Jan 13, 2011

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

Originally published in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is, as Miriam Brody put it, “the first sustained argument for female emancipation based on a cogent ethical system”. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is also one of the January choices for The Year of Feminist Classics. There have already been several interesting (and very diverse) responses to the book by many participants: Amy at our group blog, Iris, Emily, Violet or Jillian, just to give you a few examples. To my delight, these posts have instigated plenty of lively and intelligent comments. What I’m about to do here, then, is not so much review Wollstonecraft’s book as it is attempt to join the conversation. What other readers have been saying on their blogs, on Twitter, in comments, in e-mails to me, and so on has shaped my own reading of the book. This, by the way, is exactly the kind of communal reading experience I was hoping The Year of Feminist Classics would be all about – so thank you all.

It’s probably difficult for a modern feminist to read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman without experiencing some frustration. With the benefit of hindsight, Wollstonecraft’s inconsistencies, failings and limitations absolutely jump at us, while her radical arguments are ones we can mostly afford to take for granted. The problematic aspects of the book are many: there is, first of all, the fact that she says from the very beginning that she’ll focus only on middle-class women, and thus glosses over the whole issue of class (Miriam Brody’s introduction, however, draws from her other writings to paint a picture far more nuanced than mere indifference). Then there are the frequent depreciating references to Atheism or to Islam; her harshness when it comes to other women, which sometimes borders on contempt; her emphasis on motherhood as a woman’s main calling; the fact that at times she doesn’t seem to be moving far away enough from gender essentialism, etc.

All of these are things that occasionally grated on me, and they’re valid reasons to feel frustrated with the book. But as I read on, I kept reminding myself not to throw away the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. I don’t want to be dismissive of either Wollstonecraft herself or of the ways in which her work is problematic in a contemporary context. But as obvious as her limitations seem now, it sincerely amazes me that she went as far as she did. Can you imagine a world in which the mere idea that women might not be intellectually inferior had hardly been articulated before? A world in which the simple suggestion that women might, in fact, be human beings was new, daring, and radical?

I suppose this is what they call taking the context into account, but I want to pause for a moment to examine what this means, exactly. I don’t like it when this phrase or an equivalent is used to silence discussions on problematic issues surrounding race, class, gender or sexual orientation in older books. To me, having these conversations is what taking the context into account is all about. I find it fascinating to attempt to use literature to make sense of how these issues were felt, dealt with, or omitted in a particular historical and social context. To explore these things is rewarding, enlightening, and just plain fun.

In the case of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, taking the context into account means noting and discussing Wollstonecraft’s apparent contempt of other women, her omission of class, her ideas on rationality versus “instinct”, and so on. But it also means that I’m not as disappointed by her limitations as I would be if I were reading a modern book. What’s obvious now might not have been so then, and breaking away from dominant modes of thinking (even if one small step at a time) always seems much easier in retrospect. It’s only natural to wish that Wollstonecraft had gone further than she does, but I have to wonder if in her place I would have gone that far at all.

The last thing I want to do is sound like I’m attempting to silence other reader’s responses, even if they’re anger, frustration and disappointment. I find them both perfectly valid and very interesting to read. What I’m trying to do here is to say what my personal response to Wollstonecraft was, rather than prescribe How the Book Ought to Be Read. Personally I felt a lot of sympathy for Wollstonecraft: she came across as a highly intelligent woman stuck in a world that barely acknowledged her right to exist; a passionate (yes), angry, occasionally sarcastic woman who was simply suggesting that women might be human beings too rather than living dolls, and trying her best to ensure she would be heard. Her limitations or inconsistencies may have sometimes frustrated me, but they didn’t make me like or respect her any less.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman might not be an example of modern feminism, but it’s one of the places where it began. To quote from Brody’s excellent introduction again:
Before Wollstonecraft, there were works suggesting the reform of female manners, but there was no single-minded criticism of the social and economic system which created a double standard of excellence for male and female and relegated women to an inferior status.
LifetimeReader said in a comment, “It is almost easier to read her as a historical source.” I agree with this, in the sense that in some ways this is more of a book on the history of feminism than a feminist book as we understand the term today. But at the same time, I see a lot here that is still relevant nowadays. Women are still expected to behave as decorative objects to a large extent, for example. And there are many ways in which prevailing expectations of helplessness and incompetence lead to exactly that (more on that when I review Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender, and no, I won’t be able to shut up about that book for a while).

