A Classic Feminist: Mary Wollstoncraft

One of my challenges for 2011 is the Feminist Classic. Each month we’ll be examining a different classic. The Reading List is diverse and offers a wonderful education on the subject. (The list is HERE.) There is also a diverse group of women from around the world who are eagerly asking questions and offering opinions. It’s not too late to join, if you are interested.

The word feminism has been associated with some negative connotations over the decades but, in my opinion, what we’re really talking about is the ability for every female to own and control their own lives. Thoughts of equality for females usually begins when many girls are young. I don’t know how many times I said, “What do you mean girls can’t do that?” I remember well my outrage when I found out the male teacher in the classroom next to mine would make more money than I did. I was told he was a man with a family.

That was the mid-1960’s and things have changed, but not everywhere. There are still places and situations where females are in second place, and sometimes lower than that. As the mother of two daughters, two granddaughters, and a big collection of nieces and great-nieces, I feel compelled to read, watch, listen, and speak out. I want present and future generations to enjoy life on an equal footing. That’s one of the reasons why I joined this challenge. I hope you’ll follow along with me as I share my interpretation on the classics we read.

For the month of January we’ve been reading A Vindication On the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797). This is one of the oldest of the feminist classics, having been written 239 years ago. If for no other reason, it’s worth reading just from the historical perspective.

Ms. Wollstonecraft’s Vindication was written in response to general attitudes and actions in Europe as well as the writings by the writer/philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. I recall reading Rousseau’s The Social Contract during a college course on the Development of Western Civilization. Rousseau’s value was his belief that humans are, in their “natural state,” essentially good. They should be allowed to govern themselves, i.e., democracy, rather than live under monarchies. That was fine but then he went on to describe how the natural person should be educated and that’s where Mary Wollstonecraft (and I) take issue.

Rousseau described a wonderful and complete education for boys, but believed girls do not need to be educated. He said women only exist to please men. That is why they are born. They should be educated only for the purpose of caring for children and serving as companions for their husbands. They are not mentally or physically equipped to do anything more.

Can you see why Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her Vindication? Although it was written over 200 years ago, I have heard this same argument on the “natural state” used against women and racial minorities during my lifetime. Here are some of the things advocated by Ms. Wollstonecraft. Let me share some of her writing with you.

She pleaded with women to be strong both physically and mentally and to give up being weak.

I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt.

Here is an example of Ms. Wollstonecraft’s rebuttle of Rouseau.

He then proceeds to prove that woman ought to be weak and passive, because she has less bodily strength than man; and hence infers, that she was formed to please and to be subject to him; and that it is her duty to render herself agreeable to her master—this being the grand end of her existence. Still, however, to give a little mock dignity to lust, he insists that man should not exert his strength, but depend on the will of the woman, when he seeks for pleasure with her.

Wollstonecraft was speaking to the women in upper class families, what we might call the “leisure class.” She felt that the sedentary life style of women and young girls was extremely harmful.

To preserve personal beauty, woman’s glory! the limbs and faculties are cramped with worse than Chinese bands, and the sedentary life which they are condemned to live, whilst boys frolic in the open air, weakens the muscles and relaxes the nerves.

This was surprising to me: Wollstonecraft was a strong pro-life advocate.

[Women] have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection…either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast if off when born.Nature in every thing demands respect, and those who violate her laws seldom violate them with impunity.

As you can see from these quotes I’ve shared here, this was somewhat difficult to read. The outdated and over-abundant language was hard to wade through. I’m glad I persevered as it gave me an overall look at where feminism was 200+ years ago. Although there are many, many more strides for the cause of female equality than what is advocated in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication, it is a wonderful start. It’s not the perfect feminist argument but it’s a great beginning.

There are some excellent resources available if you are interested in more on Mary Wollstonecraft and her writings.

A Vindication On the Rights Of Women is an 89 cent download at Kindle.

An online copy of Vindication is available HERE.

A short and enthusiastic biography of Mary Wollstonecraft by Virginia Woolf is HERE.

A discussion of the book at the website for the challenge: A Year Of Feminist Classics

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10 Responses to A Classic Feminist: Mary Wollstoncraft

  1. Impressive that you have made your way through this. It seemed to me too much like it would be “wading” as you say!

  2. Rural View says:

    For her time, she was quite advanced but I agree that her views are hard for us to take. In 239 years we’ve made great advances even though we have so far to go. As they’re saying about Gabriel Giffords’ recovery, “This isn’t a sprint.”

  3. Martha says:

    You’re a better woman than I, I just couldn’t get through this. I’ve read several articles about Mary Wollstoncraft including the Virginia Wolfe piece but couldn’t make through Vindication. You’ve inspired me to give it another try.

  4. Bumbles says:

    I think Mary & I would have been great pals had I been unfortunate enough to have been born in her time. So many people have paved the way for all of us in life – the current generation needs reminders of this every now and then so that we can do the same for those in our footsteps.

  5. It’s amazing how the “natural state” argument is something that even today you still here something of. I loved your perspective on this book and I’m glad you made it all the way through it.

  6. Staci says:

    What an excellent review and so eye-opening. It’s amazing how many people felt that girls were not worthy of an education!! And the frustrating part is that it still happens today in parts of the world!

  7. Jillian says:

    It was a real honor to read this text, knowing so many people throughout history have read it. Great discussion, too! Thanks for sharing this. 🙂

  8. JoAnn says:

    I’ve been enjoying posts on this book. I doubt I’d have the patience to make it to the end, so thank you for sharing the high points.

  9. Annie says:

    Thank you Margot for your review ! You are very courageous readinf the book from beginning to the end. It was a hard one. I am very interested now, when I read books from other authors and dicover that what she said , is said to-day too in other countries all over the world ! There is always work to do !

  10. mis says:

    Thanks for the review… though this is old now and I missed out on all of you reading the classics in 2011. Haha! I like how you write about being surrounded by granddaughters, nieces, great-nieces & feeling compelled to make this world better for young women. It’s important work.

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