The truth is buried in there somewhere

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
by Mary Wollstonecraft

I originally got this book for the Year of Feminist Classics project, but when they actually discussed it back in January I was only about 20 pages in. And then I put it aside for four months. The thing is, while being a hugely important and interesting work, this one is pretty tough to read. Or at least, I thought so.

First up, why was it hard to read? Well, it’s rambling and repetitive to such an extent that even my abridged Penguin Great Ideas edition of 132 pages felt too long. The language is as archaic as you might expect of 1792 and the society to which it refers is so long gone that it’s only recognisable from old novels. This also means that a lot of her arguments and the things she wishes to change have already changed, the fight has been won, so you could argue that it’s no longer relevant.

And yet, it is also eye-opening and indeed educational to be reminded how different society was, how unequal the sexes, and therefore how much progress has been made. Mary Wollstonecraft was arguing against the assumption that women are inherently weak, incapable, over-emotional beings with a natural love of dresses and pretty things; that men are inherently superior and women their slaves. This is not the view of one or two lone misogynists but that of most people in the western world at the time.

Wollstonecraft addresses herself to men and keeps all of her arguments abstract. She does not single out great women of history to look up to and indeed her comments about queens not being the equal of kings make me suspect that she did not subscribe to the now widely held view that Elizabeth I was a fine example of a woman proving herself in a man’s world. What Wollstonecraft does do is paint a series of caricatures of women who have been ruined by their upbringing or society or both.

This text does not set out any rules for women to follow to improve themselves, besides a brief attack on reading novels (which she distinguishes from literature). The primary point seems to be a plea to the powers that be – all male, of course – to at least try providing equal education for girls as for boys, so that women can prove by themselves that their silliness is a result of lack of education first and foremost.

Though education is her primary goal, there are also social changes to be made that are harder to resolve, and indeed Wollstonecraft does more describing how the current state of things is bad than suggesting how it can be changed. She appeals to what men might want in a woman – when sexual passion dries up, don’t they want an interesting, educated companion to share their life with? Don’t they want their children to spend their formative years with a strong, sensible, intelligent caregiver? Don’t they want to share some interests and hobbies with their life partner, to make marriage more enjoyable?

One point that Wollstonecraft makes is that while men have various hobbies and pastimes, women have only one – their appearance – which has a derogatory effect in numerous ways. And this really rang true for me because from what I remember, though it’s been a while, magazines for girls are about that one thing and basically nothing else – how to attract boys, what celebrities are wearing, how to pluck your eyebrows… How on earth this stuff can be regurgitated weekly astounds me but it was and probably still is. Yet lads mags, between the topless/bikini-clad ladies, have articles about cars, gadgets, films, sport. They’re still clichéd topics, sure, but at least there’s some variety, some looking outward to the world. It’s depressing how little has changed since 1792 when you look at details like that.

The passage that struck me the most was related to the above but not quite making the same point. Wollstonecraft argues that men who encourage women to be flirts who obsess over their appearance create women who are too physically unfit to be of any use in the bedroom or in childbirth. Now there’s a point I can agree with!

I’m glad I ploughed my way to the end and I can see why it’s considered important, but this was too poorly structured and hard to read for me to call it great.

First published 1792.

See also: reviews by Amy Reads and Emily of Evening All Afternoon. If you’re interested in Mary Wollstonecraft, it’s well worth taking a look at the excellent project A Vindication of the Rights of Mary.