A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft
I’ve been debating about whether or not I want to write a personal post about each book I read for the Year of Feminist Classics project that I’m taking part in, or just link to the discussion so as not to be redundant. Of course, I’ve decided to do both; though it may be annoying for those of you following both blogs (sorry!), it makes me feel more organized to have my thoughts recorded here in addition to there, in comments.
My reactions to Vindication were very similar to those of some of the other readers, particularly those of Nymeth, Emily, and Iris, whose posts were written long before mine (I’m still a bit behind in my blogging). I urge you to read them, as I fear that at this point I’ll mostly be regurgitating things that they said better and in more depth than I’ll be able to. Lest I give the wrong impression, though, there was quite a difference in opinion about this book expressed in comments that was really interesting and totally valid, so I really recommend reading the thread on the group blog. So go, read those first, if you haven’t already, and then come back!
Vindication was a difficult read. Wollstonecraft rambles, and I got lost a great number of times while reading. It wasn’t always clear where she was going with her arguments, or why, and that was frustrating. At times, reading Vindication became a chore. But, ultimately, I found it worthwhile.
Wollstonecraft was writing in response to, and against, famous rationalist intellectuals of the time, her main point being that women only act like useless, silly creatures because they are taught to act that way, and that if they were to be educated in the same manner as men, they would become more virtuous, influential members of society, which would be of benefit to everyone. She recognized that the biggest differences between men and women were the results of socialization, which remains a central focal point within feminism today. That alone made it a good project-starter, in my opinion. May seem obvious now, but hey, someone had to be among the first to say it–and it was not a common opinion at the time that she did. Hard to imagine, really. She attacks the idea that women exist primarily to please men, an idea that has not entirely been completely removed from public consciousness, and writes angrily of condescension toward women, i.e. male chivalry. These parts were my favorite, and the ones I think are still the most relevant.
Mostly, though, I do find her outdated. She was a radical in her time, no doubt: but she’d never fit the bill today. She remains a staunch gender essentialist who thinks that physical and intellectual exercise for women will lessen the inequality between the sexes but that men will remain just a little bit superior no matter what, that women’s biggest priority in life should necessarily motherhood, and that both these things are so because God has deemed them the way of nature. For example. More examples: she considers only the middle class, regularly bashes on Islam and atheism, and–true to the context in which she was living and arguing, but deeply troubling to me nonetheless–she emphasizes reason over human emotion and passion in every circumstance. Of course, she argues for logic passionately and, as it has been pointed out a number of times at the group blog, she herself did not live according to her own strict proclamations as to reasonable conduct. I’m not really bothered by that last point so much, truth be told, but it was an interesting part of the discussion at the group blog. Actually, I think I’d be more interested in reading biographical material about Wollstonecraft than I was in reading Vindication! I think she’s a very interesting character, though there’s lots to disagree with her about.
So, I found Vindication interesting as a historical artifact, located in a very specific place of time, more than as a text that spoke strongly to me about our current state of affairs. Which is sort of how I expected to feel about it. I was surprised at the number of parts that DID resonate with me now, as a matter of fact. So while it wasn’t always a fun read, and was, indeed, positively annoying at times, I thought it a good place to start our project–not because it was very radical (though it WAS, at the time), but because it effectively put into motion the train of thought–however thin it might seem to us now–that would continue to inspire the development of different strains of Western feminism that I suspect we will continue see in our readings for this year.
Thanks to everyone who participated in the reading this month and helped me to formulate my ideas about this complicated book! Reading everyone’s comments has been awesome and really informed my reading 🙂