Furthermore, I found Wollstonecraft’s belief that romantic love shouldn’t be a woman’s main preoccupation in life very interesting. She says this in the context of a problematic dichotomy between reason and passion (on which more soon), and of an even more problematic emphasis on motherhood as a woman’s True Calling. But in our day and age, I still find value in the idea that to expect romantic love to be the one thing at the centre of our lives is to invite unhappiness and disappointment. The idea that the best relationships are the ones in which both partners lead social, intellectual and emotional lives of their own is by no means new today, but the extent to which it has leaked into pop culture still seems to me to be limited at best.

Then there’s the issue of gender essentialism, which is a big preoccupation of mine. It’s true that Mary Wollstonecraft wanders away from essentialism but doesn’t seem to break free from it completely – and yet, as Clare so well put it:
The idea of feminine as inferior being so socialized into these women that a progressive woman had to be like a man—a conception of conflated sex and gender without absolutely no middle ground at all. (God, gender binaries are frightening!)
Or, to quote Jillian, “Every little bit helps, I reckon.” I don’t think Wollstonecraft believes that what she calls “masculine virtues” are masculine by definition, for example, even if she does use that term. Her conviction is that women can share these virtues, which are human rather than male, if only they’re educated to the same standards as men. She gives several examples, including the one of soldiers, whose education she thought was lacking in the same way as women’s. Taking that into account she asks, “Where is then the sexual difference, when the education has been the same? All the difference that I can discern arises from the superior advantage of liberty, which enables the former to see more of life.”

Or to put it differently, “It cannot be demonstrated that woman is essentially inferior to man because she has always been subjugated.” I cannot find it in me to resent Wollstonecraft for seemingly taking the possibility of inferiority seriously when I consider everything she’s breaking away from. To be honest, she actually sounds far less tentative in her suggestions that I would have expected anyone to sound at this time.

Returning to the fact that she often sounds contemptuous of other women, I think it’s the social construct of Woman that she resents rather than other women themselves: Woman as a sweet, gentle, and above all beautiful creature in need of protection. But of course, as the women who were socialised into this construct and thus came to embody it were real living breathing human beings, the two are not always so easy to separate. So yes, her hostility remains somewhat problematic. But I think it’s only because she believed these women to be capable of much more – because she did in fact reject essentialism and believe them to be fully human – than she sounds so harsh and frustrated.

One final problem I wanted to address is the whole issue of passion versus reason. To quote Brody yet again,
In requiring that reason and passion could not inhabit the same conceptual space, Wollstonecraft bequeathed to her intellectual descendants a troubling dichotomy, and not one the readers of her passionate letters to Gilbert Imlay would ever have imagined that she herself believed in.
There are two issues at stake here: one is the fact that I believe the dichotomy to be false; the second is that, to put it simply, Wollstonecraft herself did not practice what she preached. The latter is one that several readers have been reacting to quite strongly, and understandably so. Even if you happen to believe, as I do, that a work should be separated from its author and that biographical approaches are fraught with dangers, it’s hard to simply disregard any inconsistencies of which we know once we do know about them. But as an occasionally inconsistent person myself, I’m having trouble casting the first stone. I love how Emily put it: “It seems to me that if we waited for a 100% consistent person before we respected them as a philosopher, the philosophy shelves would be mighty empty.”

Yet as much as I try not to judge her harshly, the fact remains that Wollstonecraft herself often sounds quite judgemental of women who were carried away by passion or who failed to live up to what she believed was their potential. I wonder, though, about the extent to which this relates to early feminism’s long history of desexualising women – Victorian feminists in particular were almost obsessively concerned with Respectability, because they knew that to deviate from established sexual norms would draw attention away from all their other arguments and undermine their efforts. When sexuality was at all involved, it apparently became the only thing anyone could think about.

Brody suggests that Wollstonecraft was writing in a context in which “a woman who wrote and wanted to be taken seriously, therefore, must disguise this monstrosity [femaleness itself] as much as possible by blurring the seams of her sexual difference”. She therefore “…has not quite rejected passion to reclaim reason, but has repressed it.” I find that Wollstonecraft shies away from sexuality far less than the Victorians did – she does confront the double standards of her time, after all – but even so, there are many reasons why I still find this argument compelling.

