SuperCat's Reviews > A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
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Feb 26, 2008

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Vindication is not a difficult read, but it has a few stylistic elements that create confusion for the modern or non academic reader. There are plentiful tangents spinning off from the main argument at random. Wollstonecraft seems unable to write a sentence without at least two qualifying subordinate clauses. She employs unrestrained comma abuse and peppers the page with exclamation points.
Even though the style confused and exasperated me at first, as I continued to read I began to see it as an indication of Wollstonecraft's enthusiasm for her subject. I learned from the introduction that that she wrote the book in about six weeks. In this light Vindication is more of an outpouring of passion than a cool construction of argument.
It is a little counter-intuitive to think of Vindication as a child of feeling and passion because Wollstonecraft whole-heartedly embraces the Enlightenment Age focus on reason and logic. Her central thesis attacks the double standard in which rational thought is the highest good for men and detrimental to women. From that basis she shrewdly illuminates all the double standards applied to women in the late 18th century.
Wollstonecraft desires a society in which women have the same education as men, can be financially self-sufficient, are physically strong and capable, have government representation, and marry because of mutual attraction and respect. She deplores the marriage-mart which she calls "legal prostitution" (266) She ridicules women who faint to prove their delicacy, and wishes that more respectable professions were open to women. Wollstonecraft proposes radical education reform which resembles our current public school system. To a modern reader Wollstonecraft seems focused on motherhood as women's highest calling, but for her purposes a natural capacity as mothers is an argument for more education and self-determination for women because it will increase their ability to properly care for and educate future generations. Caring for children also shifts women out of the role of desirable and pleasing object for men, and into responsible adult personhood.
Throughout Vindication, Wollstonecraft describes women as a group to be ignorant, silly, foolish and idiotic. She is adamant that a few exceptions (herself included, presumably) only prove this rule. But she equally insists that women's stupidity is not their fault, but is a direct result of their oppression. Wollstonecraft ends by calling for a "revolution in female manners" (325)
Vindication is very much a product of a historical moment, its references to the French Revolution come fast and thick, but simultaneously it is timeless. At the root of this timeless quality is Wollstonecraft's refusal to debate with prevailing theories on women's condition. Her entire argument rests on her belief that women are rational creatures and need to be treated and educated as such. In one of my favorite passages, she quotes at length from Rousseau and then in a footnote says simply, "What nonsense!" 200 years after Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication, I, and most others now reading this book, have been culturally conditioned to accept her main argument at face value, and in doing so, we risk losing sight of its radical impact.
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