A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Monthly Archives: January 2011

Wrap-Up: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Title: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Author: Wollstonecraft, Mary
Length: Varies per edition
Genre: Non-Fiction
Original Published In: 1792

I apologize that I’ve been rather absent in the discussion for this book. It’s been a rather busy and hectic month for me with a lot going on – I certainly hope to do better in my next months! I am working my way through the comments and posts at the moment and hope to catch up soon. I would like to say thank you for your understanding and for making the discussion such a success! I’m absolutely loving reading all of the opinions – I love nothing more than a long discussion where we can all feel free to post our thoughts irrespective of if others agree with us or not. I’m so happy to see that we can have that here! This has been a success thanks solely to you!

I admit to also failing at completing this book – luckily I read it previously last year. My thoughts on it can be seen here (back from my early days, it’s rather shame inducing to link back to earlier posts sometimes isn’t it!). I still hold to what I said at the time – namely that it is interesting to think about how far we’ve come, and how some of her ideas and opinions still make me roll my eyes. Thinking on it now though and having read more background on the book and the discussions have made me come up with many more thoughts though.

First, her arguments against passion and how they are quite a contradiction both to the passion she shows in her writing and to the way she lived her life. I’ll address first her writing. I feel that the passion she argued against is the opposite of the passion she showed in her writing – one is a passion purely based on emotion and the latter is a passion based on ideas, opinions, and education. Does anyone else see these as two different passions?

As to the contradiction between her railings against the passions women showed and the way she lived her own life, this is a harder one for many reasons. In one sense I want to say that she should have practiced what she preached. In another sense I wonder if we don’t often talk about things in the ideal knowing that we are not yet there ourselves. Just because she didn’t live up to her own arguments, does that detract from her arguments or rather just show her as being as human as the rest of us? I’m unsure, really. She was rather vehement in them by times and doesn’t really address her own shortcomings. I am apt to let her off the hook as simply human though.

Second, it really is hard to read the book as an atheist in some senses. Her arguments are quite couched in religion and a Godly sense of duty. It’s hard for me to place myself in the time period, but I do believe that religion was a much larger presence in everyone’s life at that time. A lot of the arguments against women’s participating as active members of society was put in religious terms. If those are true (I’m showing here my lack of knowledge of the time, I know!) then it makes sense for her to use the terms both of her personal belief and of those she is arguing against. By maintaining their framework she would make it easier for them to understand and perhaps help to sway them. Such arguments would hold much less weight today given that religion isn’t as large a presence, and I believe her arguments would be different, so I feel it is really a matter of time and place that causes this.

The third thing that the discussion has impressed upon me is the quickness with which the book was writing and obvious need for editing that still shows itself. This makes me consider the background behind her writing and why it was written so quickly. I so wish that she had had the time and opportunity to write the second part as she had planned to. I would love to know what this second part would show.

Lastly, it is really hard to read the book and not get angry at some of Wollstonecraft’s arguments. She still thinks that women should be primarily mothers, that they are not as strong as men, that they shouldn’t try to be equal. All ideas that we would scoff at now… but it is important to remember, for myself anyway, when the book was written and the ideas and culture of the time. At the time this was a big step, and we wouldn’t have the ideas we have now if we hadn’t started with our feminism at some beginning point in history.

What do you think of my ideas and opinions from the discussion? I have seen arguments and discussions from all sides on all of these topics and I’ve really loved how it’s changed my opinions on some of the points. Now I want to know what you think! Do you agree with me? Disagree with me? Think I should be pelted with tomatoes (heh)? I’d love to know where you stand!

For the wrap-up of So Long a Letter yesterday I posted a summary of what the commenters had said up until the point of when I wrote it. With this book there have been such a huge amount of discussion posts and ideas that I am sorry to say that I won’t be able to do a wrap-up like that! Instead I will point you to the absolutely fantastic discussion that has been ongoing on the discussion post here.

If you have written about the book, please add your link using the link below.

