In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft tackles the wasted potential she sees in women, refusing to see them as inferior to men; she decries their limitations and suggests that they are worthy of an equal standard of education, and that they should be taught to develop their own reason, not simply how to gain a man. Written in 1792, at the height of the French Revolution, A Vindication is an eloquent and persuasive response to the prevailing attitudes of the time. It is the original feminist manifesto.
And in fact, as much as she would probably have disapproved of the comment, it was Wollstonecraft's own character that particularly appealed to me throughout this reading. I agreed with her on some points and disagreed with her on others, but throughout I enjoyed her forthrightness, her willingness, to use a modern phrase, to call bullshit on all the male arguments used to claim that women's natural state is one of gentle, slavish devotion, and that women should not be allowed physical or mental exertion. In her impatience with sickly-sweet yet fundamentally condescending verbiage about the "angelic innocence" of women, and with male writers' self-serving insistence that women are formed for the sole purpose of pleasing men, I spied a kindred spirit and was cheering (and sometimes, out of recognition) chuckling along with her outrage. I love how, for example, halfway through a passage quoted from Rousseau on his proposed method of educating women, she can't stand to wait until the end to comment and appends a footnote reading only, "What nonsense!" Neither is she afraid of the exclamation point: "Without knowledge there can be no morality!" she exclaims, and "Ignorance is a frail base for virtue!" I felt throughout, however, that she earned those exclamation points: these are infuriatingly simple and logical conclusions that are nonetheless STILL often disregarded when we educate girls to be sexy rather than smart, charming and flighty rather than honest and self-respecting.
I particularly object to the lover-like phrases of pumped up passion, which are every where interspersed [in Fordyce's sermons]. If women be ever allowed to walk without leading-strings, why must they be cajoled into virtue by artful flattery and sexual compliments? Speak to them the language of truth and soberness, and away with the lullaby strains of condescending endearment! Let them be taught to respect themselves as rational creatures, and not led to have a passion for their own insipid persons. It moves my gall to hear a preacher descanting on dress and needle-work; and still more, to hear him address the British fair, the fairest of the fair, as if they had only feelings.
I'm reminded of the men who yell at me as I walk down the street lost in thought: "You'd be prettier if you smiled!" As if being eye candy for random men is somehow supposed to be my top priority. Oh sorry! I forgot to think about PLEASING STRANGE MEN while I was cogitating on existential literature! And again:
To carry the remark still further, if fear in girls, instead of being cherished, perhaps, created, were treated in the same manner as cowardice in boys, we should quickly see women with more dignified aspects. It is true, they could not then with equal propriety be termed the sweet flowers that smile in the walk of man; but they would be more respectable members of society, and discharge the important duties of life by the light of their own reason. 'Educate women like men,' says Rousseau, 'and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us.' This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.
THANK YOU, MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT. Her discussions of what has come to be called "the male gaze"—the way in which girls and women are taught to think always of how their conduct will appear to men, and act accordingly, rather than acting to please themselves or in accordance with what is most appropriate to the situation—struck me as particularly insightful. In the paragraph following the one I quoted on Fordyce, for example, she points out that he (a preacher) tries to lure women into religious piety by arguing that men find it sexually attractive when women are lost in pious contemplation. Seriously, how insulting! I'm not even religious, and I understand how disrespectful that argument is to the deeply-held beliefs of people engaged with their faith. And yet, have things really changed? I'm reminded of so-called "womens' magazines" and the arguments they use to convince women to go to the gym: it's all about appearing more sexually attractive to a potential partner; and only lip-service is paid to the idea that a woman would value herself enough to want to make her body stronger and healthier for her own sake.
Not that there weren't areas where Wollstonecraft and I diverge. She shares, for example, the common Enlightenment belief in humankind's ability to approach perfection through rational discourse, to achieve a state closer to God through the application of reason. Although I agree with her that men and women both benefit by the frequent exercise of their physical and mental faculties, I'm skeptical about how perfectible or rational the human race, or any individual, really is. Moreover, either because or in spite of my religious atheism/agnosticism, I tend to find Enlightenment arguments about the human ability to know God through logic a bit silly:
The only solid foundation for morality appears to be the character of the supreme Being; the harmony of which arises from a balance of attributes;—and, to speak with reverence, one attribute seems to imply the necessity of another. He must be just, because he is wise, he must be good, because he is omnipotent.
