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!

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman – Week #2

Week 2 of the Readalong spans chapters 4 & 5 on the topics “the state of degredation to which woman is reduced” and “writers who have rendered women objects of pity, bordering on contempt.”

It looks like I highlighted more quotes in these chapters than in all of the first part. I was especially impressed by chapter 5, where Wollstonecraft responds to opposing views, including those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Boy, she cuts him down to size (and reading what he wrote, I don’t blame her). 

I’m not sure I can put together a coherent summary of this section, so instead I’ll go straight to Ruth’s discussion questions (warning, LENGTHY post ahead!!):

Are any of Wollstonecraft’s ideas changing the way you think? Is there anything you disagree with, even some of her comments about minor details that I did not bring up? (She had some odd things to say about polygamy.)
Yeah, the polygamy comments in chapter 4 are… weird.  She quotes somebody named Forster who drew a correlation between polygamy and the ratio of males to females in a population (??).  I didn’t really get that one.

For the most part, though, I find myself nodding along with Wollstonecraft.  I’ve mentioned before, while reading Virginia Woolf, that I consider myself a very moderate feminist, critical of feminism as it is today, while believing men and women are more alike than unalike.  Most of the issues feminism stood for in the 18th century seem like no-brainers. 

Ruth, to your earlier question – where do masculine and feminine traits begin and end? … lately I’ve been reconsidering the related question of male/female roles.  It’s too vast and sticky a subject to delve into fully here, but FWIW, these are some of my current musings from a biblical perspective:

  • While both Adam and Eve sinned, Jesus is compared to Adam in the New Testament.  I think it’s significant that Paul makes a direct contrast between Adam’s failure and Jesus’s victory.  Is it possible there was a different level of responsibility between Adam and Eve?  And if so, is it role-based or trait-based, or both?  Would the difference be specific to those two individuals, or would it apply to humanity as a whole?
  • Men and women are both created in the image of God, so regardless of gender, there is a fundamental likeness to God and to each other.

I could go on, but in a nutshell: I’ve lately started to wonder if the differences (beyond biological) between male and female are greatly spiritual or metaphysical in nature.  Not as it pertains to salvation, of course (in which we are all equal), but in another way, which I’m finding hard to put into words…

Speaking of doctrine – I was really disturbed by Rousseau’s comments that women should meekly follow their mothers’, fathers’, and finally husbands’ religious doctrines without thinking for themselves – and his claim that God is ok with that!  (Ch. 5, Mary quoting his book Emile (1762))

Share a favorite quote.
There were SO many good ones, but this my very favorite:

Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by time. (Ch. 4)

One more, for good measure.  This is about society’s need for a good foundational structure, rather than heroes:

…the welfare of society is built not on extraordinary exertions; and were it more reasonably organized, there would still be less need of great abilities, or heroic virtues.

Prior to reading this work thus far, did you know anything about Jacques Rousseau? If so, what was your opinion about him before? Has it changed now? What works of his did you read? Would you be interested in reading anything by him in the future?
I first met Rousseau in 19th Century European History class, but I don’t remember if we read anything by him.  I just knew he was an influential figure in the socio-political movements of the 18th century.

I don’t recall learning he was a terrible misogynist, at least according to the bits Mary quotes.  Dude literally says:

…women have or ought to have, but little liberty; they are apt to indulge themselves excessively in what is allowed them. Addicted in every thing to extremes, they are even more transported in their diversions than boys. (Ch 5)

For all that…I will probably read something by Rousseau when I start my American Revolution reading focus.

What do you think of her argument that love (or lust, I think) diminishes in marriage and why equality should exist so that a woman is her husband’s friend, equal in ability to reason and discern?
Speaking purely from observation here… I think the best marriages are indeed the ones where it’s an equal partnership, including in intellect, and where the couple shares as many tasks as possible together (when it makes sense to do so).

As for love, romance, or lust, I have no idea…from what I’ve heard, it varies. But without friendship as a backbone to the relationship, it seems like passion would grow quickly stale.  Getting WAY out of my scope here.

I don’t think friendship in marriage is the sole reason for equality, but I can see why Mary made that argument – she was talking to a specific audience where marriage was pretty much expected of everyone.  However, as a single person and likely to remain so, I probably benefit as much (or even more) from the gender equality she was pushing for.  It makes me grateful I live now and not back then.

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!