This blog post is part of my ongoing “60 Books in 60 Days” encounter with the Penguin Great Ideas series. From mid-December to mid-February, I will read one book in the series each night and post a blog entry about it the next morning. For more on this beautifully designed series, visit Penguin’s page about the books.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women
by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
“I may be accused of arrogance; still I must declare what I firmly believe, that all the writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners, from Rousseau to Dr Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters than they would otherwise have been; and consequently, more useless members of society. I might have expressed this conviction in a lower key, but I am afraid it would have been the whine of affectation, and not the faithful expression of my feelings, of the clear result which experience and reflection have led me to draw…My objection extends to the whole purport of those books, which tend, in my opinion, to degrade one-half of the human species, and render women pleasing at the expense of every solid virtue.
Appealing to both the heart and the head, A Vindication… is a stirring refutation of various rationales for inequality while putting forth the arguments for equality.
Exasperation and a defiant weariness walk hand-in-hand in A Vindication. They come from the same source: having to unravel centuries of Man’s injustice toward and subjugation of women, in both a physical and mental sense, and thus to win through to a place of equality.
It’s a complicated knot to cut through, as even this one quote reveals: “Riches and hereditary honours have made ciphers of women to give consequence to the numerical figure; and idleness has produced a mixture of gallantry and despotism into society, which leads the very men who are the slaves of their mistresses to tyrannize over their sisters, wives, and daughters. This is only keeping them in rank and file, it is true. Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience; but as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a plaything. The sensualist, indeed, has been the most dangerous of tyrants, and women have been duped by their lovers, as princes by their ministers, whilst dreaming that they reigned over them.”
I imagine women living in those times, and as some live today, feeling as if they are another species–that they are aliens exiled to some hostile place, forced to abide by local customs codifying their inferiority. But I cannot imagine what that feels like–what it feels like to be constrained in that way. It would be enough, I think, to drive a person mad.
Throughout A Vindication, then, Wollstonecraft is clearing the weeds, hacking a path through a jungle–a jungle often indirectly of Rousseau’s making. Time and again she quotes or alludes to Rousseau and his views on liberty, until it seems clear that because of Rousseau’s general sensibilities, Wollstonecraft feels betrayed by him–betrayed by his inability to apply the same freedoms to her gender that he so easily bestows upon his own. Whereas, with an opponent such as Dr Gregory, there is nothing but contempt in her tone, and rightly so. It is one thing to confront someone who is ignorant, another to confront someone you respect who should know better and yet still marginalizes you.
This betrayal is not an easy thing to talk about, and something that I haven’t discussed in my other readings except by quick reference or footnote. It’s simply this: that in many of these classics, the reader must edit out prejudicial comments or attitudes toward Jews, gays and lesbians, and women. In Marcus Aurelius this might be an off-hand comment. In another writer, it might be more embedded in the narrative.
Thus the care Wollstonecraft must take in refuting claims about women by philosophers and thinkers who may, in many of their other ideas, project real wisdom, if only we can dis-entangle it the thoughtlessness also found there. It’s two steps forward, one step back throughout her arguments, and if her prose is at times convoluted, it is because the subject is convoluted and at times insanely complex.
I can only imagine what it must have felt like to Wollstonecraft as she wrote this book. To be both in a box, hemmed in, and to be fighting one’s way out of it…only to win through by dint of one’s own logical arguments, and then have to suffer through the weight of public opinion, which could not, in some quarters, have been favorable.
I tried again to imagine just how much it might have meant to a woman of those times to read this book and I failed. I tried then to think of what the book should mean now, in these modern times, and felt much of the same weight.
Most of this book still applies today, as the rights of women recede in conservative times and expand in more liberal times. Today, in the United States, in a celebrity and body obsessed culture, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman remains vitally relevant.
Question for Readers
What daily, constant inequality do you face and how does it affect you?
Next up, William Hazlitt’s On the Pleasures of Hating…