A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft, Reviewed

Now that I’m finished with school, the real reading can begin! I am sort of kidding, but it’s also true. This past fall and winter I’ve had some unresolved thoughts spinning around about radical feminism and gender, and I am really excited to start putting time into reading classic feminist works that I have yet to get to. I figured I’d start at the beginning. Not exactly with Sappho or even Christine de Pizan, but I chose Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. A lot of the reading I’ve done online about the book comes from A Year of Feminist Classics, a monthly reading project that I am pretty sad I missed out on. At least I found the discussion archives now, and yes, I will be that creepy person commenting on your book reviews from 2011.

Of course there are a lot of messed up things about this book– it was published in 1792! I am a little sad though that people blogging about it say it’s hard to get through in basically every review. It’s not too hard to get through, and it’s worth it.

To put it in historical context, Wollstonecraft is replying to the widespread opinion (and sometimes the specific people who espouse it, like Rousseau) that women are naturally inferior and therefore exist to serve men. She says no fucking way, and that is what I love most about her. More specifically, she argues that this assumed inferiority of women (besides a basic level of difference in certain types of physical strength, which, come on feminists in the 21st century, please have the guts to stop denying that sexual dimorphism exists) is the result of the way that girls are raised and denied a real education. Social structure and personal relationships, as they were at the time when she was writing, limited women’s opportunities for independent thought, for the development of important human virtues, and for personhood. And I am uncomfortable making this last sentence past tense, as it still rings so true today. Wollstonecraft argues that women are kept in a state of perpetual childhood. They are trained to think of themselves as existing for men’s enjoyment, and so they become focused on beauty and elegance and romantic love. Independent thought and physical activity are discouraged, and so women become mentally and physically weak.

Some people may look at this argument as woman-hating, as lifting up the masculine above the feminine. To me, that would be a misreading. Wollstonecraft does not hate women or all femininity– she hates inferiority and demands full personhood. In fact, she hates the blind authority that parents exert over all children, breaking their spirits and demanding complete obedience. It’s not always apparent, and sometimes she slips up especially in terms of class (this is a glaring problem with the work), but I appreciate her critique of all sorts of people’s inability to really think independently– whether that is nobility, soldiers, or women. She is critical of the conditions that make any person focused on status and wealth, appearances and reputation.

One of her thoughts on love that really struck me is that women are trained to prize romantic love above all else, and in doing so, they neglect other virtues, other vital aspects of being human. Yep, it happens. Also, she makes an argument about inequality being a source of immorality. The religious aspects of her argument are hard to embrace for sure, and it’s difficult to not be skeptical of some of the language. But overall, yes, I guess I do basically believe that inequality is immoral and allows people to do really horrible things. Ha.

I would definitely suggest this if you have the time. Wollstonecraft was an intriguing historical figure with a strong commitment to something really human in everyone, and I relate to that and care deeply about it as well. Of course, oppression is more complex and multi-faceted than she is able to get at. But what’s at the heart of the argument is still really important and relevant. I am excited to read the biography by Claire Tomalin!