I mean, what? Judeo-Christian friends: is that sound theology? Why does one quality necessarily imply the others? I can easily imagine omnipotence without goodness, for example, just like every day I experience perfectly robust morality with no particular basis in divinity. Arguments like this always strike me as simply a human being imagining all the good things he can think of, combining them in his imagination into one Being, and then claiming that because he can conceptualize this Being, it must exist. And when I say "he," I mean Descartes. But apparently Mary Wollstonecraft as well. It's as if I made a drawing of my dream house, and then claimed that because I drew it, it must be available for purchase. My drawing doesn't prove that the house isn't available; but neither is it proof that it is.
Not only that, but in her quest to agitate for the education of women as strong, rational creatures, Wollstonecraft veers so far in favor of strength and reason that she leaves little room for human vulnerability. Take the passage quoted above, for example, on the treatment of fear in girls and boys. While I agree that kids shouldn't be encouraged to be shrieking and cowering away from every little thing when they wouldn't be doing that naturally, I can hardly agree that their fear should be treated like that of boys in the sense of being sternly reprimanded, shamed, told that "boys don't cry," and so on. My personal ideal for both genders is a happy medium between the affected over-sensitivity that has historically been associated with women, and the repressive, uncommunicative stoicism that has often been expected of men. Humans feel fear, tenderness, anger, and so on for reasons, and it's illogical and unwise, in my opinion, to teach children to distort or disregard their true feelings rather than acknowledging those feelings and taking them into account when deciding how to act. (Not, of course, that a passing emotion should be the ONLY criterion for action; just that it should be, ideally, one piece of valid data among others.) Moreover, there's a difference between "fear" and "cowardice"; in equating the two, it seems to me Wollstonecraft is removing the possibility of courage, which I'd define as following through on a difficult action despite feeling afraid.
(And in passing, Wollstonecraft's aversion to instinct struck me as one of the strangest facets of the book. She denigrates it even to the point of arguing that animal instinct somehow doesn't reflect her God: "Thus [sensibility] is defined by Dr. Johnson, and the definition gives me no other idea than of the most exquisitely polished instinct. I discern not a trace of the image of God in either sensation or matter." Yet where else would it come from, given her own belief in an all-powerful creator Being? I realize that, for Enlightenment thinkers, the gift of reason is what elevates humans above animals, but surely a benevolent God wouldn't endow the animals with an outright malevolent quality? A very odd, if minor, point.)
Like most philosophers, then, Wollstonecraft takes certain positions with which I personally disagree; her feminism is, unsurprisingly, neither so radical nor so inclusive as that of certain more recent writers. Still, as an early, passionate step toward female equality, not to mention as a document of the tumultuous times (Wollstonecraft's argument is very tied up with the Republican rhetoric of democracy and equality which were giving rise to the American and French revolutions), Vindication of the Rights of Woman is an important and thought-provoking read, and one I'm glad to have in my repertoire.
It's a single volume of what was intended to be a 3 volume treatise, this isn't a fully finished article. It also
What I didn't relate to:
The reasons for wanting to educate women is so that they can use reason to supplant emotions.
Passion is a sign of weakness.
Women should be equal so that they can gain merit in heaven for their souls
An educated women makes for a better mother to her children
That marriage & motherhood should be a woman's ideal.
There's a lot in there that I found impossible to relate to. It seems to me that she wants to make women into female men. The trouble with that being that she then wants to assign women to a set role in life, that of wife and mother. I can't see that suppressing emotion to reason is ever a good idea, it strikes me as a recipe for mental health issues. Life is a balance between head and heart, not the suppression of one to the other. And to argue that passion is not worth the same as reason is to ignore the impact that emotion can have on a life. It also strikes me that her life is not an example of practicing what she preaches. Her attempt to commit suicide after Imlay deserted her and her marriage to Godwin suggest, to me, that she would, herself, be unable to meet her own expectations. It strikes me as an argument that only works in the abstract.
The call on religion is, clearly, of its time and is something that makes a lot of this hard to take seriously. I also note that she fails to take issue with the attribution of God as male, which is something I find unpalatable.
