Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

The first book in the 2011 Classic Feminist Literature Challenge is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. It's one of those books that I've only read in excerpt, and had been meaning to read in its entirety, but didn't because I knew that I wasn't going to like it. I knew that it was going to be over-wrought, heavy-handed, and, of course, that the author would spend a good portion of her time hating on other women to ingratiate herself with her male audience.

I blame the Victorian literature class I took at Vanderbilt in 2004. The professor assigned a lot of literature that had been produced by women, and much of it involved acts of self-justification predicated upon proving the author's obvious superiority to those other, lesser women. See: Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh. I understand that it was necessary back then, as the literary establishment didn't generally see merit in most women's writing. It's why so many women wrote novels under masculine pen names, and why those who chose to publish under their own names felt the need to either preface their work with or include within the work vitriolic excoriations of their more feeble-minded sisters. It nevertheless annoys me, especially since hating on other women to get in good with men is something that continues today, though it's largely perpetrated by right-wingers like Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin, who are not feminists.

Wollstonecraft's thesis is, in essence, that depriving women of education and rights is morally wrong because it renders women petty, ignorant, and filled with vice, and unable to properly raise their children to be productive citizens. She sees many of her fellow middle-and-upper-class women as little more than overgrown children: coddled and vacuous, and is offended by the notion that women are intrinsically made to be that way. This brings me to another thing that tends to burn my biscuits about early feminist writing (and this is something that goes right up to the present, frankly, we've just gotten slightly better about it) is the focus on class-privileged women.

We'll blame this rant on my Marxist feminist Women's and Gender Studies 201 professor: Wollstonecraft yammers on and on about spoiled, coddled, petty women in their gilded cages, and that's all well and good except for the fact that most women in England during the Industrial Revolution didn't have the luxury of flitting from frivolity to frivolity in overpriced dresses. They were too busy pulling seventy-hour workweeks in the textile mills (with their children!) for a pittance while living in squalor in unsanitary, overpopulated slums in the fast-expanding cities. They were probably too busy worrying about having a place to live and not dying in one of the multiple cholera outbreaks that happened during that period to obsess about whether or not their moral development was stunted. While I can definitely get behind her distaste for Rousseau (who, let's face it, was a misanthropic creep), I nevertheless have a hard time shedding tears for the intellectual plight of the affluent women when the poor had it so much worse.

Beyond that, Wollstonecraft never actually argues that men and women are equal. In fact, she frequently acknowledges that men are superior due to their larger sizes, and fallaciously asserts that since these differences appear to be replicated in nature (in fact, Vindication is filled with pseudoscientific nonsense, though I'll give Wollstonecraft a pass since her observations were likely on the cutting edge of that time period), it is, of course, natural that women remain subordinate to men. I found it pretty irksome that she spent so much time arguing that men and women ought to be equal in terms of education and moral development but not economically, socially, or politically, and she never adequately explains why. The bit about masculine women being the result of a woman having a male brain had a similarly grating effect on me.

All criticism aside, though, Vindication was nevertheless very important. Wollstonecraft, for all of her faults, was one of the first to stand up for the cause of women and their rights. I have to appreciate it in light of that, even though much of it is eye-rollingly awful. I'm looking forward to the next few books we're reading. Hopefully, they'll be a bit more enjoyable.

1 comment:

  1. I've actually not heard of this book (that I recall), though your review tempts me to check it out of the library and read it for myself at some point.