The whole issue of respectability, of having to struggle to be taken seriously as a writer or an intellectual being at all, was no small concern; nor was it something that an eighteenth-century woman could easily choose to shrug off. The best example I can think of is actually what Amy brought up at the group blog: the fact that the way A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was read changed as more details of Wolstonecraft’s private life became widely known, and that it took until the twentieth century for her reputation to recover. Considering this, I don’t find it all that surprising that she would play down the role of passion in women’s lives in her writing, even if not in her personal life.

I apologise for the length of this post, but there’s one last thing I wanted to say: Violet mentioned that Vindication was frustrating to read because it often felt that we were only getting one side of a conversation. Wollstonecraft wrote in response to several philosophers and pamphlet writers of her time, and not being familiar with them can sometimes mean we can’t fully follow her arguments. I felt the same myself, and I think I’d have benefited immensely from a deeper knowledge of eighteen-century politics and philosophy in general, and of the American and French evolutions in particular. But the detailed Miriam Brody introduction I kept quoting from helped me a lot in this regard, so if you have the chance to get a hold of it, it’s definitely worth it. It’s more of a historical introduction than one that tells you how the book ought to be read, which I appreciated.

I’m not going to link to other reviews as I normally do - instead I’ll point you again towards the Year of Feminist Classics blog, where Amy will be doing link round-ups and posting further discussion question. But of course, I’d still love to hear what you all have to say. And if anyone wants to argue with me about any of these points, please feel absolutely free to.

27 comments:

  1. I actually find it quite interesting to read feminist classics which were not written in our time because it shows what it must have been like to live then. I know it would be frustrating to read, nevertheless it shows how much progress has been made and also how much still needs to be done. I haven't read this yet, but I'm definitely going to at some point:) Love your post Ana!

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  2. I've only read selections from this, but I'm really enjoying the dialogue from this group on it. It can be so difficult to understand that what we now take for granted was once so radical it was hard for people to articulate. I really enjoyed this, Ana, especially the exploration of her problematic language towards other women.

    She gives several examples, including the one of soldiers, whose education she thought was lacking in the same way as women’s.

    I wrote a paper on this for my Austen class, heh.

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  3. I think that what with all the author's prejudices against those of other classes, and even other women in general (!!) that I would find this book to be a little smug at times. I admire you for being able to see through all that, because as a reader, I often take these little things to heart, and the color my perception of the whole. This book seems like it would be an interesting, if difficult read for me, and I am glad to have read your opinions on it. Thanks for the very perceptive thoughts.

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  4. I do say, so many of my thoughts upon reading this have been really jumbled and confused, but I see them reflected in your amazingly straightforward and coherent post! Thanks for writing this, it really helped me make sense of some things :)

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  5. I've been going through Vindication slowly ... I keep rereading and summarizing passages to myself to understand where she was coming from. I get frustrated and then I find she makes some really good points and then she says something that has me questioning again.

    So I like what you say about going through this in context, which can be very difficult based on some of the comments she makes.

    I don't have the Brody version of this book, but I do have a nice copy with footnotes which help a lot. The copy I have also has a critique by Virginia Woolf at the end which I am dying to read, but want to finish the book before I read it.

    I think after reading your blog I will go back to Wollstonecraft with a little less judgement and keep on going through it.

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  6. Sakura: Yes, I absolutely agree. And I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

    Clare: I bet it was an awesome paper :D

    Zibilee: I honestly didn't think she was prejudiced against women - it's just that she so very hostile to the way femininity had been socially constructed (a way which is less different from how it's constructed today than we might have hoped for, I might add) that she very often sounded... well, furious. It can be difficult to read her sometimes, especially when she turns her anger to real human brings, but at the same time I see her point.

    Emily Jane: I'm glad you found my post helpful! I'm indebted to you in return, and to everyone else who has been commenting over at the project blog.

    dragonfly419: I understand your frustration, and there were many passages that also had me shaking my head. But I tried not to let them take away from the ones I found insightful and still relevant today. I'm very curious about that Virginia Woolf essay included in your edition! I wonder if I could find it somewhere

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  7. Sometimes it is difficult to understand a viewpoint from the past and agree with you that discussing that viewpoint and its context is very important.

