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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

6 July 2008

As I was putting the finishing touches on my review of The Portable Edmund Burke, I realised that I’d neglected to post this review, which I’d written several months ago. All the more reason to slip this review in first.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

When Mary Wollstonecraft was born in 1759, to a fairly prosperous family in what is now Spitalfields in London, she seemed to have a life of comfort and good fortune awaiting her. Yet her father’s tendency towards speculation and wasteful spending soon destroyed the greater part of the family income, and by the time Wollstonecraft reached adulthood she was faced with the plight of untold other young women of her age and social standing: she had too little money to marry well but few useful skills to support herself financially. She worked as a governess and tried to run a school for girls, then finally took a very great risk in attempting to earn a living through her writing alone. Having travelled to France to see the changes being wrought by the Revolution, she channeled much of her frustration at the conditions she saw in England into her writings. Hard on the heels of her A Vindication of the Rights of Men (written as a scathing response to Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections on the Revolution in France) came her best-known work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in which Wollstonecraft addresses many of the concerns she had with the treatment of women and their education — or more specifically, the lack thereof.

Wollstonecraft makes several basic points in the book, most of which centre on the nature of women’s intelligence and a girl’s ability to be educated in the same manner as a boy would be. She roundly condemns writers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau who insisted that boys and girls could not and should not be educated on equal terms. It is this attitude, she claims, that is responsible for so much of the vice, ignorance, and lascivious behaviour she dislikes in both men and women. As long as women are taught that their only use in life is to be sweet, charming, and pleasing to men, they will of course go to any lengths to keep a man’s affections and attentions…even to the detriment of their children’s welfare, their family’s good name, and their own moral standards. Uneducated women teach their daughters to be flirts and courtesans, not good and rational mothers and wives. The sons of uneducated women learn that a woman is only worth something when she is young and pretty, tacitly condoning extra-marital affairs. An educated woman, on the other hand, will be more capable of caring for her children — she will be less involved in constantly trying to keep her husband’s affections, for one thing — and will likely provide her sons and daughters with the proper example to follow as they grow up to become moral citizens and rational human beings:

Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers — in a word, better citizens.

Education as the backbone of moral fibre is a point she stresses over and over again, and insists that any of the arguments about women being created mentally inferior to men cannot be true. No good and gentle Creator, she claims, would be cruel enough to create a being who was allowed neither the brute instinct given to animals nor the free will and reason given to men. Even if the writing of the Vindication feels more than a little repetitive at times, Wollstonecraft’s message comes across plainly and passionately, as much a part of the works of the revolutionary Enlightenment writers as anything written by…well, a man.

The second work included in the book are the sections of Wollstonecraft’s unfinished novel Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. The ‘wrongs’ mentioned in the title include both the wrongs done to women and the wrongs done by women — the central point of the plot involves the grim fate of a woman named Maria, who has been declared insane and locked up a private asylum at the whim of her debauched, spendthrift husband. While in the asylum, Maria befriends one of the female ‘nurses’, a girl named Jemima, who has likewise suffered greatly in the course of her married life. Wollstonecraft draws parallels across class boundaries in a manner that was quite radical for her day, pointing out the unsatisfactory condition shared by poor and well-to-do women alike. While the fragments of the novel are clearly sketchy and unpolished, there is enough available to give the reader an idea of what the story might have been like — though it is difficult to tell whether Wollstonecraft intended the tale to have a tragic ending (like that of her first novel, Mary) or a more romantic ending where the heroine manages to overcome her condition.

The edition that I have (the Longman Cultural Edition) contains a selection of articles and other writings related to Wollstonecraft’s work, ranging from contemporary reviews of the Vindication to longer sections from works that Wollstonecraft cited or referred to in the text itself. The articles and snippets help to place the writings within their era, complete with annotations and explanations designed to clarify quotations or references that contemporary readers might not immediately know. If I had the opportunity to select from a few different editions of Wollstonecraft’s work, I think I would have preferred an edition which included only the Vindication and its related articles — the unfinished novel seemed (to me) overly melodramatic and maudlin when compared to the firey feel of the polemic. Even so, the Vindication is required reading for anyone interested in early feminist writings and the work of Enlightenment authors, no matter what edition it happens to be in.

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