A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men – Mary Wollstonecraft
Oxford World’s Classics, 2008 (originally published in 1792).
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Note: This post is about A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I might post on the other parts of this publication some other time.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman proved to be a difficult read. Unfortunately, the book was not as engaging as I had hoped. Neither was the argument easy to follow. I had to tell myself repeatedly to sit down and read a few more pages, before finally finishing it this weekend.
It is not that I hated the book. I have posted before about some of my doubts coming from a more modern perspective. However, that does not mean that I cannot also see the book for what it was at the time: a daring argument that stated that women were to be perceived as more than commodities, that they are human beings, that men and women are equal in the eyes of God. This is precisely why I wanted to post about this book two times, because both sides deserve attention in my opinion. I do not want to read a book with modern eyes, forgetting about its historical context (I am a historian after all). However, I do not want to praise a book solely based on the fact that it was a step forward within a certain historical context, without also calling to attention those things that it overlooked. As Ana so convincingly wrote,
I don’t like it when this phrase [historical context] or an equivalent is used to silence discussions on problematic issues surrounding race, class, gender or sexual orientation in older books.
I could not agree more. But as I have said before, and as Ana does in her post, I do see that the argument formulated by Mary Wollstonecraft was quite revolutionary at the time.
And she does have some revolutionary ideas. Her ideas on women needing to be educated, so that they could be companions to her husbands, instead of “only” wives. [This is interesting, and can be very well put into context: it was around this time that "love matches" were contemplated more than before, and started to gain respect.] The idea women should not just be educated, but educated alongside men: girls and boys should share classrooms, they should not be separated. And Wollstonecraft even remarks that if the political system were better organised (she viewed the situation at the time as tyrannical), she would plead for women to have a say in political matters and elections.
There are still those issues I do not agree with. When she speaks of the education of women, she says that the more promising girls and the rich ones should be educated further than girls of other classes. If you are attuned to the idea that conceptions of difference in class, gender and race are often intermixed, it is interesting to note how this happens in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. For example, she compared women’s degraded position to that of the lower classes and those of the slaves. Does that mean we are unfair when we say Wollstonecraft had no eye for issues of class and race? Maybe I have judged her too harshly. She does sometimes show that she has a better understanding of these circumstances as I thought she had after reading the first few chapters. At one point, for example, she pleads that women had better have an occupation, such as lower class women have, instead of lazing the days away. Still problematic, yes. Because that does imply that these women had it better, while, well.. I highly doubt it. And then there’s her opinion on novel-reading, it made me laugh. I know novels were considered to be no proper education at the time. Still, she mentions it in such a snarky way:
In fact the female mind has been so totally neglected, that knowledge was only to be acquired from this muddy source, till from reading novels some women of superiour talents learned to despise them.
So yes, there are things I do not agree with and other points that were problematic for me. But there were points that were of interest too.
What made the book most interesting to me, is how she seems to struggle to give voice to opinions that we still struggle with today.
First example: In her pamphlet, Wollstonecraft tries to refute Rousseau’s argument of the state of nature of men, in which humans should try to return to their natural state in which of course women are “naturally” inferior. This makes that she often states that men and women might seem naturally unequal, but that it is really society that has made them so. That it is because women are never educated to think for themselves, to be anything more than “decorations”, is why they are what they are. Looking at it this way, she really is not all that far removed from our current ideas of there not being a natural binary division between the sexes. However, at the same time Wollstonecraft argues that men are superior in strength and valour and that women are naturally more inclined to have certain characteristics as well. We may feel disappointed in that, from a modern point of view. But at the same time, is not that exactly what we are still struggling with today? This idea that men and women are equal, that their differences are for a large part socially constructed, is generally accepted. And yet, how often do we not hear people remark that “men are naturally stronger, are built to be better athletes” or that “women gossip and are more prone to be jealous”. How often do we not think like that ourselves, even if theoretically we might “know better”?
Second example: Her division between rationality and emotions, which she uses to illustrate that both men and women should be more rational. That especially women, by failing to be taught to use rational thought, are made into inferior beings. On the one hand: unproblematic. Do we not all think education is something everyone has a right to, because it teaches you to “make something of yourself”, to not always be dependant? At the same time, I feel Wollstonecraft goes a little far in her trust in rationality: her idea that as long as people are rational, as long as they are not blinded by passion or love, they will find equality in marriage and that they will slide into comfortable companionship even if love is lost. I have my doubts. There is a little bit too much of that trust in rationality that is so often to be found in philosopher’s of that time. But Wollstonecraft also says that women are more prone to be emotional. She is ambiguous if this is because they are naturally so, or are taught to be so. And if you look at it like this, it is something we still find in society: rationality is said to be the key to success, and women are supposedly more prone to let their feelings get in the way, or: they feel relationships are more important than self-development, thus, it is often argued, men have higher positions in the work place. So Wollstonecraft, in her trying to break free of the bonds society put on women, seems to have become caught up in some of them in such a way that she at times seems to contradict herself, or at least, not goes as far as “true equality” would call for. However, do not we all struggle with these things, still?
If you read Wollstonecraft in this manner (and I admit, you can even scan some paragraphs, if you think that is the only way to get through it), there are some real gems in here. Some thoughts that are still so very relevant today.
What about the idea that women are often judged only for their looks? And that by this being so, and because they are socially trained to think of themselves that way, they judge their self-worth by their looks. Or that, in trying to look as good as possible, they vie for the attention of men and are easily jealous of each other, because they have not learned to judge themselves for what they are, but only for the attention they receive. Yes, Wollstonecraft uses hard words, but I am sure many girls recognize these situations. Or what about the idea that because of this attention for beauty, women after 30 or 40 have to search hard for what they are, because they cannot define themselves, and are no longer defined by society, as beautiful women?
There is one last thing I would like to remark on, and that is the discussion of whether the fact that Wollstonecraft infers God so much in her argument, makes it a harder text to read, or harder to relate to. I personally did not feel that way. But that might be because I so often read text on religion from a religious point of view, while I am an atheist/agnostic. I admit, I am often frustrated with some of the reasoning, but it depends on the way religion is used. And in this specific instance, I personally did not find the religious strand of Wollstonecraft argument particularly frustrating.
I have to admit that at times I wondered if Wollstonecraft could have written her pamphlet in any other way, without referring to God, without fitting herself into the rationalist camp, without saying that women should become more like men to become their equals, and still be heard without complete disrespect for her opinions? This is not to say that this sort of thinking justifies her arguments, but it is something I’d like to consider. I do feel that Wollstonecraft’s appeal to God seems to be of the kind that is the most rational possible if you do not view yourself as an atheist. It is not illogical in itself. It is not contradictory, I think. She seems to me to argue that morals and values have to be grounded in something, and for her, and for many before and after her, grounding them in God is the only way in which such values can mean something outside of flawed human judgement. I may not agree with her, but I can see why that is such an important part of her argument, for her.