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  8. The Woolf essay (I assume it's the same one, from the Common Reader) stresses something that I think is really good to keep in mind, which is that Wollstonecraft's own philosophy grew and changed a lot over the course of her short life, and that some of the inconsistencies vis-a-vis her own behavior may be more a matter of her changing her mind, or admitting one experiment a failure and trying something different, than of her being a hypocrite. Woolf writes:

    Every day too—for she was no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist—something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and forced her to model them afresh.

    I find this malleability a reason to admire her, rather than a reason to deride her; I would distrust a philosopher who could not or would not adjust their theories to reflect a growing body of life experience. And conversely, if one waits until the end of one's life to write one's grand philosophical treatise, it's too late and one is dead. :-P

    I agree with you that all these issues—class, essentialism, religion, contempt toward women—are definitely worth discussing. On the other hand, I'm also feeling like they're the only conversation we're having, which is a bit frustrating to me personally given that so many issues Wollstonecraft raises are still relevant today and explicitly part of modern feminism: the way women are taught to act sillier and weaker than they really are in order to attract men; the social assumption that women operate solely on emotion and are devoid of intellect; that women who deviate from the stereotype of softness and gentleness are somehow "unsexed" (or, in modern parlance, butch dykes).

    I'm definitely not trying to shut anyone down. On the other hand I think there's a lot of meat on these sometimes-frustrating bones. :-)

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  9. Kathy: Agreed!

    Emily: Those are all excellent posts, and I agree with you that there's plenty here that is still relevant - and also that Wollstonecraft having changed over the course of her life is no reason to deride her! The downside of the conversational approach I adopted here is that I ended up responding to the points everyone else has been making and ignoring those other aspects of the book that are very much worth discussing. But! I know Amy means to post more discussion points later in the month, and I think this would be a great direction in which to take things (if she wants to, of course - not trying to boss you around, Amy :P).

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  10. I actually have not started reading Vindication yet (my hopes are to this weekend) but am super stoked because I !!!!! just !!!!! found my college copy with notes of what I wrote back in my early twenties. That should prove to be mighty interesting!

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  11. Wow, I have no idea how to respond to this review, really, as there is so much tackled in it! I think it's a good idea to view this book as a historical text, but it also might be limiting it. I think oftentimes, people will read something from another era that upsets them or grates on them and then say something about "historical context" as though that is an excuse for any dissonance between modern-day "accepted" thinking and the past. I am so glad you bring that up in your post. I feel by just referring to things in their "historical context," people take away the radicalism of a thought, the true racism of a belief and the bigotry that often existed in the past.

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  12. Excellent post as always, Ana. Personally I admire Wollstonecraft--no, she wasn't perfect, but I think she was an independent thinker and lived her life in accordance with her beliefs as much as her culture would allow. We all have to struggle with what our society tells us we should be and our own identity; I don't think anyone reflects that better than Wollstonecraft.

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  13. PS to the above comment: I wrote it when I was hungry and cranky, so I apologize if some of that rubbed off into the comment! I liked your post a lot & my frustration is a) not directed at you in particular, and b) minor compared with the awesomeness that is a bunch of people reading feminist literature together, WHICHEVER parts of it people want to discuss. Go team!

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  14. I would definitely struggle with a book like this. I don't think I have even the maturity to understand it the way you do.

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  15. I've only read a couple of the posts from this group, but what an interesting discussion it's been on Wollstonecraft! This is a brilliant post, Nymeth, passionate and articulate and sensitive. You've got Simone de Beauvoir coming up in the future, yes? If you think MW is tough on her sisters, you wait to see what Beauvoir is like! But there are two points to raise here, I think. The first is that these women were women before they were philosophers - if they sound harsh it's because the voices inside their heads were harsh on themselves,too. They knew their own weaknesses, and it's only human nature to find one's own weakness, when manifest in others, completely unbearable.

    And think about this: what if you woke up tomorrow to find that overnight everyone in the world but you had reverted to a racist viewpoint. And you were alone in seeing the wrongness of it. Wouldn't you be critical of your fellow human beings?

    I think you might find the issue of being harsh on women comes up a fair amount in feminist philosophy, partly because let's face it, women ARE harsh on their sex, and the idea of solidarity only appeared and took hold in the 60s and 70s (only to disappear again after that). But I've always felt that the flaws in thinkers provide more interest than anything else. I mean, look at Freud - the feminists had a complete field day with him - their cause would have been held back forty years had they not had his work to point at and pull apart. My rule of thumb is always attack the issue, not the person who holds it - otherwise we are no better than the 'harsh' people we criticise, right?

