Book Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

After last year attempting to lay out my position as an egalitarian, but not a feminist, it seemed only fair to read some of the key texts in the latter movement. So where better to start than with a work which is widely regarded as one of the cornerstones in the genesis of feminism? Before I begin the review proper, though, I must say that I enjoy looking at the looks I get on public transport (for that is where I do the majority of my reading) from my fellow passengers when they see what I am reading. In this instance, it seemed to be mild surprise that a man in a suit in his early 30s would be reading a work of feminism from the late 18th century. Then they see that the hand in which I hold the book is ringless and there is a look of faint recognition there. I could speculate as to what they infer from that, but I shall leave that for you!

So how does Wollstonecraft’s argument go? Well, firstly, it is an argument. This is very much a piece of opinion, rather like an extended editorial in a modern newspaper. It is almost all reason and very little evidence. It is invective, rhetorical and written with great verve. She begins with a rather surprising admission: that women are the weaker sex. I know many women who can run faster and longer than I and who would have little trouble beating me in an arm wrestle. I also know many who would dispute Wollstonecraft’s claim.

She goes on to say that our entire society has progressed from this fairly innocuous factoid and drawn inferences from it that are unwarranted and incorrect, but that these form the educational and societal norms by which women are told that they are inherently different from the rest of humanity and therefore must suit different roles. This has been reinforced through education (or a lack thereof) and that something is needed to correct this unjust imbalance.

Her further analysis focuses on virtues. In her perception of society, some virtues are seen to desirable of men while a whole different sets of virtues were to be desirable of women. Wollstonecraft contends that the pursuit of virtue is inherently human and that the differences between the sexes are merely a matter of degree. In her crosshairs is the characteristic of coquettishness.

Her style of writing falls somewhere between the polemic and dialectic. The opening quarter of the book lays out the argument in summary with the remainder filling in the detail.

I think my main critique of this is consistent with my main critique of modern feminists: that being the Wollstonecraft contends that that those who disagree with her position are so because they are uneducated. Simple observation of feminists who are both highly educated and uneducated and non-feminists who are likewise educated and uneducated should be sufficient evidence to falsify this belief which persists as part of Wollstonecraft’s legacy.

Yet that word of caution should not be taken as a rejection of the treatise of the Wollstonecraft’s legacy as a whole. For something written in the 1790s, it comes across as a remarkably modern treatise, even if the vernacular hasn’t aged all that well. So whilst I might question some of the detail, the overall argument is sound and well worth heeding. If you’ve not read it, then I would encourage you to do so. The version I read was from the Penguin ‘Great Ideas’ series, which is a slight abridgement of the original text.

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