Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars | Read: 1 February – 4 February, 2018.
If you don’t already know, 2018 is the bicentenary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was published on January the first, 1818. To celebrate this, I’ll be dedicating a week’s worth of posts to Shelley. To begin with, I wanted to discuss her mother’s book, A Vindication to the Rights of Woman. I thought this would be apt as this year also marks the hundredth anniversary of some women gaining the rights to vote.
Mary Wollstonecraft set out to change the way women were treated by penning this ‘passionate and forthright’ (Penguin Classics) attack on society. In what is arguably the first feminist text, Wollstonecraft ‘laid out the principles of emancipation: an equal education for girls and boys, an end to prejudice and a plea for women to become defined by their professions, not their partner’. As one can already assume, this was extremely unconventional for the time. It remained controversial for years to come, ultimately being brushed under the carpet to rot and wither away. Society chose not to embrace Wollstonecraft’s plea for liberation. However, A Vindication for the Rights of Woman was hugely influential for many writers, such as Woolf and Mill. Slowly, but surely, Wollstonecraft was becoming the mother of modern feminism. In the nineteenth century we find the odd echo of her plea, whereas now we see it embedded in a whole host of books.
To begin with, let’s start with the positives. On the whole, this was an extremely powerful and thought-provoking book. Wollstonecraft uses her privileges to fight for equality amongst the sexes. Through discussions on parental affection, modesty, education, professionalism, and so on, Wollstonecraft is able to put forward a strong argument for female liberation. I really enjoyed her constant criticism of sexist men. By focusing predominantly on the likes of Rousseau, Dr Gregory and Milton – whose work is bred on sexism and misogyny – Wollstonecraft persuades the reader to see her point of view. The way she framed her writing made you feel guilty if you envisioned women the way these men did. In a nutshell, she was very persuasive. Honestly, I think she was just the right person to write this. Although she may not have been subjected to the same mistreatment that, for example, working-class women were, she was still a part of this patriarchal society. Wollstonecraft’s class gave her the voice to fight for women.
When planning this review, I knew I had to dedicate a section to this lovely little paragraph. Wollstonecraft writes:
Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection are, on this ground, consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues of the sex; and, disregarding the arbitrary economy of nature, one writer has declared that it is masculine for a woman to be melancholy. She was created to be the toy of a man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused (45)
I thought this passage would be enough to persuade anyone to read this. Through ridicule and sarcasm, Wollstonecraft is able to put across such powerful points when it comes to women. Her writing style, albeit a little tricky to understand sometimes, is perfect for this kind of writing. Her witticisms capture her points brilliantly. Here, she dismisses the notion that women should be sensible beings who crave attention from their husbands like a dog. They cannot always be passive, but instead should be assertive and independent. I love how Wollstonecraft likens men to babies; they constantly need attention and, unfortunately, it is women who have to be their rattle. It was little sections like this which were utterly unconventional, and thus making them all the more powerful.
Moreover, Wollstonecraft’s plea for an equal education for girls and boys was extremely moving to read. She put forth some interesting points about national education which, as a modern reader, we now see enacted in today’s society. It is weird to think back to two and half centuries ago when boys received private educations and girls had nothing more than a lesson on etiquette and sewing. Despite it being a moving read, it was in these specific discussions I had difficulties. Although Wollstonecraft pleaded for an equal education, she put forth the notion that an education would supply women with all the knowledge to fulfil her womanly duties, that being motherhood and wifehood. Despite being termed the ‘mother of modern feminism’, I found this quite contradictory. However, I didn’t let this discern my opinion of the novel. What she voiced in this book was powerful enough to start a feminism movement. As one would say, small steps.
The only other criticism I have of the novel is the language. It was very flowery, making it quite tricky to understand at times. Occasionally, I had to read certain passages over just to make sure I was following what Wollstonecraft was saying. The language can mislead you sometimes; you read it and think it’s saying one thing, but it’s actually saying another. It’s definitely a book one has to read quite slowly. This was an issue for me as I tend to read quickly; I hate reading at a slow pace. However, I cannot necessarily blame Wollstonecraft for this. The way she wrote was standard for a lot of educated eighteenth century authors, and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is very much a product of this. In summary, it was easy to understand but only if one reads it slowly.
Other than this, it was a lovely read. I’m glad I finally picked it up. Not only did it capture womanhood in the eighteenth century, but it gave me a wonderful insight to the start of the first wave of feminism. From now on, when reading novels published after 1792, I can appreciate feminist incorporations/explorations knowing this was the starting point. It is a monumental piece of feminist literature, and many passages are still relevant in today’s society. It is an ongoing battle, yet literature like A Vindication of the Rights of Woman still stand the test of time. I would definitely recommend!
I had a very tricky time when rating this. I felt like it didn’t deserve more than 3 stars, but it didn’t deserve less than 4. For now, though, I have given it 3.5 stars.
Thanks for reading, Lauren X
7 thoughts on “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman:”
I feel like she was a huge influence on Austen. I’m not sure why — I just have a hunch. I remember when I read this book I noticed the phrase “sense and sensibility” in one of her arguments, and I was through the roof. 🙂
Oh, that’s an interesting point! I never thought about that before. In future, I’ll have to watch out for little echoes of this in Austen’s novels. 🙂
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When we studied this work in a course, my professor claimed that she went with the “this would make us good wives and mothers” angle because she thought that’d be a way to get more men to heed her advice. 🙂
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I never thought about it that way – that’s really interesting. However, she is still reinforcing the stereotype so not sure where I stand on that! 🙂
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