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My Hate-Love Relationship with A Vindication of The Rights of Woman

January 18, 2011
Mary Wollstonecraft, portrait

Image via Wikipedia

Let me start by saying I am grateful that I picked A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft up and read it.

That being said, when I first opened this book and began to read what seemed like an incoherent rant to me (at the time), I was despondent.  I read through wordy prose and what I felt like were contradicting sentences and complicated ideals and a lot of petty scolding (oh how there was scolding at first).   I was worried – I was sure I was never going to finish the book.  Until along comes this quote (which at the time meant something different to me then it does now):

This is a rough sketch of my plan; and should I express my conviction with the energetic emotions that I feel whenever I think of the subject, the dictates of experience and reflection will be felt by some of my readers. Animated by this important object, I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style—I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments, than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, nor in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart.

What is my revelation?

This is no pretty little book!  This is a heartfelt argument.

Have you ever watched someone argue/debate and noticed at the beginning they were doing poorly, but as their ideas began to cement and they gained momentum their arguments began to make more and more sense.  I think this is what was happening to Wollstonecraft.  She was writing down her arguments and ideas as they came to her and as she got further along in the book they began to cement themselves.

I noticed both the diction and the tempo of the book for me seemed to change after Chapter 3.  Things began to get more well versed.  There began to be a rhythm to what I read.

When Wollstonecraft began to gain momentum, I began to understand her and grow fond of her writings.

What did Wollstonecraft argue for?

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written as a critical response to what she viewed as the major issues of the time.  The two reoccurring wants for woman were reason and virtue.

“Reason is, consequentially, the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth.”

“Chastity, modesty, public spirit, and all the noble train of virtues, on which social virtue and happiness are built, should be understood and cultivated by all mankind, or they will be cultivated to little effect.”

Wollstonecraft felt that a female should not be a vain and preoccupied with dress, as was often preached to them.  She wanted women who used reason and who were not weak and frail.  The woman’s only weakness to a man should be physical weakness.  There should be no other superiority.

How would this be possible? Through the education of children, boys and girls, in public day schools.  Unheard of at the time, common today.

She spoke of a type of female independence unheard of in her time.

“Women are in common with men, rendered weak and luxurious by the relaxing pleasures which wealth procures; but added to this, they are made slaves to their persons, and must render them alluring, that man may lend them his reason to guide their tottering steps aright. Or should they be ambitious, they must govern their tyrants by sinister tricks, for without rights there cannot be any incumbent duties. The laws respecting woman, which I mean to discuss in a future part, make an absurd unit of a man and his wife; and then, by the easy transition of only considering him as responsible, she is reduced to a mere cypher.”

A woman should not be solely dependent on her husband.  Emphasizing educating women together with men, so that the only differences they share are physical.  Encouraging woman to be citizens like men, to use reason, to join the workforce.

“How much more respectable is the woman who earns her own bread by fulfilling any duty, than the most accomplished beauty!”

“is not that government then very defective, and very unmindful of the happiness of one half of its members, that does not provide for honest, independent women, by encouraging them to fill respectable stations? But in order to render their private virtue a public benefit, they must have a civil existence in the state, married or single; else we shall continually see some worthy woman, whose sensibility has been rendered painfully acute by undeserved contempt, droop like ‘the lily broken down by a plough share.'”

She criticized her contemporary male writers, who were telling woman that to please men and be acceptable in society they must put on airs of weakness and docility.  That they must work to achieve a standard of beauty and not intelligence.

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.

Not only did Wollstonecraft wish to bring about improvement for her fellow women, but she also saw flaws in her government system.  She argued exclusively against tyranny, both in the home and in the government.  Wollstonecraft also had a strong distaste for the military and how the military man in some ways was under the same plights as a woman was.

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

Wollstonecraft also pushed for women to remember their duties to themselves and their children.  She spent time speaking of raising children and natural affection of a mother for her children — including breast feeding.

“The being who discharges the duties of its station is independent; and, speaking of women at large, their first duty is to themselves as rational creatures, and the next, in point of importance, as citizens, is that, which includes so many, of a mother.”