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  16. Gosh it's frustrating that one can't go back and edit comments. But I'll add instead that I thought your post was a really good example of attacking the issue rather than the person, Nymeth. I was afraid that might not be clear!

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  17. Fabulous post! I'm glad I started here with this month's topic. APPLAUSE!

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  18. Some good thoughts here, Nymeth, and thanks for the links. I have to say, reading this document was earth-shaking for me. Frustrating at times, but ABSOLUTELY worth it. I'm so glad I participated...

    :-)

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  19. Christina: That should be interesting! I tend to be horrified at anything my younger self ever wrote, but that's just me ;)

    Aarti: You're very right that to see it only as a historical text is limiting - making an effort to go beyond that is certainly worth it!

    Heidenkind: I admire her as well - and even more so now that I'm reading Tomalin's biography of her.

    Emily: Don't worry about it at all! I know your frustration was not directed at me, and yes, the awesomeness sill wins out :)

    Veens: I think you might surprise yourself!

    litlove: So many excellent points! We do have de Beauvoir lined up, and after years of putting it off I'm very much looking forward to finally reading her. I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of this frustration and harshness with other women as we read through the texts we've selected - in a way, they're almost an inevitable result of all these thinker's refusal to settle for less. Also, don't worry at all about your comment! (Though between you and Emily I'm relieved to learn I'm not the only one who often worries about my tone after having posted a comment :P)

    Care: Thank you!

    Jillian: Yes, yes, definitely worth it!

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  20. I haven't read much of this at all -- must. finish. War and Peace. -- but now I'm getting scared because everyone has such thoughtful deep responses to it! I'm not sure I can approach it at such a level....especially right on the heels of War and Peace as it will be.

    Anyway, thanks for this, I'll be back to reread it once I've finished the book myself.

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  21. Rebecca: Nothing to be scared about! I think War and Peace would consume one month's worth of my mental energy easily! You're braver than I am for even attempting them both.

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  22. I am only about halfway done, so I can't comment fully on the book. I will say, however, that I think it very important to remember the impact hindsight has on interpretation. Looking at this book from a modern stance - and critiquing it from such - is certainly problematic without some serious reflection on historical perspective. So ditto?! :)

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  23. I also found it difficult to try and understand a lot of where she was coming from. It started well, I really enjoyed her argument that people often just go along with prejudices because they hold them instead of examining them or trying to figure out why they have these attitudes.

    But then she has has all these arguments over how women and men are essentially different, or that women are better suited to life at home etc. And as you pointed out, her attitude to other religions was off-putting.

    So a frustrating read in many ways, but also an illuminating one, because it shows where we get so many of our preconceptions from, as a society.

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  24. A very measured response, Ana. :) I should probably try and finish reading Vindication, but I think my head may explode. Heh.

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  25. Sorry to be the late commenter...

    One thing on the passion vs reason issue. I actually imagine this was a very personal issue to her. Put in the situation she was in - one where she thought something that was wildly revolutionary and unpopular, I for my part would have the weakness of hating all the the things that made me more 'like a woman' (please remember I put that in quotes! :D). And so when I have some misery in my life, it would be very easy to believe that it was caused by the 'feminine' things I've done, not the masculine. In some sense (ironically) what Mary wrote ended up sounding, to me, like the horrible old saw of the anti-feminists of more modern times - that feminists just want to make women into men. In a sense, she was predisposed to see all the things that were socialized female traits as weaknesses - she simply made the revolutionary realization that this wasn't because they were female, but because they were raised to these 'weaknesses'. Passion (well, RULING passion) was an 'effeminate trait'. And it's worth remembering that those letters to Imlay did not (at least to my weak understanding of her bio) end up working out so well for her - she didn't end up with Imlay in the long run, after all, and if I remember correctly, it was a pretty horrible end of relationship for her. And while I disagree with her terminology, I DO think that there is a POINT at which what she says is true - that the wild blind passion of many people's early days in a relationship is netiher a healthy or a tenable long term way to be in love with someone. EVentually, it must turn into a relationship of more mature mutual respect, instead of what she calls passion - I simply wouldn't define passion the same way.

    Does that make sense?

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  26. Here is a link to the Virginia Woolf essay - http://www.martinfrost.ws/htmlfiles/wollstonecraft.html#Woolf

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.