Sunday, April 7, 2019

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Discussion Post #1


Dedication 


In the dedication, Mary Wollstonecraft pleaded her case for independent, principled, respectable women everywhere, and suggested the best way to achieve this was through education. She demanded an investigation into the arguments that she laid out in A Vindication, as they were expected to revise a constitution of rights (for men), in France.

This was my favorite quote from the dedication:
In this work I have produced many arguments, which to me were conclusive, to prove that the prevailing notion respecting a sexual character was subversive of morality, and I have contended, that to render the human body and mind more perfect, chastity must universally prevail, and that chastity will never be respected in the male world till the person of a woman is not idolized...
Introduction

In her introduction, Wollstonecraft suggested the conflict: either men and women are naturally and sharply different or civilization has proven to be extremely biased, of which she blamed parents and schools. Hence, women were treated as weaker in mind, incapable of comprehension, and groomed for more shallow and superficial ideals. Girls were taught to emulate softness, which was later considered contemptuous by the male society.

The author complained that education for women was not taken seriously, and that women could only rise in the world through marriage. Without education, how could women govern families and teach their children? Women were taught to be too dependent on men. And if women were only considered objects of desire, what would be her state when her beauty was gone?

Wollstonecraft was anxious to share her reasoning, and readers will recognize her trepidation. She admitted to jumping from one idea to the other because a thought had come to her and she needed to record it hastily. She was not concerned with her words as much as her point, which was to consider how civilization treated girls and women in order to raise up respectable future members of society.

Chapter One

In chapter one, the author laid out her arguments clearly: reason places humans higher than animals; virtues makes one man better than another; and passions are for men to exercise restraint, which in turn makes for stronger character. Here she began her many arguments with Rousseau, the French philosopher, who thought we should all return to our natural state as animals. Wollstonecraft contended that God gave us reason and experience to overcome our temptations and weaknesses, "to better our nature."

Chapter Two

In chapter two, Wollstonecraft makes the point that women have souls and are capable of attaining their own virtues, just as men do. But because women are taught from infancy to rely solely on their husbands, they are not expected or taught to think for themselves.

Rightly, she disagreed with Rousseau that women should be only educated to please men. She said a woman will "find her charms are oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on her husband's heart when they are seen every day, when the summer is passed and gone." This will only bring bitterness to her heart. Better to fully develop her mind and grow in her potential, contributing to her marriage in her later years, when love may develop into friendship.

I love this quote from chapter two:
I own it frequently happens that women who have fostered a romantic unnatural delicacy of feeling, waste their lives in imagining how happy they should have been with a husband who could love them with a fervid increasing affection every day, and all day...That a proper education; or, to speak with more precision, a well-stored mind, would enable a woman to support a single life with dignity...
Wollstonecraft believed that boys and girls should be educated with the same quality education, "an exercise of understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or...to enable the individual to attain such habits of virtue as will render it independent."

The author said that "Nature, or....God, has made all things right; but man has sought him out many inventions to mar the work." In other words, God made his Creation perfect; man (and woman) corrupted everything, including man's relationship with women. Friendship is the best relationship one could have, but man has ruined it by belittling women and making her his self-centered object of pleasure, even in that sacred union called marriage.

Chapter Three

Continuing the same subject, Wollstonecraft recognized that men are physically stronger, and this made men appear superior to women; but, women should not brag about their physical weaknesses either. Nonetheless, knowledge should be equal in nature and degree for both, and women should be recognized as moral, rational and virtuous, as well.

The author rejected Rousseau's consistent focus on women's natural weaknesses and declared that if mothers wanted their girls to have dignity, they must reject Rousseau's ideas. Wollstonecraft believed that girls were shaped in their youth to endure an upbringing that left them no choice; many writers made a mistake and assumed it was nature that made them that way. But the author argued that
...a girl, whose spirits have not been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always be a romp, and the doll will never excite attention unless confinement allows her no alternative. Girls and boys...would play harmlessly together, if the  distinction of sex was not inculcated long before nature makes any difference.
Here is a good argument...and I like this quote, too,
Taught from their infancy that beauty is a woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn 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.
Men were free to pursue multiple interests, but women were burdened and trapped by the one superficial, fleeting treasure they thought they had.

Wollstonecraft declared,
It is time to effect a revolution in female manners - time to restore to them their lost dignity - and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners. - It men be demi-gods - why let us serve them!
This was her call once again for women to be educated in the same way as men. After all, does a man not desire excellence in a wife, as he would anything else?

Finally, the author states again that men and women should be considered equal. While they have different duties; nonetheless, they are human duties, and the principles in applying human duties should be the same for both men and women.

IMHO

This was just the tip of the iceberg. I could have said more, but it would have been too long. Sunday is almost over, and I said I would have this up on 4/7. So I posted some questions, and I will answer them here and then give you an opportunity to opine.

I already shared some of my favorite arguments and quotes, but there are still so many left. I am G.U.I.L.T.Y. of believing in the natural differences between males and females; I do not completely agree with the author. But when she explained how girls would "have a romp" (see quote above), I knew she was absolutely right. This is such a good thing for girls. While I still think that males and females have specific natural appeals, I do not believe it is wrong to encourage children to follow their own individual interests and let them develop in liberty. Modern society has changed a lot in this area.