Wrap-up: So Long A Letter

So Long a Letter coverTitle: So Long a Letter
Author: Bâ, Mariama
Translator: Bode-Thomas, Modupe
Length: 90 pages
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: Heinemann Educational Publishers / 1989
Original Publisher / Year: Les Nouvelle Editions Africaines / 1980

I thought I would start with some of the information that I normally put in my review on my own site. For anyone who hasn’t read this book yet, now you have a bit of information on it 🙂 I know that less people were able to participate in this book as it is generally less available. We must get on these library systems to get more copies in circulation – I think after reading the opinions that I’ve seen at least are all hugely in favor of the book!

One of my favorite parts of the book is still the conversation with her would be suitor on page 60-1 where she says:

‘In many fields, and without skirmishes, we have taken advantage of the notable achievements that have reached us from elsewhere, the gains wrestled from the lessons of history. We have a right, just as you have, to education, which we ought to be able to pursue to the furthest limits of our intellectual capacities. We have a right to equal well-paid employment, to equal opportunities. The right to vote is an important weapon. And now the Family Code has been passed, restoring to the most humble of women the dignity that has so often been trampled upon.’

Bâ, I felt, did a really good job of portraying the way that polygamy affects women, and how it is such a slap in the face to the wives. She did so in a way that lets the reader made their own judgement and without being preachy manages to make her point come across very strongly.

What I also really liked about the book (as I alluded to in the discussion post!) was how the reaction of each of the women was shown and neither was castigated. Both of their decisions are shown as being rational and well thought out decisions. There is no one ‘right’ response with all others being wrong but rather a case by case basis with each woman trying to come up with the best solution for her situation. It really highlights the individuality of all of our situations, whatever they be, and how important it is not to judge others for their decisions.

Because there haven’t been as many readers of this book I wanted to share with you what they thought of it. Here is a roundup of what others thought (those included are those who linked in the discussion post and introduction post – there is a place below to add in your own link and direct us to your thoughts, if you’ve posted!)

Dragonflyy419 at Dragonflyy419 Attempts to Combat Boredom wrote about the issues faced by both women but especially by the narrator. She also included a fantastic excerpt. I really liked what she said about the issues that the narrator faced.

Throughout the book Mariama Ba points out the difficulties that the Senegalese woman faces in a very male dominated world.  The widow talks about the stresses of being a working mother trying to support her household and twelve children, especially after her husband abandoned her for his second wife, her co-wife.

Lisa at BaffledBooks wrote a great post talking about what she liked about the book (many of the same things I did!). She also said:

Other highlights of the book for me include, the first solo voyae to the movie theatre, her growing comfort with handling the finaces and household maintaine when her husband failed to keep up with the and the typicial what do I do with my children? problems. These all were completely relatable situations, one anybody, anywhere, can understand and it was these and other similar events that really pulled it into focus for me how similar the problems we encounter are, even if the situation that create them are so different.

Ana of Things Mean A Lot, one of my co-hosts here also really enjoyed how the two women had different reactions which showed how we need to respect others and their decisions. She said:

It probably goes without saying that I love feminism, and that I feel nothing but complete gratitude and appreciation for the ongoing work of giving women full human status, not merely in words but also in deeds. And yet there’s sometimes the danger that some person or other’s definition of feminism will become a new mould into which women are expected to fit – which is the last thing we want to happen. It was with relief, then, that I noticed that So Long a Letter did a wonderful job of avoiding this trap by having two characters react to their husbands’ bigamy differently and casting no judgement or accusations on either one of them.

Ana’s post also talks about the bravery exhibited by both women.

Emily at Evening All Afternoon read the book in it’s original French and wrote a very detailed post with so much that I could comment on here! I will just say that she brings up some really interesting points about education, feminism and timing, language, marriage laws and how culture and religion sometimes distort each other. On the feminism and timing she says:

His points, therefore, are heartfelt, and one can sympathize with them: in a country working so hard just to establish its national identity, combating the worst kinds of poverty while simultaneously attempting to garner respect (and funding) on the international stage, is it realistic to prioritize changing the status of women, either in politics or in everyday life? On the other hand, these are exactly the arguments that have been used to squelch so many other feminist struggles worldwide

Beachreader also wrote a great post talking about what she liked in the book and said:

Recognizing that change is difficult, Ramatoulaye compares the new found independence of her country to her new feelings of refashioning her life and starts the change within herself as she confronts modern challenges with her daughters.

