It will come as a surprise to none people that Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published 1792, was too dense for me to finish. I started reading it in January as the first of my self-imposed book club of one focusing on an extremely selective few feminist tomes from the Western cannon and two books on American capitalism. I got about halfway through and, honestly, I’m enjoying it. I’m also ready to let it go and move on. I like Wollstonecraft’s style: it’s kind of like a Twitter take-down, but 18th century. I knew a lot of it would be Problematic, but that’s one of the parts that was so intriguing. In one sentence Wollstonecraft is exclaiming the rights of women to be educated alongside men but in the next she is denouncing anything Feminine as amoral.
“[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.”
― Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
It’s important to clarify that while Wollstonecraft’s work is considered one of the first of feminist philosophy in the West, it’s anachronistic to call her A Feminist. “Feminism” wasn’t coined until the 1890s and it’s uncertain whether Wollstonecraft would have even had the vocabulary available to her to describe herself thusly. Nevertheless, it’s wonderful to see the foundations of Feminist thought being explored.
“But women are very differently situated with respect to eachother – for they are all rivals (…) Is it then surprising that when the sole ambition of woman centres in beauty, and interest gives vanity additional force, perpetual rivalships should ensue? They are all running the same race, and would rise above the virtue of morals, if they did not view each other with a suspicious and even envious eye.”Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
I learned a lot while reading A Vindication of the Rights of Women including:
- Mary Wollstonecraft, an Englishwoman, wrote this during the French Revolution as a response to a French politician with an unpronounceable name who gave a speech stating women should receive only a domestic education. It is foremost an argument that women have the same right as men to an education, as they are not naturally inferior to men, and should be treated as rational beings.
- She wrote it hurriedly and fired off her hand-written papers to the printing press. Imagine the ink still drying as they set the type. This led to a lot of run-on sentences and tangents but added passion and urgency. Wollstonecraft herself said she wasn’t happy with the first copy and later edited it.
- Women and men are never explicitly described as “equals” in the work, rather, they’re described as being, “equal in the eyes of God,” and therefore subject to the same moral law.
- The Rights of Woman was not reviled when it was published, as it and its author would later be after the publishing of Wollstonecraft’s Memoir written by her widower. Due to the revelatory nature of the work – outlining Wollstonecraft’s unorthodox lifestyle – it would ruin her reputation for a century.
- There are many passages which, to the 21st century feminist, read as textbook internalized misogyny. While Wollstonecraft’s rallying cry is that women only seem inferior to men because they lack an equal education, it is clear that Masculinity is nevertheless considered superior to Femininity.
I’m a month behind what I set for myself, but that’s okay! It’s my book club of one. Up next is audre lorde’s short collection of essays and speeches, Sister Outsider, from 1984. Buckle-up for some cultural feminist theory whiplash.