I did have a difficult time reading through this work because it is so complex. For a woman who received a poor education, Mary Wollstonecraft can write like a professor, even if she was verbose. She claimed to be rushed and meant to rewrite or edit, which never happened. I am not complaining about the writing style, but it took some effort to come to comprehension. She also admitted to jumping around a lot, and the cohesion was sometimes missing. Nonetheless, so far I am appreciating it.

Discussion Questions

Share a favorite argument or idea - maybe ones I have not mentioned. Has society changed in this area? How is it still the same? Is this something that still needs work, or do you disagree with the author?

Share your favorite quote(s).

What are some of the challenges you find with reading this work? Are you able to follow her arguments? What do you think of her writing style?

Add your own opinion. What do you think overall, so far?

7 comments:

  1. Hello Ruth,
    You've written an outstanding summary thus far and I'd so love to talk to you more at length and really discus this book. I think we'd have a lot to talk about. I found Mary's writing in these first 3 chapters to be quite surprising. Clearly she was well read, intelligent, witty, and logical in her approach. She was a fervent, analytical thinking woman and I agreed with many of her premises. But sadly to me, she often came across as a woman with an axe to grind. Now I understand her frustration in view of the way women were treated during this time period, and I really regret that. It's much the same way I find young Muslim women to be treated in those parts of the world where they too are devalued. Where they are treated as nothing more than a trophy to be kept without concern for her emotional, spiritual, or physical worth. I will say up front that I think women and men are created equal, but I too think each have been given different roles by the creator, and therefore must endeavor to educate themselves in preparation for those respective God-given roles. That's not to say that any subject of learning is off limits, on the contrary, only that they should be viewed in the light of a biblical world-view through the lens of the roles designated by our Savior.
    Already being familiar with Mary Wollstonecraft before responding to your post, I simply could not separate Mary's writing from her real life exploits. I hope you won't mind me referring to them in this context. Mary's words espousing independence and level-headedness in this treatise fell on deaf ears for me as her selection in men and her lifestyle choices seemed at best hypocritical. None of the men in her life that she had affairs with were advisable or appropriate. They were however intellectual men esteemed for their work, but they weren't good men. Her choices in life-matters left me to think of her as a woman that at the very least was both unrealistic and foolish. Her real life seemed a bit unhinged and she was an emotional wreck at times. She mentions God and the Christian life in her writings, but somehow manages to separate and compartmentalize her private life from her public life. Her suicide attempts, her hopeless love affairs and illegitimate children show her to be fragile and troubled. I've read in feminist publications that the source of her inner turmoil was a direct result of men and their chauvinistic attitudes, but I think personal responsibility should not be discounted. I wouldn't exactly call her the best role model, but somehow the feminists seem to have brushed her off, shampooed and rinsed her, and now call her Mother. I think as readers we can glean the good in every story. I think her quote 'Virtue can only flourish amongst equals' is my favorite. Have a wonderful week, and thank you for your indulgence.


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    1. What a pleasant surprise! I had no idea you were reading along. Awesome!

      I'd like to speak to your last point first. I know a little about Wollstonecraft's personal life, and it was what I would call a mess. While I cheered her words in my reading thus far, I find they do not match her actual life decisions, which was disappointing. You reference her emotional state, and I see it in her writing. It makes sense that she may have been that way in private. It reminds me of therapists who get into counseling to help other people but cannot help themselves.

      I was trying to explain a few of her arguments to my husband last night, but then I couldn't rectify those same ideas to her personally; it felt like two different people.

      Now, about your first point...it is interesting that you mention Muslim women b/c so did Wollstonecraft make mention of the practice of Islam and how Muslim men treated women. No doubt, you caught that, right? This practice is prevalent in that culture still today, obviously, but it is still present in other cultures, too, including American. While that was very true for her time period, I think today it is perpetuated in our own culture also by women themselves. While some of us are trying so hard to change this, some women (especially those in entertainment) do a great disservice to young women everywhere by the way they live their lives publicly. We are inundated by women (esp. young women) who believe it empowering to encourage their own objectification!

      For Wollstonecraft's time, women flaunted their weakness as a way to be attractive; now today women flaunt something else, but still, to be attractive (or rebellious). If Wollstonecraft were alive today, I am sure she would object to women flaunting ANYTHING!

      Finally, I agree...Christians have no excuse bc we should know that God created man and woman equally in His sight. We may complement one another, but we are equally accountable to God. I also agree that God created us for different roles, and I think the author made that case in her argument about duties, but that man and woman should be equally trained in dignity for those separate duties.

      Thanks so much for your insight!

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  2. I started this on Friday and have just caught up. I think I am following along okay so far, but you're right, she does go on tangents frequently! I remember most of what you covered in your summary.

    Some quotes I liked:

    Chapter 1
    "Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath."

    Chapter 3:
    "The human character has ever been formed by the employments the individual, or class pursues; and if the faculties are not sharpened by necessity, they must remain obtuse."

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    1. Yes, independence is a blessing, and it is true that in order to develop our virtues, we need the liberty and independence to experience and grow on our own.

      And your second quote is right on, too.

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  3. Wow, enjoyed reading yours and Anchor's thoughts!

    There's so much to unpack here...I found a lot to write about (too much??). :D Here's my post:

    https://www.classicsconsidered.com/2019/04/a-vindication-of-rights-of-woman-week-1.html

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  4. Thank you so much, Ruth, for your (what seemed to me) in-depth review of what you've read so far. While I am not doing the read along with you (I haven't reached that part of TWEM yet), I enjoy reading what you have to say about it. It also encourages me to keep going on TWEM so I won't miss out on this thought-provoking classic.

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