Though Wollstonecraft argued for many other things in her pamphlet, these are the above arguments were those that stood out the most to me.

My overall thoughts?

Wollstonecraft attempted to gain for the women so many positive things, that my initial negative reactions were lost in the midst of so many positive things to mull over.

Mary Wollstonecraft truly was a revolutionary, she was a brilliant and obviously fired up woman, who used the pen as her outlet to express her observations of so many of the wrongs balanced against women at that time.  Women didn’t have a chance for equal education with men, they were encouraged from an early age to look pretty so they could capture husbands, they were told not to think but obey, and they were certainly discouraged from being independent.  Wollstonecraft tried to come up with a way to right these wrongs, solutions to the problems of the day.  They may not all have been viable, but they were thought out and they were well argued.  I’m certain she would have held herself well in a debate and I would have loved to have met and conversed with her.

Do any of these issues have a footing in today’s society?  I think so.  We start with the beauty before brains phenomenon.  Poor Mary … I wonder what she would do nowadays if she had a few minutes to watch MTV, FOX, etc.?  Those stations are ripe with examples of women where their beauty are paraded around and their brains are not in sight.  We are lucky that in many other cases we have come a long way, but perhaps without Wollstonecraft to have paved the way, all of us who are blogging on this issue might instead be at home working on our embroideries for our newest dresses.  Another amusing example is from the following quote:

“I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions, which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when, in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority. It is not condescension to bow to an inferior. So ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me, that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles, when I see a man start with eager, and serious solicitude, to lift a handkerchief, or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.”

This quote makes me think of the conundrum of whether or not to let the big brawny man carry the box for you or not or whether or not a man should open a door for you or whether or not you should do it yourself.  This is such a simple example of modern issues that were playing themselves out in the 18th century.

Overall, Mary Wollstonecraft was an amazing woman who deserves her place in history for her revolutionary ideas.  Imagine how daring and brave she must have really been to not only have written this, but to have published this.

“There was also a woman present with very bright eyes and a very eager tongue, and the young men, who had middle-class names, like Barlow and Holcroft and Godwin, called her simply “Wollstonecraft”, as if it did not matter whether she were married or unmarried, as if she were a young man like themselves.” — Virginia Woolf

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011 9:11 am

    Yep, she was a revolutionary & her ideas still sound radical today, particularly in relation to the need to fight the arbitary powers monarchs and governments have over us. It’s good you persevered with the book and got to like it in the end, I think Vindication gets more readable as it goes on too. Now I seriously have to check out that Virginia Woolf essay on her…!

    • January 19, 2011 9:17 am

      I’m so glad I did persevere with the book — I’m glad I’m not the only one who thought it got easier to read as I went on with it — I was starting to think I was maybe just crazy or something 😛

      Definitely read the Virginia Woolf essay … it’s short … but so well written and she really does do a lot of justice to Wollstonecraft!

  2. Jillian permalink
    January 20, 2011 5:02 pm

    I love that Woolf quote that closes this post!!

    Wasn’t this awesome to read? I started out a little rough, too, but you’re right: she was formulating her argument, gathering steam, throwing it all out as it came — and how it came!! I love this woman and felt like applauding when I finished reading. She is a thunder storm.

    (I never mind at all when men offer to hold doors, carry boxes, etc. I am extremely small — 5’0 and 87 lbs. So perhaps I’m different from most women? It seems logical that, if I’m standing beside someone full of brawn, they should carry things that would naturally be too much for me… But then, I hold doors for them, too. I never offer to tote boxes for them. That would be silly.)

    • January 20, 2011 5:11 pm

      I thought the Virginia Woolf quote was too perfect to leave out.

      It was a great read. I was looking at a list today and it was listed as one of the top 5 books that changed the world and I can believe it. Once Wollstonecraft got going I really felt like she built up some steam, it’s what made me truly appreciate her.

      I must admit I get men to help pick up heavy things for me, even though I’m tall and definitely not small, but I have really thin gangly arms and can’t lift heavy items, but the whole conundrum is still a modern phenomenon that I had to bring up.

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