Friday 17 April 2015

The Vindications of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (1792)

“I do not wish them [women] to have power over men; but over themselves.” 

If you were a woman living during the 19th century, there were very few options available other than get married at a young age, popping out babies at a steady rate, taking care of the home and raising children. Some feminist critics would argue that not much has really changed since then because gender inequality still thrives today. I am not here to get into the polemics of gender ideologies, since endless volumes of research and critical essays have already been expounded on this subject. I'd much rather leave the debate to the historians and sociologists. My concern is simply with the literature itself, to to see how different writers of the period approached issues of gender. Additionally, I find it fascinating that only male writers of the Romantic period receive the most attention whereas female writers of the time are forgotten or ignored completely. The "big six" are all male: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Blake and Shelley. Why is it that Mary Wollstonecraft, Hannah Moore, Anna Laetitia Barbauld or Charlotte Smith are rarely recognized for their contributions to this literary movement? Once again, gender politics. Therefore, I intend to take the opportunity to focus on some of these female writers who have been overshadowed by their male-counterparts.

One of the first and most influential pieces of feminist writing is Mary Wollstonecraft's The Vindications of the Rights of Women. If the last name sounds familiar it is because Mary Wollstonecraft was the mother of Mary Shelley who would go on to write Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft's lengthy treatise is her sophisticated and philosophical way of giving the middle finger to male hegemony. She calls for radical change by rejecting patriarchal interpretations of feminine virtue for being bias, inaccurate and plainly offensive. She champions female equality, passionately supports female independence and is keen to point out that men are either tyrants or sexual deviants who do not have women's best interests at heart. She provides a long and detailed account of the "history of women," highlighting the fallacy of female gender roles that have been promoted by a predominant male society. The first three chapters form the crux of the essay where she makes her main arguments that will be emphasized throughout the rest of the work:  1) Women must be educated. 2) Reason leads to virtue. 3) Marriage and vanity only lead to oppression.  4) Principles of the French Revolution should be applied to women. 5)Women must be restored to the status of human beings instead of being treated like inferior creatures by men. She is pretty harsh towards the male sex but considering the time period in which she lived, do you really blame her?

Mary Wollstonecraft deserves major props for writing such a brave and radical feminist work at a time when women possessed no rights or personal freedoms, their lives dictated entirely by men. When it comes to philosophy or critical essays, my experience is limited and what I have read has been unpleasant to say the least. I find reading this type of literature to be a real chore, dull or downright perplexing (I'm looking at you Mr. Immanuel Kant). Even though Wollstonecraft is prone to didacticism, digressions and extraneous details, she more than makes up for it by writing in an engaging style that is accessible. For those like myself who find a lot of philosophic writing to be convoluted and impenetrable, Wollstonecraft is a breath of fresh air.


  1. Wow, an impressive read! I loved your review. I think I have this one coming up on my biographies list, so now I'm especially looking forward to it.

    I know I'm in the minority, but I'm very sceptical at the excess of gender bias that modern writers love to proclaim. My suspicion is that it's inflated. I'm certain that there were women who felt the inequality and often they chose to express their displeasure through writing. But I'm sure there were many, many others who were happy with their lot, or as happy as they could be in an imperfect world. And while many of these inequalities (or should I have said some) have been righted, there are simply other issues that have replaced them. As a species, we struggle ....... we always have and we always will, and it's how we choose to deal with these struggles that is most significant for personal growth. In any case, those are my two cents and now I will go to duck the rotten tomatoes. ;-)

    1. I barely scratched the surface and there was a whole lot more that I could have delved in here. It would fit in nicely with your biography project since she does use a lot of examples from her personal life.

      And here I am thinking you were a feminist...Tomatoes are pretty expensive right now, consider yourself lucky. I kid, I kid. :P

      I see what you are getting at here and has made me reconsider these issues of gender from a different perspective. I mean your right, one should consider the fact that many women were completely happy with their roles in family life and society, otherwise, it probably would not have taken them so long to achieve more rights and freedoms. Then again, the feminist counter-argument would be that women have been oppressed by men for so long which made it nearly impossible for them to challenge the patriarchal system. I don't know what to think anymore but you gave me a lot to chew on here, thanks Cleo.

    2. I'll leave you with an old Russian saying (paraphrased because I can't remember the exact words): "In marriage, a man is the head of the family and the woman is the neck. The head cannot turn without the neck."

      There is no way that I think women were treated equally, but I do think that they had much more power than we think they did, it was just cloaked and probably wielded in ways that were less obvious.

  2. I read this one about -- gosh, I guess over four years ago! It was one of my first classics and I felt very modern and feminist to have read it. :) I'm sure I missed SO MUCH when I read it, but I'm really glad to have read it nonetheless. I feel like there are so many texts I need to fit onto a reread pile and revisit, because I surely missed so much, but then to revisit will cut into NEW text time. I still might revisit. I remember when I read it noticing near the end that she talks a lot about sense & sensibility -- and I wondered if Austen had read Wollstonecraft. Now, having read through Austen's major novels, I think either she certainly read Wollstonecraft, or read a lot of the works which informed Wollstonecraft. I'm guessing both. :) Cheers!

    1. Hello Corinne! I know exactly what you mean when it comes to re-reads. I actually read snippets of this text years ago for some class but got a lot more out of it this time by reading through it all.

      Oh my, I completely forgot to mention in my review the influence that this text had on Jane Austen, especially Sense and Sensibility. You are correct in pointing this out because Wollstonecraft uses these two terms explicitly, championing sense over sensibility. She goes on a long discourse about the importance of virtue in women that should override passions. Thanks for your input. :)