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

Book Review: Burial Rights by Hannah KentA VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN
by Mary Wollstonecraft

Non-Fiction: Feminism
Penguin; 2004 (original pub. 1792)
Paperback; 133 pages
Source: Purchased

A few months ago, as I wandered around my local indie bookstore in search of one particular book, my eyes alighted upon this slim volume, which is part of the Penguin Great Ideas series. The design is absolutely gorgeous; the image to the left doesn’t do justice to the gently textured paper or the beautiful letterpressed type. It’s a book that I just want to gaze lovingly at and run my fingers over. It also happens to be one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy (written in 1792), and if you’ve hung around BSV for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I’m all about feminist works.  I picked up a copy and read it in small bites over the course of a month.

Essentially, Wollstonecraft argues for the education of women. She discusses how women are viewed as inferior and how denying them education MAKES them inferior. If they are encouraged to care only about clothes and social standing, and not to develop their minds, of course they will be stupid, vapid creatures. She writes at length about the various ways women are repressed, enslaved, and kept from developing into humans worthy of having rights. It was interesting to read how women were viewed during Wollstonecraft’s time and compare how things have changed, but also to see which attitudes have remained the same.

She also goes on to argue that:

  • Girls should be allowed to be as active as boys are.
  • Women should be able to pursue occupations and be represented in government.
  • Women must be educated in anatomy and medicine so that they can take good care of their children; many babies are lost to mothers who are taught only old wives tales.
  • Both sexes of children should be educated together; only by jostling equally among each other can boys and girls form just opinions of themselves.

I was surprised by how many of the things Wollstonecraft writes about still feel relevant today — primarily how woman’s main concern is looking attractive to men. There is still a startling amount of pressure for women to be thin and pretty, and to act in ways that will please men.

I don’t think I can adequately summarize her many arguments, so I’ll let the author speak for herself and share a few of my favorite passages:

“Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison. Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention, and give a character to the opening mind; but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views beyond the triumph of the hour.”

“I lament that women are systematically degraded by receiving the trivial attentions which men think it manly to pay to the sex, when in fact, they are insultingly supporting their own superiority. It is not a condescension to bow to an inferior. So ludicrous, in fact, do these ceremonies appear to me that I scarcely am able to govern my muscles when I see a man start with eager and serious solicitude to lift a handkerchief or shut a door, when the lady could have done it herself, had she only moved a pace or two.”

“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. We should then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect ourselves; and the peace of mind of a worthy man would not be interrupted by the idle vanity of his wife, nor the babes sent to nestle in a strange bosom, having never found a home in their mother’s.”

“To render mankind more virtuous, and happier of course, both sexes must act from the same principle; but how can that be expected when only one is allowed to see the reasonableness of it? To render also the social compact truly equitable, and in order to spread those enlightening principles, which alone can ameliorate the fate of man, women must be allowed to found their virtue on knowledge, which is scarcely possible unless they be educated by the same pursuits as men.”

Miss Wollstonecraft is also delightfully cheeky sometimes!

“My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone.”

“But fair and softly, gentle reader, male or female, do not alarm thyself, for though I have compared the character of a modern soldier with that of a civilized woman, I am not going to advise them to turn their distaff into a musket, though I sincerely wish to see the bayonet converted into a pruning-hook.”

This book occasionally felt a little tedious because of the old-fashioned language — think verrry long sentences — but the ideas Wollstonecraft puts forth are fascinating. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in feminist theory and the history of feminism!

This is the sixth book I’ve read for the Classics Club.


22 thoughts on “Book Review: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

  1. I’m pleased that someone else appreciated this as much as me! It is so wonderfully dense with timeless ideas. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read any hardcore French feminist theory (I had no choice but to do it for my MA!), but Julia Kristeva’s ‘About Chinese Women’ and Helene Cixous’ ‘Sorties’ are both fabulous, once you’ve established what they’re trying to say!

  2. What a great book to read! I recently read a book on the history of feminism and it was clear this work was central to that history. I don’t read many older books, non-fiction or fiction aside from a few classics, but this sounds like a really worthwhile and thought-provoking book.

  3. I don’t believe I’ve ever read this in its entirety, though I know I’ve read selections from it in the past. Those quotes are so amazing- they make me want to get up and… Well, my favorite feminist anthem is “Sister Suffragette” from Mary Poppins. So it makes me want to sing that. Even though I KNOW that “suffragette” is a sexist term in and of itself. I can’t help it. It’s catchy! “Cast off the shackles of yesterday! Shoulder to shoulder into the fray!”

  4. Pingback: Weekly Wrap-Up (#8) |

    • Good question! I wanted to write about it in the post, but it got pretty long 😛

      Penguin Great Ideas is a series of titles deemed world-changing or influential. Most of them are actually extracts from the full works (about 100 pages). There are actually five series within the series, each with their own color scheme and design style. They are all beautiful, as you can expect from Penguin books. They’re a great way to dip your toes into important works by great writers like Kant, Sun Tzu, Orwell, Paine, Proust, etc.

  5. It is so sad that some of the things you mention are still relevant today! However, studying these first feminists you can see they still believe they should improve themselves in order to be better mothers. That is the only issue I have with them.

    • I thought the same thing, but I tried to think of this book in the context of its time. Even though she makes a few arguments that don’t jive with modern feminism, she was super progressive for her time.

  6. Hello Leah! So i am actually using this post for an annotated bibliography for my 9th grade research project. I was wondering if you used any other verifiable sources to attain your information, or is it all from the book itself? Thank you.

    • Hello! All information is from the book. Please keep in mind when referencing this post that I am not an expert and this is not a scholarly article; it’s just a 23-year-old reader’s reaction to this book.

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