I first attempted to tackle A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a university student. The 18th-century book was on the reading list for The Women’s Movement – a module that I had enthusiastically taken up hoping to deepen my knowledge of the oppressed half of the human species. I could not get past the Introduction.
As I read the text again, published now by Penguin Great Ideas, I stroll through the pages almost fluidly. The writing is complicated at some places still, but the substance of Wollstonecraft’s thought outshines her complex vocabulary. This is simply a great book that possesses an acute wisdom beyond the time at which the author was writing.
Mary Wollstonecraft—mother of the writer of Frankenstein, lived a turbulent life, suffering depression and despair. A severe critic of female manners and social conditions, she felt particularly angered and discontented by the “barren blooming” of women - that is, the cultivation of superficial qualities such as beauty, delicacy and reliance on feeling; essentially, a weakness of mind and body. It was a way of being that came to be termed ‘Sensibility’.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she proposes a few revolutionary ideas: women should be allowed to practice reason over sensibility, that they are only inferior in terms of biological strength and not intellect. She insisted that they be educated alongside men, that education was the key to equality and that marriage was simply ‘legal prostitution.’ As an enlightened individual, she recognised too that gender roles were inherited rather than god-given.
She is quite harsh upon her own sex; her sentences sting as if to awaken the female reader from a rotting sleep. But her wit will make you laugh in some places, especially as she rips apart Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s prominent work Emile, which supports the subjugation of woman and emphasises her role as obedient servant and alluring object of man’s desire. “What nonsense!” Wollstonecraft exclaims at Rousseau’s assertion that these female “virtues” are derived from nature. She argues: Are women in a natural state when men render their bodies and minds weak?
Another point which the author makes is that more friendship exists between men than women – that women compete against each other in beauty and etiquette, all with the goal to please men and become their favorites—like children.
Her tone is heavily sardonic and struck with vehemence – a reaction against those who had the power to distort truth. Yet her words are captivating as she makes a compelling case for the freedom and education of women.
Reviled by her contemporaries for her radical ideas, she is today regarded as the founder of Feminism. Her writing is profoundly honest and personal. You will get the sense that this was a highly articulate and self-assured woman who was a keen observer of human behavior and who had the audacity to advocate for female rights in an age where women were legally and politically invisible. What strikes you on the whole, is how pertinently Wollstonecraft’s philosophy applies to the present day.
First published in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is now bound by Penguin in a handy size, carrying a delicate weight and appealing cover artwork. It is a treasure to be owned and read – at the very least by people interested in the study of history, gender and literature.