in women.

Jean said...

Thanks dragonfly! I've been enjoying your comments on the conversation. :)

misfit said...

nice review! I am late on this discussion of the classics. Haha.