A Year of Feminist Classics

Because they're better together :)

Category Archives: Mary Wollstonecraft

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.

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.