Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [Norton Critical Edition]

This is my first time reading Mary Wollstonecraft's classic 1792 feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  Wollstonecraft's argument for equality boils down to a simple syllogism:  1)  God has invested all human persons with the capacity to reason;  2)  It is the duty of all human persons to be virtuous;  3)  Virtue is the function of the exercise of reason to know right from wrong;  4)  Virtue is a universal concept, not a relativistic one: the same standards apply to all persons, male or female; 5) Therefore, women must be educated to the same extent and held to the same standards of conduct as males.  Wollstonecraft goes to great lengths to support the fourth and fifth points, as those are the ones must vulnerable to attack in the time period to which she's writing.  She emphatically criticizes the concept that there are different virtues for males (such as "courage" or "aggressiveness") and females (such as "modesty" or "docility").  Women are often focussed, she writes, on frivolous things like fashion or gossip because they have, since birth, been taught that those are the only things they should concern themselves with.  If women were given the same education and expectation as males, she argues that there is every chance that they could fulfill a far more important and valuable role in society.  In other words, she anticipates the modern argument that much of the perceived difference between males and females is socially constructed and not due to innate differences in mind or body.  Wollstonecraft's argument could have logically been extended to challenge a whole host of concrete social inequalities between men and women in her time (such as voting rights, property laws, etc.) but she avoids going so far and extends the implications of her position only to education.

I have to admit that I found the writing to be turgid and repetitive, even if the general theme of equality is well-established.  The critical essays in the Norton edition are much better and quite interesting.  They indicate that Wollstonecraft's book was well-received when first published, as the concern for women's education and perceived obsession with clothing and love affairs was under examination.  However, after her death, her husband published a biography that was meant to be laudatory but that revealed details of her personal life that were seized upon by critics to undermine her political writings.  The essay by R.M. Janes is particulary good on this point.  Other good essays discuss the debt she owed to historian Catharine Macaulay and the influence she had on later feminists such as Emma Goldberg.

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