A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Week #3

Week 3 of the Readalong covers chapters 6–11 which deal with early childhood, concepts of modesty vs humility, a woman’s reputation, class differences, and parent-child relationships.  Whew!  In all seriousness, though, while I personally would have chosen a narrower scope for such a book, I admire Mary’s willingness to take on a broad range of subjects and deal with each one in some detail.

I think my biggest takeaway from the book thus far is how much it puts into context Jane Austen’s work (and, no doubt, her contemporaries’).  After an Austen phase in my tweens, I later became disenchanted with her stories, finding (frankly) not much in them which seemed relevant to my life.  However, if I had any doubt before what “sensibility” means or whether Anne Elliot’s odious relatives were true to life, those doubts have been dispelled by reading Vindication. In fact, for the first time, I earnestly want to re-read Jane Austen, because everything makes sense now, and I think I could appreciate her novels more. 

Again, like Austen’s novels, Mary’s treatise still doesn’t seem entirely relevant to modern day.  But viewed historically, it’s pretty fascinating.

Answers to discussion questions:

1. Have you found any differences of opinions, yet?

Sometimes I’m not sure where she stands on the whole question of class.  On the one hand, she seems pretty adamant against distinctions based on birth and wealth, and argues (understandably) that those who rely on privilege to get by are hurting themselves as much as the commoners.  Then in chapter 9 she make a distinction between “women in the common walks of life…called to fulfill the duties of wives and mothers” versus “women of a superior cast” who she would like to see in positions of power, such as government and medicine.  I don’t know if it’s something lost in translation (of centuries) or if she could have elaborated more, but it seems a little contradictory to put women into two buckets like that.

2. What do you think about her ideas in parenting? She believed that natural parental affection was more like self-worship. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Not having been a parent, it’s not really in my purview.  If I were a parent, I would teach a child to trust and obey me while they were still too young to understand the situation – “blind obedience” in Mary’s words.  However, as soon as they were old enough to understand, I would certainly spend the most effort on helping them learn to reason things out and fully understand why rules exist and how they are helpful.  Which is, I think, what she is getting at.

From what I’ve observed, parents who pursue a “blind obedience” policy don’t necessarily do it out of ego, so I’m not sure about “self-worship”…perhaps in some extreme cases.  I think what usually happens is the parent thinks their experience will, in every instance, completely correlate to their child’s life and experiences, so they will takes rules from their own childhood and apply them to their child’s life without necessarily re-examining the context. 

In a digital age, this can actually be dangerous, because there are so many new possible experiences for children that didn’t exist previously.  So while implementing one specific rule, a parent may be missing out on another piece of the equation.  I feel a better approach would be to identify core principles and teach your child how to apply them to any situation.

*takes off the parenting hat*

3. Do you agree with the author’s remarks on modesty, chastity, or discretion? Why or why not?

I really liked Mary’s take on modesty, especially in this quote: “Modesty must be equally cultivated by both sexes…” (Ch 7)

In some social circles, the onus (at least sartorially) is entirely on women to be modest.  Mary rightly observes it’s a two-way street, though she is talking mostly about attitude and behavior.  She calls out men who “stare insultingly at every female they meet,” what I imagine to be the 18th-century equivalent of catcalling.  Sad to say that two hundred years later, some of us can still recount experiences of being rudely addressed or even touched by a stranger, no matter how modest in appearance or behavior we were.

I was also interested by her comments on girls at boarding schools, who were being raised with a lack of privacy when sleeping, washing, etc. Mary believed “girls ought to be taught to wash and dress alone…” (Ch 7)  I may be biased, being a very private person by nature, but I completely agree.  (My mom told me that when she was growing up, communal showers after PE were mandatory…ick!)

Overall, though there is some repetition, I’m finding a lot of gems in the book.  I’m looking forward to finishing it this week!