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Thoughts on A Vindication of The Rights of Women (Introduction to Chapter III)

January 10, 2011
Writing in the 18th century, Mary Wollstonecra...

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As part of the A Year of Feminist Classics challenge I am reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women.   This is not an easy book to get through.  There are many contradicting arguments and it is a very wordy book.  Because of the nature of what I am reading I am breaking down my thoughts on this book into parts.  This is to help me keep track of my opinions and feelings as they seem to roller coaster as I read through Wollstonecraft’s writings and I will hopefully be able to go through all of this when I complete the book and write a coherent post on the entire item.

The Title:

To better understand the title I must answer the question: What does vindication mean?  Vindication – defense; excuse; justification. 

Introduction:

In the introduction Wollstonecraft spends much of her time scolding women, primarily women of the upper and middle classes.  A reoccurring theme throughout the book so far is to refer to women as being childish.  Though I can understand her anger at the women of her time, this doesn’t seem to me to be an overwhelmingly effective tactic for a persuasive document.  She starts this off in the introduction.

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

One quote that stuck out to me in the introduction is as follows:

“… I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for, wishing rather to persuade by force of my arguments, then dazzle by the elegance of my language … I shall try to avoid that flowery diction …”

I find this odd and perhaps I am misinterpreting this quote, but I think she is saying that she will be straightforward and direct with her arguments and avoid fancy diction.  So far in this book, she has been anything but that.

Chapter I:

The first chapter has an anarchistic vibe.  Wollstonecraft discusses her opinions against all forms of individuals holding power from the beautiful woman to major tyrant.  She makes some good points in this chapter:

“The mind must be strong that resolutely forms its own principles; for a kind of intellectual prejudice prevails that makes many men shrink from the task, or do it by halves.”

“Surely it is madness to make the fate of thousands depend on the caprice of a weak fellow creature, whose very station sinks him necessarily below the meanest of his subjects”

“…for all power inebriates weak man; and its abuse proves that the more equality ther is established among men, the more virtue and happiness will reign in society”

Wollstonecraft also spends some time in this chapter talking about the lack of liberties in the military man, who “must be moved by command, like the waves of the sea,” the naval man, and even in the clergy.  All of these groups are subordinate to a single head, much like the wife/female.

Wollstonecraft also mentions virtue a lot in this chapter as being a right of man.  I am a little lost on what she means exactly by the term virtue.  Current definitions of virtue are moral excellence or admirable quality.

Chapter II:

Wollstonecraft discusses here how women are educated to be weak and ignorant.  She does make a point to mention here and in the introduction that women are naturally weaker than men in some aspects, definitely separating herself from the modern ideals of feminism.  She detests the idea of the domestic, weak, innocent wife.

“How grossly do they insult us who thus advise us to render ourselves gentle, domestic brutes!”

“Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness.”

She calls for a change in educational habits towards both men and women.

“Consequently, the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart.”

Wollstonecraft writes much of her book addressing the author Rousseau and in this chapter Dr. John Gregory.  She is opposed, and I must say rightly so, to their teachings about female education and manners.  Dr John Gregory was a Scottish physician who wrote a book called A Father’s Legacy to His Daughters which was one of the most popular treatises on female education of the time.  Jean Jacques Rousseau was a French philosopher who was one of the seminal minds of the eighteenth century and wrote several essays on a variety of topics (most of which Wollstonecraft was opposed to).

I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners from Rousseau to Dr. Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and, consequently, more useless members of society.

Once again this chapter is about the education of women and their lack of a proper rational education.  She also uses this chapter to compare the female to the military man and though states the military man is still somewhat more liberated he faces some of the same ignorance and weakness of character of the women she feels is occurring during this time.  Wollstonecraft has a natural dislike of the military.

Wollstonecraft speaks out against women using beauty and charm to seduce men as that is a fleeting thing and also promotes too much passion.

One thing I have issue with is what seems to be Wollstonecraft’s lack of understanding of a loving relationship.  She feels that love always fades from passion to simple friendship and that a passionate relationship is unhealthy for the family, as those in the relationships neglect the children.  I really disagree with this point.