The limitation of the women's role to the sphere of wife and mother is somewhat inexplicable. Mary Wollstencraft would seem to be an example of a woman who wanted a life outside that sphere, as she didn't fit that role herself. It seems an odd contrast again.
On the other hand, there is a lot of ambition in this. She wants equal opportunities for education of both sexes, in fact going as far as to propose primary schools on a national basis. There is the call for women to be represented in parliament (along with the point that the franchise is still very small at this time, and that the majority of the poor are also disenfranchised). There's the wish to change the law to allow women to have civil rights, to be able to hold their own property and have control of their own income.
The other oddity in this was that this is directed purely to middle class women. It's not intended as a broad rallying cry for women. I'm not sure I can understand the logic of this.
It's difficult to rate books from a different era, their starting point is so different from where we are now. I wanted to love this, to find it as a rallying cry that I could take up. It didn't work out like that, there was a lot of good, but there was too much that I found hard to get behind.
Wollstonecraft’s personal life was interesting given her political views. Her first husband (they never actually married) was Gilbert Imlay, an American. Mr. Imlay lost interest after the birth of their child, and took up with an actress, whereupon Wollstonecraft jumped off a bridge into the Thames. She was dragged out by a passer-by. She then took up with an old friend, William Godwin, who was of the opinion that marriage was an artificial institution unnecessary to virtuous individuals while Wollstonecraft had argued that cohabitation was evil. They did marry after Wollstonecraft’s second pregnancy, but never lived together; Wollstonecraft died in childbirth.
So what does this have to do with Georgette Heyer, who is more or less the inventor of the Regency romance novel? Ms. Heyer was prolific with I think around 50 works to her credit; they all have more or less the same plot (unlikely girl attracts the attention of rich but accomplished English gentleman who falls in love with her virtues rather than her beauty). There are a number of fairly pedestrian mystery novels, and she sometimes leaves her time period for the medieval, Elizabethan, Restoration or Georgian settings. All that said, she’s pretty enjoyable. Her historical research is meticulous to the extent that it’s sometimes difficult to figure out character’s dialect without recourse to the dictionary. The plotting, despite its basic predictability, has enough surprises to be entertaining, and her characters manage to be individuals despite being all essentially the same. Oddly, she seems to spend more time on her male’s character development than her females, and she has a disturbing tendency to let her heroes get shot in the arm so the heroine can prove her worth by nursing them back to health, possibly showing that while her history is otherwise immaculate she had a poor idea of what happens when you get hit by a 0.79” lead ball (to be fair, Charlotte Bronte gets away with this in Shirley, so I suppose it’s alright).
Now then, I mentioned above that Vindication is slow reading, and I often pick a lighter book as sort of a “palate cleaner” to take a break better the heavy chapters. Thus, I was reading Heyer’s The Quiet Gentleman at the same time as Vindication, and lo and behold heroine Drusilla Morville is acquainted with Mary Wollstonecraft and even recounts her suicide attempt with a mix of amusement and disapproval. Must be something to coincidences after all.
The dense wordy style of an eighteenth century political tract is easily enough to put off the majority of modern readers, but – for the brave or committed reader – this work more than repays the effort required. Indeed, what struck me is how much of what Wollstonecraft says in A Vindication resounds in the modern world.
Her argument (addressed primarily to the position of middle-class women) is that a lack of effective and appropriate education, and a distorted view of women’s purpose in life, have combined to render many or most women weak, foolish, vain, selfish, cunning and unfit for what Wollstonecraft sees as their peculiar (but not primary) duty – that of motherhood.
[Aside: much to my satisfaction, there are a number of pro-breastfeeding remarks in A Vindication, and Wollstonecraft repeatedly makes the point that beauty requirements and other foolish demands on women make them averse to breastfeeding with potentially disastrous consequences!]
She argues powerfully that society (by which she means, primarily, men – since they have all the education and the political and economic power) fails women in a number of ways.
For one thing, it makes them utterly dependent financially on men – fathers, husbands, brothers or other relatives. The effect is that for self-preservation women must adopt a subservient, self-abasing attitude to men. This degrades them twice: once in dignity; and then (which makes me think of Dickens’ Uriah Heep!) by forcing them to use cunning – those famous “womanly wiles” – to get what they want or need but cannot obtain for themselves.
