Feminist Book Club: Vindication of the Rights of Woman

by | January 19, 2011
filed under Feminism

Mary Wollstonecraft

This post is part of A Year of Feminist Classics book club. Visit their site to join the book club!

Confession: I’d already read most of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, starting in Grade 12 for an English project, and continuing in first year Women’s Studies at University. I found it really boring at the time so I didn’t re-read the whole thing. I did read the introductions to my edition, which I’d skipped a few years ago. Then I listened to the first six chapters in audio-book form. I have to admit that the more time passes since college the less I want to read books that feel like a bit of a chore, which this one does to me, purely because of Wollestonecraft’s overly descriptive style. So take my contributions to the discussion with a grain of salt.

I’m going to go through the discussion questions laid out by Amy on the book club website:

Were you as surprised as I was that the reaction was initially favorable to this work? And surprised at how devastating the repercussions of the memoir were? This question refers to the post-mortem publication of Wollstonecraft’s memoirs by her husband, which revealed intimate details of her life, including illegitimate children and suicide attempts. Apparently the initial response to her book was quite favourable until after her death.

The only reason finding out about the positive initial reaction surprised me was because she spent so much of the book nitpicking various writers, doctors, and philosophers. I have to say I skimmed a lot of this, as I was more interested in the overarching themes like the importance of women’s education, how women’s education fits into their role as mothers, the importance of education and free debate for a responsible society and government, and God’s intentions for women.

One part I found interesting because it evaded my notice on the first read was Wollstonecraft’s insistence that lack of education makes women flirty and coquettish, obsessed with beauty and thus not the ideal wives for smart husbands, or responsible mothers for future leaders of the nation. Today we see some of the same arguments, but without the concept of woman’s role being as a wife and mother. I’m thinking about books like Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs and other feminist treatises that look at how women dumbing themselves down and sexing themselves up makes them complicit in their own oppression. I have some issues with this argument, but it was interesting for me to see how it maybe had some roots dating back to Wollstonecraft. 

Do you think reputation and life still matters as much for women in terms of their intellectual achievements? Would women’s works today be dismissed after details of their personal lives came out?

Amy’s reply to this question was a yes, and I’d probably agree. The first case that came to mind was the run for Congress of the awesome but unfortunately-named Krystal Ball, who was trashed after racy pictures of her at a Christmas party were posted on Facebook. Now, she probably wouldn’t have won the election, but a lot of feminist bloggers made pretty convincing arguments for why her indiscretions were given so much more attention than male candidates’. Another great example of the scrutiny on women’s personal lives affecting how their intellectual achievements are perceived would be the whole “is Elena Kagan a lesbian?” kerfuffle. The controversy around Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife Virginia’s political dealings barely compared to the media furor that surrounded the picture of Elena Kagan (gasp!) playing baseball.

But these are both political examples. I’d be interested to know if anyone has any examples of academics, writers, or other intellectuals that may have been unfairly subjected to scrutiny about their personal lives because of their gender.


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