Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman” – book review

I knew I wanted to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman for a long time. But it was not till I got the Audible version, narrated by Fiona Shaw, that I got round to doing it.

The book is a very rational argument about the importance of educating women –  in order to make them better wives and mothers. Knowing the story of Mary Wollstonecraft’s life, I almost expected her arguments to be more radical.

Perhaps this because A Vindication” was written before Wollstonecraft’s affair with Imlay and subsequent relationship with Godwin?

Anyway, in A Vindication, the argument for the education of women springs at least partially with Wollstonecraft’s disappointment with Rousseau’s Emile.Wollstonecraft  argues that the education of women must be the same as that of women: especially if women are to be entrusted with the task of bringing up rational men. She is against same-sex boarding schools, and advocates instead for mixed-sex day schools – so that children can learn to interact with each other. She argues for exercise for girls- stating that their fashionable paleness makes them weak and useless.

One of her more striking metaphors is comparing women as a group to unemployed soldiers- who spend their lives in vanities and amorous pursuits. She stridently argues against coquetry in women and dismisses the argument that an interest in fashion is “natural” for girls. The immortal soul of a girl has no more natural interest in fashion than that of a boy.

Wollstonecraft also engages in a theory of marriage- in which love is only of secondary importance as feeling that will pass away with time. The true bond for Wollstonecraft is that of friendship and parenthood. She writes quite derisively women who struggle to keep their husband’s sexual interest.

In her argumentation for women’s rights, Wollstonecraft often uses the metaphors of her age.  Women are compared to the aristocracy: they are lazy and vain. When Wollstonecraft argues for women’s education she wants them to achieve the useful industrious ambitions of the middle-class.

Wollstonecraft also uses the imagery of East vs West. In her depiction of the East, the women are treated as merely sensual creatures, made for the seraglio. Hence, to make the comparison complete, she argues that the rational West should allow for a reasonable treatment of women. This argument made me even keener to finally read Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Anyhow. Fiona Shaw’s reading of this book was excellent, and I think has substantially improved my experience of it. I enjoyed the Vindication and I think if I were still reading 18th and 19th-century literature I would be using it frequently as a primary source for quotes on attitudes towards women. As such, I have a slight feeling of regret that I’ve never used such excellent writing fodder.

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