Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of those books that I’ve always wanted to read but never got around to. It had been sitting untouched on my bookshelf for years. Although it was written about a century before the word “feminism” entered the lexicon, it is often hailed as a feminist classic. It is, in fact, the first book to kick of the Year of Feminist Classics reading project taking place throughout 2011, which I’ll be participating in as much as possible.
Wollstonecraft’s main argument in Vindications is that women should be properly educated in order to properly fulfill their duties as wives and mothers. In laying out her arguments, she criticizes the double standards between men and women in society. She is particularly critical of the ways women of her time were infantilized at every stage in their lives and made to be entirely dependent on their husbands regarding even the simplest decisions.
I had a love-hate relationship with this book. The edition I own is extremely bare-bones, and aside from three pages of “Notes” that gave a brief history on Wollstonecraft, I had to just jump right in. It took me for-e-ver to to get through Wollstonecraft’s dry introduction. Once I got more into the first chapter, however, something in my mind just clicked, and I devoured the first four chapters in one sitting. I think I was most surprised by the humor in her writing–Wollstonecraft occasionally makes sarcastic remarks to punctuate her arguments, and I enjoyed seeing this side of her personality.
That being said, the book is far from perfect. Wollstonecraft had originally intended the book to be the first in a set of volumes, but she died before the other volumes were written. As a result, the book doesn’t have a true conclusion. She is also repetitive, prone to going off on tangents, and sometimes contradicts herself. The book, thin as it is, could have benefited from quite a bit of editing. By the time I was a couple of pages into the fifth chapter, my eyes started to glaze over, and I never regained the same interest I’d initially had because of all the repetition. (As a matter of fact, finishing the book became a painful task that I reluctantly trudged through.)
Wollstonecraft also bases her arguments on God. Judging from a few fellow atheists’ response posts, this was a major turn off that rendered her arguments null. Personally, it wasn’t as big a deal to me, considering the time and the context in which the book was written. I know there were atheists at the time–in fact, she criticizes them in the book–but my response was more, “*eyeroll* Typical.” than anything else.
For me, the one truly unforgivable offense was Wollstonecraft’s classism. Initially, she plainly ignores the working class and disregards the elite:
I pay particular attention to those in the middle class, because they appear to be in the most natural state. Perhaps the seeds of false refinement, immorality, and vanity, have ever been shed by the great…the education of the rich tends to render them vain and helpless.
Throughout the book, however, she makes random unflattering remarks regarding the working class. In a passage on virtue and modesty, for instance, she writes:
[T]hough I should be sorry to contaminate an innocent creature’s mind by instilling false delicacy, or those indecent prudish notions, which early cautions respecting the other sex naturally engender, I should be very anxious to prevent their acquiring nasty, or immodest habits; and as many girls have learned very nasty tricks, from ignorant servants, the mixing them thus indiscriminately together, is very improper.
The passage I thought most reeked of classism was this one, where she describes why middle class women are best suited for education:
Raised sufficiently above abject poverty not to be obliged to weigh the consequence of every farthing they spend, and having sufficient to prevent their attending to a frigid system of economy, which narrows both the heart and mind. I declare, so vulgar are my conceptions, that I know not what is wanted to render this the happiest as well as the most respectable situation in the world, but a taste for literature, to throw a little variety and interest into social converse, and some superfluous money to give to the needy and to buy books.
When I read these passages, I was tempted to lump Wollstonecraft’s arguments as yet another example of feminism’s fraught history of classism (among other -isms). But this would be problematic as well: Wollstonecraft wasn’t a feminist. It’s obvious why this book is considered a feminist classic, but as I mentioned earlier, “feminism” didn’t exist for another hundred years, and certainly not in the way it’s recognized today. If Wollstonecraft were to travel through time, I daresay she might even be horrified at the current state of feminism — Let’s face it: how many of you self-identified feminists out there would make the cut as Virtuous Women? I know I wouldn’t!
So Long a Letter by Senegalese author Mariama Bâ was the other YOFC reading selection this month. I put in an ILL request, but unfortunately, it still hasn’t arrived. I do plan to read it when I get it, though.
The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill is the February selection. If you want to join in, you can get a free copy of the ebook through Project Gutenberg, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.