A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

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.

8 responses to “Wrap-Up: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

  1. dangermom January 31, 2011 at 3:00 am

    I think you’re right that there’s a difference between two different passions, but it’s the part about her personal life and her book colliding that’s hard to reconcile. Still, I think that she was probably speaking out of experience as much as anything.

    I thought her use of religious argument was quite interesting. It’s important to recall that at that time, religious authorities had used Eve as a stick to beat women with for centuries, ascribing every bad quality to her and by extension to all women. Wollstonecraft used the churchmen’s own rules against them by claiming that women had God-given capabilities that were being repressed. I’m pretty sure that if she had left religion out of her book, she would have been completely ignored by most of the powerful people of her day (not that they were terribly religious themselves, but it would have given them a great excuse).

    I can’t get angry at her for not calling for equal employment rights for women. Those are our issues, not hers.

  2. Pingback: A Year of Feminist Classics Month 1 Wrap-Up « Amy Reads

  3. Catherine January 31, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    I haven’t finished the book, either, but I wanted to point that, in regard to the religious arguments, that our concept of “human rights” is more recent than this book. In fact, it struck me that Wollstonecroft used that very term to denote privileges granted only by human law and not naturally warranted.

    Many of today’s Christians (and I include myself here) would argue that the rights of each human being stem from our equality in the eyes of God. But I think that in Wollstonecroft’s time there was a strong current of thought that women were created as lesser beings. If I remember correctly, she touches on the argument that women do not have souls. In contrast, even most conservative Christians in our current time take more of a tack that men and women are separate but equal. I have definitely never heard even the most arch-conservative contemporary Christian try to argue that women are soul-less or unable to achieve heaven.

    Lately, I have seen (but not yet read) several works on the history of the idea of human rights, which are probably well worth a look. Whatever our religion or philosophy, I think that if we are personally going to argue for equality, we need to establish a good framework for our reasoning so that we can be effective–even if we don’t all have the same framework.

  4. Helen January 31, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    And I haven’t finished the book either! But I wanted to add that as well as the concept of human rights not existing at the time Wollstonecraft was writing, psychology, in the modern sense, didn’t exist either (though of course people then were just as insightful about their own & each other’s motivations and emotional lives as people are now. They just conceptualised it a bit differently). So there was no such argument as, e.g.: “limiting a person’s development/self-expression/choices causes psychological/emotional damage, and is therefore wrong.” I think that kind of argument is overtly or implicitly present in most feminist writing, and that may be another reason that Wollstonecraft’s book sounds strange and a bit alienating to many people here. It’s clear from what I’ve read of the book so far that she’s very angry about the damage done to women, but she doesn’t use that as an argument for change, because there was no basis on which to argue it. Instead she says that the problem is that the current set-up doesn’t fit women to function properly as useful members of society, and this leads to social problems and personal unhappiness.

    • Catherine February 2, 2011 at 12:30 am

      Good points! Your comment also made me think that the entrenched idea of American individualism that I have (much as I like to think differently) has to be acknowledged when reading authors who have no reason to share it.

  5. SilverSeason February 8, 2011 at 1:23 am

    Books connect because the ideas within them connect. After reading Wollstonecraft I went on to Nathanial Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, set in Salem, Massachusetts, about 1850. A long way from France and England in the 1790s? Not so far. One of the principal characters, Hepzibah Pyncheon, is limited by her misguided education and rejected because she is not beautiful: http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/nathaniel-hawthorne-the-house-of-the-seven-gables/.

  6. Nose in a book May 24, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    And months later I finally finished the book. I somehow lost interest for a while. I mean, she rambles and repeats herself a LOT for a relatively short book. On the whole I can see why this work was so seminal, though it could have done with a good edit. In response to your points, Amy, I’m not sure she does think women should primarily dedicate themselves to raising children. In a few places she hints at the opposite, but times being what they were, her strongest argument for the education of women was related to their influence on children, so she returned to that again and again. I do however agree with you about the contradictions between her passion and that she rails against, or between what women should do between one chapter and another. I’ll write up a review soon and come back to add a link.

    Great reading all the discussions, by the way, even if I am months late!

  7. Pingback: The truth is buried in there somewhere – Nose in a book

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