Wollstonecraft, Mary Entries

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman


As convenient as it can sometimes be, a disadvantage of reading from anthologies is that one can graduate from college with the vague notion that one has read a work in its entirety, only to discover later that in fact one has read only a page and a half of it in a long-forgotten Eighteenth-Century British Literature class. Which, as you may have guessed, is exactly what happened to me with Mary Wollstonecraft's seminal 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I'm happy to have rectified my mistake at last and read Vindication from cover to cover. Unsurprisingly, Wollstonecraft's arguments assume a significant degree more complexity and idiosyncrasy on what I had, until recently, been thinking of as my "second time through."

And in fact, as much as she would probably have disapproved of the comment, it was Wollstonecraft's own character that particularly appealed to me throughout this reading. I agreed with her on some points and disagreed with her on others, but throughout I enjoyed her forthrightness, her willingness, to use a modern phrase, to call bullshit on all the male arguments used to claim that women's natural state is one of gentle, slavish devotion, and that women should not be allowed physical or mental exertion. In her impatience with sickly-sweet yet fundamentally condescending verbiage about the "angelic innocence" of women, and with male writers' self-serving insistence that women are formed for the sole purpose of pleasing men, I spied a kindred spirit and was cheering (and sometimes, out of recognition) chuckling along with her outrage. I love how, for example, halfway through a passage quoted from Rousseau on his proposed method of educating women, she can't stand to wait until the end to comment and appends a footnote reading only, "What nonsense!" Neither is she afraid of the exclamation point: "Without knowledge there can be no morality!" she exclaims, and "Ignorance is a frail base for virtue!" I felt throughout, however, that she earned those exclamation points: these are infuriatingly simple and logical conclusions that are nonetheless STILL often disregarded when we educate girls to be sexy rather than smart, charming and flighty rather than honest and self-respecting.

I particularly object to the lover-like phrases of pumped up passion, which are every where interspersed [in Fordyce's sermons]. If women be ever allowed to walk without leading-strings, why must they be cajoled into virtue by artful flattery and sexual compliments? Speak to them the language of truth and soberness, and away with the lullaby strains of condescending endearment! Let them be taught to respect themselves as rational creatures, and not led to have a passion for their own insipid persons. It moves my gall to hear a preacher descanting on dress and needle-work; and still more, to hear him address the British fair, the fairest of the fair, as if they had only feelings.

I'm reminded of the men who yell at me as I walk down the street lost in thought: "You'd be prettier if you smiled!" As if being eye candy for random men is somehow supposed to be my top priority. Oh sorry! I forgot to think about PLEASING STRANGE MEN while I was cogitating on existential literature! And again:

To carry the remark still further, if fear in girls, instead of being cherished, perhaps, created, were treated in the same manner as cowardice in boys, we should quickly see women with more dignified aspects. It is true, they could not then with equal propriety be termed the sweet flowers that smile in the walk of man; but they would be more respectable members of society, and discharge the important duties of life by the light of their own reason. 'Educate women like men,' says Rousseau, 'and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us.' This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.

THANK YOU, MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT. Her discussions of what has come to be called "the male gaze"—the way in which girls and women are taught to think always of how their conduct will appear to men, and act accordingly, rather than acting to please themselves or in accordance with what is most appropriate to the situation—struck me as particularly insightful. In the paragraph following the one I quoted on Fordyce, for example, she points out that he (a preacher) tries to lure women into religious piety by arguing that men find it sexually attractive when women are lost in pious contemplation. Seriously, how insulting! I'm not even religious, and I understand how disrespectful that argument is to the deeply-held beliefs of people engaged with their faith. And yet, have things really changed? I'm reminded of so-called "womens' magazines" and the arguments they use to convince women to go to the gym: it's all about appearing more sexually attractive to a potential partner; and only lip-service is paid to the idea that a woman would value herself enough to want to make her body stronger and healthier for her own sake.

Not that there weren't areas where Wollstonecraft and I diverge. She shares, for example, the common Enlightenment belief in humankind's ability to approach perfection through rational discourse, to achieve a state closer to God through the application of reason. Although I agree with her that men and women both benefit by the frequent exercise of their physical and mental faculties, I'm skeptical about how perfectible or rational the human race, or any individual, really is. Moreover, either because or in spite of my religious atheism/agnosticism, I tend to find Enlightenment arguments about the human ability to know God through logic a bit silly:

The only solid foundation for morality appears to be the character of the supreme Being; the harmony of which arises from a balance of attributes;—and, to speak with reverence, one attribute seems to imply the necessity of another. He must be just, because he is wise, he must be good, because he is omnipotent.

I mean, what? Judeo-Christian friends: is that sound theology? Why does one quality necessarily imply the others? I can easily imagine omnipotence without goodness, for example, just like every day I experience perfectly robust morality with no particular basis in divinity. Arguments like this always strike me as simply a human being imagining all the good things he can think of, combining them in his imagination into one Being, and then claiming that because he can conceptualize this Being, it must exist. And when I say "he," I mean Descartes. But apparently Mary Wollstonecraft as well. It's as if I made a drawing of my dream house, and then claimed that because I drew it, it must be available for purchase. My drawing doesn't prove that the house isn't available; but neither is it proof that it is.

Not only that, but in her quest to agitate for the education of women as strong, rational creatures, Wollstonecraft veers so far in favor of strength and reason that she leaves little room for human vulnerability. Take the passage quoted above, for example, on the treatment of fear in girls and boys. While I agree that kids shouldn't be encouraged to be shrieking and cowering away from every little thing when they wouldn't be doing that naturally, I can hardly agree that their fear should be treated like that of boys in the sense of being sternly reprimanded, shamed, told that "boys don't cry," and so on. My personal ideal for both genders is a happy medium between the affected over-sensitivity that has historically been associated with women, and the repressive, uncommunicative stoicism that has often been expected of men. Humans feel fear, tenderness, anger, and so on for reasons, and it's illogical and unwise, in my opinion, to teach children to distort or disregard their true feelings rather than acknowledging those feelings and taking them into account when deciding how to act. (Not, of course, that a passing emotion should be the ONLY criterion for action; just that it should be, ideally, one piece of valid data among others.) Moreover, there's a difference between "fear" and "cowardice"; in equating the two, it seems to me Wollstonecraft is removing the possibility of courage, which I'd define as following through on a difficult action despite feeling afraid.

(And in passing, Wollstonecraft's aversion to instinct struck me as one of the strangest facets of the book. She denigrates it even to the point of arguing that animal instinct somehow doesn't reflect her God: "Thus [sensibility] is defined by Dr. Johnson, and the definition gives me no other idea than of the most exquisitely polished instinct. I discern not a trace of the image of God in either sensation or matter." Yet where else would it come from, given her own belief in an all-powerful creator Being? I realize that, for Enlightenment thinkers, the gift of reason is what elevates humans above animals, but surely a benevolent God wouldn't endow the animals with an outright malevolent quality? A very odd, if minor, point.)

Like most philosophers, then, Wollstonecraft takes certain positions with which I personally disagree; her feminism is, unsurprisingly, neither so radical nor so inclusive as that of certain more recent writers. Still, as an early, passionate step toward female equality, not to mention as a document of the tumultuous times (Wollstonecraft's argument is very tied up with the Republican rhetoric of democracy and equality which were giving rise to the American and French revolutions), Vindication of the Rights of Woman is an important and thought-provoking read, and one I'm glad to have in my repertoire.


I read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as part of the discussion over at A Year of Feminist Classics; thanks to Amy for leading this month's discussions. My timing may be off on some of my readalong posts in January because I have so many of them and they're all scheduled for month's end!

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography