A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

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Upon my third dedicated attempt to read The Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft, I loved it! I was in the right mood to read it, and I gave myself a fixed block of time to get started in it.

However, since I finished reading it on my Kindle app for Android two weeks ago, I accidentally deleted all of the notes and markings I’d made as I read. I had not yet reviewed my notes or typed them out since I’d finished. Therefore, I am now rather stumped as to how to proceed in “reviewing” my impression of Wollstonecraft’s arguments, given that anything I say or quote now may not have been my original thoughts when I first finished reading the book.

This gives me further motivation to read the book again. Wollstonecraft’s prose is rather dense, and she is arguing against Rousseau’s comments and philosophies, which were unfamiliar to me. She seems to me to repeat herself. And yet, much of what Wollstonecraft argued resonated with me. I also loved her bits of sarcasm. Except, given her era, I’m certain she did not intend it to be funny. She’s completely serious.

My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their FASCINATING graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. (Author introduction)

As the title indicates, Wollstonecraft is essentially arguing for the rights of women: for them to be respected, to be given opportunities, and not to be treated like children, both in personal marriage relationships and in the public sphere. Her essay is a call for social reform.

Till women are more rationally educated, the progress in human virtue and improvement in knowledge must receive continual checks. (Ch. 3)

Should it be proved that woman is naturally weaker than man, from whence does it follow that it is natural for her to labour to become still weaker than nature intended her to be? (Ch. 3)

To be a good mother — a woman must have sense, and that independence of mind which few women possess who are taught to depend entirely on their husbands. Meek wives are, in general, foolish mothers; wanting their children to love them best, and take their part, in secret, against the father, who is held up as a scarecrow.  (Ch. 10)

I also really loved the blending of Christianity into her arguments. Because I too believe in God, I found the spiritual connections to be comforting, and I loved how it’s fully acceptable to assume people believe in God. This kind of a book could never be published today if it wasn’t a “religious” publisher, I don’t think.

Gracious Creator of the whole human race! hast thou created such a being as woman, who can trace thy wisdom in thy works, and feel that thou alone art by thy nature, exalted above her—for no better purpose? Can she believe that she was only made to submit to man her equal; a being, who, like her, was sent into the world to acquire virtue? Can she consent to be occupied merely to please him; merely to adorn the earth, when her soul is capable of rising to thee? And can she rest supinely dependent on man for reason, when she ought to mount with him the arduous steeps of knowledge? (Ch 4)

I love this. I too have felt my soul “rise toward God.” Wollstonecraft also must have, and living in an era when she as a woman was demeaned and disrespected was frustrating because she knew it didn’t add up. She, and all women, are more than “squirrels,” such as Ibsen’s Nora was treated. Wollstonecraft knew that no woman should be treated as such.

At any rate, one read of this long essay is certainly not enough. I’ll have to read it again in the future to expand on other insights, especially given that my own notes of this read were lost.

Vindication was the January selection for the Year of Feminist Classics.

Cover image above from the Modern Library edition. I read the text of the free public domain Project Gutenberg edition, as well as some in the Everyman’s edition.

Reviewed on March 24, 2011

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • That is crushing about losing all your notes! Gah!

    I think it’s really good to get an explicitly Christian voice added to the discussion on Wollstonecraft, Rebecca, since it seems so many of us posting about her over at the Year of Feminist Classics blog are atheists, agnostics, or of non-Judeo-Christian religious leanings. I find her arguments compelling despite rather than because of their basis in religious faith, but I can imagine how those aspects of Vindication would really resonate with someone who shares her engaged Christianity. It’s good to have that impression reinforced through your post.

    I do think she probably intended quotes like the above to be a *bit* funny. In a biting, serious way – I mean, she’s not joking, but she is using wit to make her opponents’ points / common practice seem worthy of ridicule, and of her audience’s laughter.

    • Emily » I did find it interesting just how many of the respondents came at the text with a non-religious or atheist perspective. It just resonated so much with me because of the religion!.

      I’m glad to know that Wollstonecraft was intending to be “funny” to some extent. She certainly has a bite, that’s for sure.

  • I read this fairly recently for English Literature coursework, and I was really struck by how…modern some of Wollstonecraft’s arguments are. For instance, when she argues that women can only be expected to commit adultery because they have never had any education is really interesting. Plus, the way she totally bashes some pretty important philosopher’s is really quite brave.

  • I enjoyed her snarkiness throughout the book too. I think that the density of her thoughts as well as the consistent references to texts I have not read was a bit to slog through; but she kept it entertaining the whole time, so I didn’t mind the serious brainwork.

    • Trisha » A slog was how I’d have described it after my first two attempts, but third time was the charm for me, as I said. I think I really enjoyed the serious brainwork that last time.

  • I’m so glad you came to love this essay!

    Because I too believe in God, I found the spiritual connections to be comforting, and I loved how it’s fully acceptable to assume people believe in God.

    Yes, I felt the same.

    I agree: this cannot possibly be read just once. There’s too much to take in.

    I’m reading Rousseau, Paine and Pope, too — to see the counter arguments and essays from her era.

    • Jillian » I certainly don’t have the energy to read Rousseau. I think I’d be really mad at him. But yes, I certainly look forward to revisiting Wollstonecraft some day! So much in there.

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