So interesting to think of the time of history and how it affected the writing.

If you have written about the book, please add your link using the link below.

Discussion: So Long a Letter

I know, I have yet to wrap-up the Wollstonecraft discussion but figured I would get this one started first – more open discussion is always a good thing right?!

As I mentioned in the introduction, it is a rather small volume but it really discusses a lot. I want to bring up first two items that were raised in the comments on Tuesday.

1. What did you think of the different responses each women had to polygamy? Did you think that one was portrayed as better than the other? Did you feel both were accurate portrayals?

2. What did you think of the way the funeral happens? From my limited knowledge I believe that the portrayal was fairly true to an Islamic funeral. Is this true? What did you think of the time it gave her to consider her options? Do you think the time of reflection is a good or bad thing? What about the way that both wives had to work together?

Another thing that was brought up was the way the climate of the country at the time of writing affected both Wollstonecraft and Bâ. Wollstonecraft wrote in response to the French revolution. I don’t know a lot about Senegal (note to self – learn more!) but I would imagine that Bâ wrote in large part because of the let down post-independence  for the rights of women. What do you think of this – do you think the political situation played a part in her work? Did you see any other symmetry between the two works?

Dragonflyy419 has already posted the beginnings of her discussion here, do check it out. Have you posted about this book? Please include your link in the comments below and I will link to it in the next discussion post or wrap-up!

Introduction to So Long a Letter

I read this month for the readathon in September 2010 and really enjoyed it. It is a really short novel (my edition has 90 pages) and was a rather quick read. My review is here. I am umm… actually without my copy at the moment because I lent it to a blogging friend in Texas. Luckily I have read it rather recently so should be able to keep up with the discussion!

Also, I wanted to add a quick note that I am sorry I’ve been slow in responding to the incredible discussion on the Wollstonecraft posts. I’ve been reading them and really enjoying all the participation and debating going on and will chime in and do a wrap-up of all of it soon.

An Introduction to the Text

Image from Wikipedia of the book cover.

This is a short novel, but it is a very worthwhile read. The book is full of thoughts and ideas to think on and to discuss. While not as old as A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (it was published in 1981), and not as well-known, it is still a fantastic read and highlights feminism in a non-Western setting which I think is so important for us in this project. The book was awarded the very first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa which recognizes outstanding works published on the continent.

The book is written, as you may have guessed by the title, as a long letter. The letter is from a grieving widow to her friend after the death of her husband. They have both suffered from polygamy and have reacted in different ways through their lives – the novel is both an exploration of culture and its distortions and a discussion about the harm polygamy can do to a family. Two differing reactions are shown and the reader gets to decide which is best – or if there is a ‘best’ answer.

The book was written in French and translated to English in 1989 and so is our first translated read as a group. Will anyone be reading along in the original French?

The book explores a lot of issues and I look forward to the discussion that will result from our reading it together! (Or at least you reading it now and my previous reading of it, given that I don’t have my copy at the moment.)

A Quick Biography of the Author

Mariama Bâ was born in 1929 in Dakar, Senegal. She was raised largely by her grandparents after her mother’s death, and was lucky to have a father who pushed for her to be educated. She faced discrimination and trained to be a school teacher and worked for a number of years. According to Wikipedia she was married for a time to a Senegalese member of parliament but divorced him at some point and was left to care for their nine children.

There isn’t a lot known about her, or at least not a lot that I can find. Her Wikipedia page gives a lot of information about her feminist background and how she advocated for the rights of women, but there isn’t a lot of information of a more personal nature. It says:

Bâ’s source of determination and commitment to the feminist cause stemmed from her background, her parent’s life and her schooling. Indeed, her contribution is of absolute importance in modern African studies since she was among the first to illustrate the disadvantaged position of women in African society. Bâ’s work focused on the grandmother, the mother, the sister, the daughter, the cousin and the friend, how they all deserve the title “mother of Africa”, and how important they are for the society.

I think this ringing endorsement more than qualifies her first novel as an important and classic text for our discussion this month!