“This is, must be, the course of nature. — Friendship or indifference inevitable succeeds love. — And this constitution seems prfectly to harmonzie with the system of government which prevails in the moral worlds.  Passions are spurs to action, and open the mind; but they sink into mere appetites, become a personal and momentary gratification when the object is gained, and the satisfied mind rests in enjoyment.”

Chapter III:

The third chapter starts off stating that bodily strength is the only natural distinction between the sexes.

“I will allow that bodily strength seems to give man a natural superiority over women; and this is the only solid basis on which the superiority of the sex can be can be built.”

She feels that virtue and knowledge should be the same in the two sexes and that women should be considered rational beings.  It’s hard for me to imagine women not being considered rational beings, but in the context of the time I suppose this is a natural thought.  Though if you look through history there were intelligent women out there who got credit.

Wollstonecraft spends much of her time in this chapter scolding women for their desire to be considered by the other sex as weak, gentle, and delicate.  She uses a few examples and hypothetical situations to describe how this is not a good situation.  I agree with her here and this is still a problem that women face today.  We are desired to be considered delicate and thin by societal standards and the strong and athletic female is not always the idyllic character.

“I wish to sum what I have said in a few words, for I here throw down my gauntlet, and deny the existence of sexual virtues, not excepting modesty.  For man and woman, truth, if I understand the meaning of the word, must be the same; yet the fanciful female character, so prettily drawn by poets and novelists, demanding the sacrifice of truth and sincerity, virtue becomes a relative idea, having no other foundation than utility, and of that utility men pretend arbitrarily to judge shaping it to their own convenience.

Women, I allow, may have different duties to fulfil; but they are human duties, and the principles that should regulate the discharge of them, I sturdily maintain, must be the same.”

Questions from the discussion posts:

Were you as surprised as I was that the reaction was initially favorable to this work? And surprised at how devastating the repercussions of the memoir were?

I am surprised that the initial reaction to this book was favorable.  She spent much of her time scolding women, but then who were the initial readers of this book?  I would love to know who her first audience was.  I am not surprised that her memoirs created a negative reaction to A Vindication.  Once again I think this is because she spent so much of her time scolding women for their behavior and then her behavior left something to be said.  “Practice what you Preach” is a good statement here.  The reactions may have been different depending on the audience who was reading the book at the time.  If it was mostly men, I can definitely see a strong negative reaction to the memoirs.  Perhaps if it had been more women critics it may have been less negative?

Do you think reputation and life still matters as much for women in terms of their intellectual achievements? Would women’s works today be dismissed after details of their personal lives came out?

I think both women and men in the public light are held to high standards, especially when they are preaching advice.  I can’t think of any specific examples, some were mentioned in the discussion posts already, but I do think that it all comes down to a standard.  If you say one thing and then do another and you are in the public eye it can work out very poorly in your favor.

These are my thoughts and outlines on what Wollstonecraft has written so far in this book.  I am working very hard on understanding this book and honestly going through it a second time to write these thoughts has made me see her in a different light then when I read through the book the first time.  I would recommend anyone reading this to go through the book carefully and to read through and summarize the chapters they are reading, so they don’t miss the ideas displayed in them.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jillian permalink
    January 17, 2011 11:13 pm

    Excellent, thorough post! I’m like you: I struggled when I began this book, but I came to absolutely love it. I now consider it a favorite…

    I don’t know that she’d have considered her language ‘fancy diction’ back then? Isn’t that just how they naturally talked? It seems so, when I read Jane Austen’s letters. If you read Percy Shelley (Wollstonecraft’s son-in-law), you can see how she’s being relatively straightforward. At least, I think so.

    I wasn’t at all put off by the way Wollstonecraft spoke about women. She was frustrated, saw them drowning, and wanted to shout them awake. That’s a sister — and I’d have known it back then, I believe. I’d have thundered with her.

    I truly hope the publication of her life story wouldn’t have altered my views.

    • January 18, 2011 11:20 am

      You are right of course, to her the language she used may not have been fancy diction, however I did notice as I got past the first three chapters even her diction seemed to “loosen” up as Wollstonecraft seemed to get more into her writings.

      I like your point about Wollstonecraft wanting to shout them awake, at the time I wrote this I hadn’t thought of it that way.

      I agree, I would have liked to have been one of the woman who was like who cares what she did – it’s the message that counts. 🙂

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