Monday, January 24, 2011

Review of "A Vindication of the Rights of Women"

So. I finally finished it. This book took me far too long to get through. Although technically I only spent about two weeks reading it, it felt as though I had spent far longer than that with the book in hand, trying to read it.

Wollstonecraft's thesis is that women are by nature physically weaker than men, but that any difference in cognition comes from education alone (i.e., nurture). She further argues that women ought to be provided with an education that feeds their reason as well as their sensibilities.

The first half of the book is spent making her argument that women are, by nature, as reasonable as men. Rather than argumentation and appeals to reason, her arguments rest on personal anecdotes, circuitous reasoning, and overgeneralizations of human nature, in addition to a specific understanding of God/Creator. Indeed, her entire novel rests upon the presumption that the Creator intended women to have a certain feminine aspect, which should include some things but exclude others. Not agreeing with her vision of the Almighty, it was often difficult for me to agree with her rationales for many of her arguments. Her fall-back argument in every instance is "If it can be proven that women were created fully for the enjoyment of men, then I take back everything I've said and women can be treated as kittens or other animals." I didn't find this intrusion to be helpful or useful - what if women and men were not "created" at all, but evolved as two types of a similar species? Her argument presupposes that men and women were created to be complementary halves, with women (physically) the weaker of the two.

The second half of the book is spent focusing on specific recommendations for how education systems should be modified to appropriately educate women as well as men. Such recommendations include creating co-education public day schools for girls and boys aged 9 and younger, which provide girls with the same amount of outside active "romping" time as boys. At age 10, the children continue to be educated together in the morning, and then are split into gender-specific classes for the afternoon. Girls are taught the arts of millinery (hat making) and mantua (clothing)-making, while boys are taught things related to finance and agriculture expertise. I found this recommendation for women to be taught clothing making to be odd, since she spent the first half of the book arguing that women only have a fondness for dress because of their poor education in terms of cognitive enjoyments. In the case of upper-class families, parents would have the ability to opt for a "scholarly" secondary education, where their children would be taught classical literature and languages.

The second half of the book also gives admonitions to women to avoid various practices that, in their excessive sensibility due to lack of a good education, they might be wont to engage in (i.e., visiting "fortune tellers," reading novels, and giving their children to wet nurses to breastfeed).

I gave this book 3 stars for its historical place as a fundamental feminist classic. Despite her good thesis, Wollstonecraft has a cumbersome, overwordy style that felt ponderous. At times, she would take several chapters to explain a sentiment that I could express in a sentence. The book was also difficult to read because it was riddled with prejudices that to any modern reader appear to be highly bigoted. Because these bigoted examples are used to form the crux of some of her arguments, her prejudiced generalizations of Muslims, Roman Catholics, Africans, and the poor working class only serve to weaken her arguments.

Still, the book deserve due respect for what it does offer: An insider's view into what life was truly like for many upper-class women in Britain during the "fashionable" Victorian, late Victorian, Regency, and Edwardian periods. Women were prized for their weakness, delicate constitutions, and frailty, and were educated to please men, with little to no education on how to raise or even breastfeed their children. In the event that a woman found herself widowed or unmarried, she was left with few options for the support of her family. Women were not given any option in that society to act as "individual citizens". This book was the first of its kind, arguing that women should be seen as more than simply ornaments to the fashionable beau.


Anonymous said...

I don't remember reading her aspects on education of women being in millinery etc., but I may have overlooked this.

I agree with you the book was a difficult read and took me a while to finish too and I too agree that she took a lot of words to say one thing that could have been easily said in fewer, but I also feel that she was trying to add in as many examples as she possibly could. There were definitely both good and bad aspects of the book and you definitely highlighted those, especially some of the weaknesses I noted too, including her religious and class prejudices.

Interesting and well written post.

Madame Curie said...

I think there is probably more positive that could be said about this book. In the first half, I was just so bogged down by an inability to understand or agree with her logic that it really reduced my experience with the book as a whole. The same could probably be said for many other books written by men at the time; I think that the scientific method of argumentation was not yet in mode.

The book is important for what it is, as one of the founding feminist treatises.

Jean said...

Yes, she is certainly very wordy! My own opinion is that it's a combination of the usual 18th-century style and the way she wrote it so quickly--she repeats herself a lot, and maybe if she had edited it and taken months instead of weeks, it would have had a more coherent structure.

I do remember that she disliked preoccupation with dress; but at the same time, people have to wear clothing and making it yourself would have been the prudent and economical choice for most. She says at one point that wealthier women should employ poorer women to do their sewing, to give the poor women a way to earn and to distract the rich from vanity.

But her educational scheme, I think, was meant to eliminate some disparity of income and produce a lot more equality. Either way, all girls learned to sew back then; it was as necessary a skill as writing (probably more so to many). Even the most useless ornament to high society would be expected to produce something in the way of embroidery, netting, tapestry, and plain sewing for the poor box.

Madame Curie said...

I actually found her educational scheme to be one of the most interesting parts of the book, second only to the section where Wollstonecraft specifically and directly responds to various popular educational philosophers of the time. This latter section I enjoyed because she specifically mentions the ideas she was refuting throughout the book. I found her writing in those sections to be very coherent.

I just reread the section on the educational program for boys and girls. Here is the section that I was referring to:

After the age of nine, girls and boys, intended for domestic employments, or mechanical trades, ought to be removed to other schools, and receive instruction, in some measure appropriated to the destination of each individual (...) in the afternoon, the girls should attend a school, where plain work, mantua-making, millinery, etc., would be their employment.

Reading the section before this, it is clear that boys and girls receive the same instruction in botany, reading, and arithmetic before age 9. However, I had hoped to see her age 10+ curriculum for girls to include more than only plain work (which, obviously, all girls would be in need of learning!) I had hoped to see some discussion of business sense for women employed professionally as mantua-makers for the upper class.

Also, given her earlier comments about the importance of women learning some anatomy in order to be more better nurses to their children, I had hoped as well to see that included.

Perhaps it would have helped if I had an idea of what education for girls aged 10+ consisted of at that time, to see where the difference in educations lie. That said, she does make it clear that her educational scheme is not all-encompassing, and is meant by way of example. Perhaps if she had had more time to expand upon it, my questions would have been resolved.

Jillian said...

That 'the first of its kind' thing is what moves me! I think Wollstonecraft was imperfect but thunderous. In such an age, I applaud her thunder. :-)

Here's mine (only sharing if you're interested) -

Madame Curie said...

Thanks, Jillian!