A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Week #1

Finally reading this classic that’s been on my list so long!

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797)

My Gutenberg edition began with a brief biography of the author.  She had an interesting but tragic life:

  • Apparently her father was very overbearing (“a despot,” according to the biography) and unkind to her mother.
  • Mary didn’t receive anything in the way of higher education, but a good friend of hers, Frances Blood, appears to have helped her along in her early adult life.  They set up a school together where Mary worked as a teacher.
  • Her first writing success appears to have been a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  Burke wrote against the French Revolution; Mary’s publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, was pro-republican.  
  • It seems like her success with this piece was what gave her the impetus to take on none other than Jean-Jacques Rousseau (or “J. J. Rousseau” as she calls him… I got a kick out of that) in her follow-up book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
  • At some point after Frances married and moved away, Mary fell in love with an American businessman, Gilbert Imlay, and had a child with him. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as committed to her as she was to him, and eventually left her and the child.  Depressed, Mary tried to commit suicide twice, but was rescued both times.
  • Later, she met and married the philosopher William Godwin.  She died shortly after the birth of her second child, Mary Godwin, who would grow up to become Mary Shelley.  
  • I read on Wikipedia that the first daughter, Fanny, became very depressed as a young woman. It’s not really known if it was because of her stepmother (William Godwin remarried), her jealousy of her sisters (who had run away with Percy Shelley), or some other reason.  She committed suicide at 22.

    Readalong Discussion

    Week 1 of the Readalong covered Wollstonecraft’s Dedication and Introduction, plus Chapters I–III.  I feel like she came out swinging (in a good way!), and I was quite impressed by this opening.

    Share a favorite argument or idea – maybe ones I have not mentioned. Has society changed in this area? How is it still the same? Is this something that still needs work, or do you disagree with the author?

    There were so many ideas in just this first part.  Some that jumped out to me were:

    Women’s treatment in the 18th century can be compared to that of hereditary monarchs.  That is, if people are reverenced merely due to some innate quality or “arbitrary power” (Ch. 2) – being female, or being the offspring of a king – they’re more likely to lean too heavily on those traits and fail to develop their talents and virtues.

    • As a generalization, that seems plausible.  Why bother to earn greatness if it’s already on your plate?
    • In American society today, I would say we’re well out of this particular danger zone.

    Women’s education & rights will make them equal partners, reducing the likelihood of adulteries for both parties (“Dedication”).

    Beyond physical differences/abilities and different “duties” (Ch. 3, duties not elaborated), her gist seems to be that men and woman should take the same approach to developing their minds and virtues.

    • I’m somewhere on the same page as her. Personally, I don’t believe men and women are different mentally, which is (in my opinion) not mutually exclusive with my Christian belief that there are some differences in approved roles. 

    Women should be treated equally so they do not become wholly dependent on men, thereby putting their husband above God.  “…let them attain conscious dignity by feeling themselves only dependent on God” (Ch 2.)

    • This is something I relate to very strongly.  I think Paul’s warning that marriage can distract you from God (1 Cor. 7:34) is related to what she’s talking about here.  A healthy marriage of equals is going to put that in a better perspective.
    • It makes me grateful to live in the 21st-century. I can only imagine how stressful it would have been to live in an age when the husband had all the rights.  In the case of a bad husband, I can see a wife doing almost anything to appease him so she wouldn’t lose her children.

    Share your favorite quote(s).
    Mary compares soldiers in standing armies to typical 18th-century women:

    …both acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life before they have from reflection, an acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature…they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority. (Ch. 2)

    She elaborates on this analogy at length. I kept thinking of Lydia and Wickham from Pride and Prejudice!

    What are some of the challenges you find with reading this work? Are you able to follow her arguments? What do you think of her writing style?

    Mary is a pretty good writer, though repetitive at times.  The main challenge is, it feels like reading about a different world.  I feel a lot of sympathy for the women she’s talking about, but it’s hard to empathize because it’s so far removed from the current situation.

    Add your own opinion. What do you think overall, so far?

    My sense is she’s talking about her parents in a lot of what she’s saying.  In spite of her passionate writing, it gives a sad tone to the book.  It also seems she struggled with adhering to her own beliefs, given her relationship with Imlay and how she wanted to end her life after his rejection.

    She covered a lot of ground in the first chapters, so I’ll be very interested to see where she goes from here!