Bâ died in 1981 after an unnamed illness. Sadly her second book, Scarlet Song, had not yet been published, but was published posthumously. She has one other work, La fonction politique des littératures Africaines écrites (The Political Function of African Written Literatures) which was also written in 1981. It sounds fantastic and I am sorry that I haven’t been able to find a translation of it. Perhaps I will have to brush up on my French!

I hope that many of you will join with us in reading and discussing this text. I look forward to hearing your opinions and thoughts on it. Again, if you have any contributions in terms of discussion points, questions, or anything else, please don’t hesitate to email us at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com.

A Bit More on A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Thank you so much to SilverSeason who pointed out that this book can be acquired free online. The books can be found:

  • On Project Gutenberg – A number of her Mary Wollstonecraft’s works are available here including an electronic and an audio version of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
  • On Amazon.com for Kindle – I, in Canada, can only seem to find it for $0.89 or higher, there are a number of versions available though quite cheaply. In other parts of the world you may find different prices or versions. You can download the free Kindle for PC or Kindle for Mac application to read the books on your computer.
  • On Barnes and Noble for Nook – again, I see a number of options starting at $0.99. I believe you can also download a free application to read Nook books on your computer or smartphone.
  • Has anyone else found it free (or cheap) anywhere else for me to add to the list?

A Bit of a Ramble and a Question for Readers

I have been reading through the introduction material in my copy of the book and came across a quote that made me so happy that we are reading this book and I just had to share it right away. A Vindication of the Rights of Man was written primarily as a response to a piece written by Edmund Burke that denounced the French Revolution and their attempts at democracy. The introduction to the text I am reading says on page 10:

Burke himself claimed to not to have read it [The Vindication of the Rights of Man] (Correspondence 6:214), but his ignorance of her critique of his Reflections did not prevent him from describing Wollstonecraft (in 1975) as one of “that Clan of desperate, Wicked, and mischievously ingenious Women, who have brought, or are likely to bring Ruin and shame upon all those that listen to them” (Correspondence 8: 304).

I figure anyone who garnered that kind of reaction is certainly worth reading! I certainly giggled at the quote.

I want to point out the two posts that Jillian at A Room of One’s Own has posted on Wollstonecraft over the past three days. She posted an introduction about how Wollstonecraft has been considered through the ages titled Mary Wollstonecraft – a “bitch”?. The post was a hilarious look at early feminism (like, Wollstonecraft and even one who came before her!).

Her second post was titled A thought: On reading history and in it she talks about how exciting it is to think of all of those historical figures through the ages who have read the same book and had similar thoughts on it. Fascinating!

What that quote I shared, as well as everything else I’ve read on Wollstonecraft including Jillian’s two posts, has made me think of is how important reputation was to female authors and intellectuals (and all females really). If we think of historic male writers they could do anything they wanted in their personal lives with no (or at least little) repercussions to what people thought of their intellectual works and articles. As a female author Wollstonecraft was vilified and her works ignored and forgotten once the truth came out about her life after her death.

Wikipedia reads:

In January 1798 Godwin published his Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Although Godwin felt that he was portraying his wife with love, compassion, and sincerity, many readers were shocked that he would reveal Wollstonecraft’s illegitimate children, love affairs, and suicide attempts.[45] The Romantic poet Robert Southey accused him of “the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked” and vicious satires such as The Unsex’d Females were published.[46]

I talked briefly about this in my last post, saying that reaction to her Vindication of the Rights of Woman was actually quite favorable and opinion only changed after her death. I am very interested in hearing your opinion on this matter.

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 of the opinion that Godwin, being a male, probably assumed the same standards he was subjected to would be the standards that Wollstonecraft would be judged by and so saw nothing wrong with talking about the details of her life. I wonder if he was surprised at the reaction his book actually received.

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? Unfortunately while I think things have improved slightly, I think a female is still held to much more stringent morals and values.

I’d be interested to hear your opinions on both thoughts in the comments!

Another post on the topic shows up here from De Zesde Clan. I can’t translate it, but I thank the author of the website for joining us and discussing this book and Mary Wollstonecraft with us.

Note: If you have posted a discussion on the topic of this book or author please add your link in the comments and I will add it to the next round-up / discussion post.

