Saturday, April 17, 2010

Book 1 of 15: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

If women are by nature inferior to men, their virtues must be the same in quality, if not in degree, or virtue is a relative idea; consequently, their conduct should be founded on the same principles and have the same aim. - Mary Wollstonecraft

I've wanted to read this book in its entirety for a long time. I read large excerpts of it in college, and last year, when I read Dorothy Sayers' "Are Women Human?", my desire to read Wollstonecraft was reignited, and I ordered my own copy.

It sat on my bookshelf till GirlDetective's 15 books in 15 days challenge, and now (after staying up way too late last night, perched on the top bunk in the kids' room next to a small sconce, 'cause we have no good bedside light in our bedroom, and we had a guest on the pull-out couch downstairs) I have read it.

It was good. The main thesis is - and you must remember that this was written over 200 years ago - that women are not as weak and devious as they seem due to their nature, but rather to their education. Wollstonecraft argues that even if women cannot be virtuous to the same degree as men, because they are also human beings their virtue must be of the same kind, and therefore they ought to be taught to use their reason (the exercise of reason, in her very Aristotelian view, leading to understanding, which will lead to virtue) just as men are taught to use theirs.

She also argues that this will not make them less womanly, but more, because they will then be fit to be good mothers and wives, capable of friendship with their husbands, capable of ordering their households and capable of educating their children. She argues that if the only education women receive is how to adorn and comport themselves to snare a husband, it is not a wonder that they are incapable of rising above trivial thoughts or infantile behavior. At the end of her books she says: 

. . . I have endeavoured to shew that private duties are never properly fulfilled unless the understanding enlarges the heart; and that public virtue is only an aggregate of private.

There were several things I found very interesting in the book, but one was that it became clear to me that her argument - which is, indeed, the basis for all other feminist arguments - is only possible because of her Christian worldview. It is, to be sure, a sort of Enlightenment Christianity, but the reason she is able to jump from Aristotle's view of reason leading to virtue leading to happiness for men to reason leading to virtue leading to happiness for mankind is because Christianity allows women to have immortal souls. Wollstonecraft, arguing against current moralists who argued that women need no more education that that which fits them for marriage, dryly observes:

How women are to exist in that state where  there is to be neither marrying nor giving in marriage, we are not told.

It's a good point, and well-made. 

It is also a point made over and over and over. She has one real argument, and spends two hundred pages trying to show how true it is from many points of view, using as many examples as she can muster. It's good public relations to make your point a hundred times rather than one, so that hopefully it gets through at least once, but it did make for slightly wearing reading after awhile.

Still, however much you might disagree on minor points here and there, I think any woman reading this - any woman with a college degree, any woman who enjoys her right to vote, any woman grateful for the equal protection of law - ought to make her polite curtsy to the shade of Mary Wollstonecraft. It's thanks to this brave and bright manifesto of hers that the conversation about the humanity of women really got started in modern times.

peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

ETA: A couple more quick notes:

-M. W. is pro-life and pro-breastfeeding*. Interesting both because it shows that those debates are not at all new and also because it points out the vast gulf between Wollstonecraft's feminism and modern feminism.

-M. W. advocates chastity (more of that gulf) - and advocates it for both women and men (the latter was the radical part in her day). This is more of the virtue-in-one-sex-being-virtue-in-the-other thing.

-Reading this book takes away the illusion, if the reader had it, that the good old days were good. Every age has its corruption: political, moral and otherwise. Her rant on education, not just of girls, but of children in general, was fascinating. It was also interesting to read some of her disdain for ostentation in government - things that I'd probably find picturesque if I visited England - things like horse-mounted guards at government offices.

*Modern feminism is usually pro-breastfeeding too, but theirs is a "if you wish to do it, you should certainly have the right to" whereas M. W.'s pro-breastfeeding viewpoint is more along the lines of "if you pass your child along to a wet nurse out of laziness or a desire to retain your sexual appeal, you are being a negligent mother." 


Girl Detective said...

How many pages was the book? I've wanted to read it since I read excerpts in grad school, and it blew me away that she and her husband had separate domiciles, which I thought was a great idea--more quiet! Less mess! No arguing over what show to watch!

I think it's fascinating that she's Mary Shelley's mother who went on to write Frankenstein, with its subtext of fear during pregnancy of childbirth/children.

Finally, I think there are a great many militant pro-breastfeeders out there, those who'll confront mothers who give their babies bottles in public why they're not breastfeeding them. This really bugged a friend of mine who'd adopted a baby.

Jessica said...

Girl Detective, I remember it only being about 200 pages (I've already reshelved it), but a very dense couple hundred pages. And it did make me want to give Frankenstein another crack; I've never quite made it all the way through.

And oh goodness, I can't believe anyone confronted your friend! That's awful. For one thing: her choice. But, for another: are they so ignorant that they'd never heard of adoption? Goodness. Hope they were embarrassed enough after talking to her not to try it on anyone else!