Secondly, society assigns to women an obligation to please men, and to be pleasing to them. This springs in part from their aforementioned dependence on men, and is reinforced by the fact that precious little other outlet is given them for their emotions and ambitions. The consequence is that women, being admired far more for their persons than for their minds, expend all their care and effort on the former at the expense of the latter. They become vain, and bitchy, and obsessed with “beauty”, by which they mean weak delicate bodies decorated in whatever ornaments are currently in fashion.
More than all this, what women suffer is a total lack of any education worth the name. It is their want of a proper education which narrows their horizons and reinforces both their dependence on men and their inordinate concern for petty things such as their dress or (by outward show, if not in practice) maintenance of the one virtue that no woman must be without – chastity.
Such women as this, Wollstonecraft argues, inevitably become hopelessly caught up in “vice” – vanity and cupidity if nothing else – and will inevitably lack any real virtue such as genuine chastity, proper affection, loyalty or generosity, selfless friendship, or sound understanding. Moreover, such women as this will also invariably either neglect their children in favour of pursuing the “necessary” activity of continuing to please men by maintaining their beauty and other charms – or they will devote themselves excessively to their children but, because they lack both judgement and sound understanding, they will be unable to respond to their children properly and thus will risk spoiling either their health or their tempers, perhaps irremediably. In either case, such a woman as this will be unable to carry out her peculiar (but not primary) duty: to bring up children who are healthy, happy, well-behaved and suitably educated.
Wollstonecraft’s primary aims in A Vindication are twofold.
Firstly, she endeavours to sweep away the lingering idea – by making clear how nonsensical and self-contradictory it is – that Woman was made by God to be a plaything and propagator for Man, and that she has no true rationality or personhood of her own.
Secondy, she makes a strident plea for proper education for women. If women were given a level playing field and still fell behind men, she says, it would be appropriate to charge them with inferiority. Unless and until that happens, she insists that no man can prove women inferior. But, she says, even if we believe that women are in some way less than men, they are still human beings, still rational creatures, and still (as she says) given an immortal soul which it is their sacred duty to expand and develop. It is wrong for women to be oppressed and prevented from meeting this sacred duty, merely because of an (unproved!) idea that women will or may not actually achieve their aim in the same degree as men. Indeed, if that were not argument enough, it should be remembered that failing to educate women properly will prevent them from meeting their secondary duty – that of mothering – because it renders them unfit for the job.
In short: Women are Human! and Education for All!
More than that, Wollstonecraft anticiaptes, by around two centuries, a surprising number of modern feminist ideas. Women as sex class? The beauty myth? Socially constructed gender roles? The seeds of all these ideas and more can be found in A Vindication. Wollstonecraft even suggests – although tentatively, aware of the response that she would get for it – that perhaps women might at some point have a legitimate claim to taking some part in the government of their country. So we can credit her with “Votes for Women!” too.
Her thesis is a woman is a better wife etc if
Well worth reading, well written and an easy read in comparison to other philosophy texts.
As for this particular book, it was great in the beginning. Wollstonecraft is difficult, dense reading. She had some great ideas that spurred deep intellectual discussion, but after a while you want to stop reading. She makes her point early on and the rest is too much. Also, it's hard to be motivated to trudge through it when her dream is somewhat old news to us now.
I read this for a class but I did enjoy it. I found some of the ideas within this book really interesting. The reason I didn't rate this higher is that I personally found some of the writing to be a bit repetitive and clearly some of the ideas in this book are outdated. There is still some
Wollstonecraft proposes education and education of boys and girls together as being the solution to a lot of problems with inequality. While I don't disagree with education being very helpful with promoting equality and probably at the time, fighting for girls to have access to education was very important and novel, I do think that now that we, at least in the U.S., have an education system that does educate girls and boys together, it is clear that it takes more than integration to promote equality between men and women.
I did really enjoy reading some early theory on this topic but I definitely can get a little frustrated when I'm reading theory that is so clearly outdated, especially when I am not super familiar with the theory expanding on a topic that came later. I would recommend this book. It has a lot of influential and interesting ideas. Just know that feminist political theory has advanced after this book was written.