In closing, a quick SQUEE of excitement that we’ve been mentioned on The F Word, a contemporary UK feminist blog! I do hope that we get more participants through that and I look forward to the discussions!

Introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft

Welcome to our Year of Feminist Classics project. We begin today with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft.

I read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in March 2010 and thought it was a fantastic book. I wrote a short review of it here. At the time I thought it was a book with a lot in it to discuss and contemplate and so am very happy that we are starting with it for our project. The text is considered the first document of feminism by many, so what better one to start with?

I apologize that this month may be a little less structured than the ones to come. I am still figuring out how best to do this. I have a degree in business and mathematics, so don’t feel like you need any grounding in literary theory or criticism to join in with us – these discussions will be for anyone who is a fan of the written word!

This month, if you recall from our reading list, we are also reading Mariama Bâ‘s So Long a Letter. As it is a much shorter text (and I forgot that I had lent my copy to a friend!) I thought we would start looking at it in the second half of the month.

An Introduction to the Text

Image from Wikipedia of the First American Edition of the book.

The book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, calls for women to have greater autonomy and a greater role in their lives. It specifically attacked the double standard that was exhibited and legislated in Europe. It was well received when it was published, and it wasn’t until later that the author and her works fell into disrepute (see the biography below). The book was as a direct response to current events with a second volume planned. Unfortunately the author died before a second volume could be written – just think of how fascinating that could have been!

Many have said that Wollstonecraft isn’t a feminist and didn’t consider herself a feminist. Her ideas are clearly not the feminist ideas that we have today. To that I point out that history is always progressing. As one of the earliest advocates in writing of equality and removing the sexual double standard, Wollstonecraft was clearly working toward the feminist ideas we hold today. If it were not for her and others like her, we wouldn’t have the ideas that we have today. I look forward to discussing this in more detail through the month.

My version is the Broadview Press Anthology which includes a few introductions, a chronology of the author’s life, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and a number of appendices that include additional information about the revolution, the education debate, and reviews. I’m a little bit geeked out by it all!

Whatever version you have, through the next few weeks we will be reading it and I will be coming up with some discussion questions. If you have any questions or comments that you would like to be part of the discussion send us an email at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com.

A Quick Biography of the Author

Image from Wikipedia of the author.

Mary Wollstonecraft was born on April 27th, 1759 in London. Her biography on Wikipedia is fascinating reading and I highly suggest checking it out.  She was always had a strong woman and protected her mother, sisters, and friends growing up. She convinced her sister to leave her husband, they and a friend set up a school together, she worked as a governess for some time, until eventually embarking upon a career as a writer. Wollstonecraft translated a number of texts as well as writing her own. The most famous of these is A Vindication of the Rights of Women (in 1792) which was written shortly after she wrote Vindication of the Rights of Man in response to the French revolution in 1790.

After writing the book Wollstonecraft went to France to try living out her ideas. While there she fell in love with Gilbert Imlay and ended up having his child. She was registered as his wife to avoid being put in danger after Britain declared war on France in 1793. Despite this they were never actually married and he showed no interest in marriage or their child. Over the next few years she tried to kill herself twice (in 1795 and 1796) in response to her situation supporting herself and her child alone.

Eventually Wollstonecraft got back in to writing in London and met William Goodwin who fell in love with her and they were eventually married after she again became pregnant in 1797. They lived in separate houses to retain their independence and appeared to have a very happy relationship. She died on September 10, 1797 due to complications resulting from childbirth.

After her death Goodwin was devastated and wrote a memoir of her which laid bare her illegitimate child, love affairs and suicide attempts which of course, given the time, resulted in her reputation being torn to shreds and her writing seemed to lose credibility. Her work was then tied with her person, and she was vilified through the years until finally the early feminists in America revived her legacy beginning in 1884. New biographies have come out numerous times since coinciding with new feminist thought.

I hope that many of you will join with us in reading and discussing this text. I look forward to hearing your opinions and thoughts on it. Again, if you have any contributions in terms of discussion points, questions, or anything else, please don’t hesitate to email us at feministclassics[at]gmail[dot]com.