Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is an important* text. Written at the end of the eighteenth century by an articulate, intelligent and beautifully, beautifully tragic pioneer feminist, in 200 pages it describes an entire political and social mentality, then suggests an alternate ideology. Yeah, there’s a bit of waffle and yes, there are digressions and sudden switches of subject, but that’s because the book was written quickly by someone who had a lot to say and wanted to write down as much of it as she could. So that’s it – with the criticism acknowledged, the text’s imperfect state alluded to, I’m just going to roll on with a hagiographic review of Wollstonecraft as a person, rather than of Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a polished piece of literature. Because it isn’t, and it doesn’t matter. Because WHAT it says is important. And sometimes her turns of phrase are just FUCKING PHENOMENAL, and even when she rambles and loses her thread she’s still saying something with gusto and will, eventually, tie it back to her central theme, a central theme that is still important, is still essential and is still far, far too relevant for it really to be anything but depressing.
Women should be given all the opportunities that men are, she writes. Good. Of course. Children should be educated in schools of mixed gender and offered a range of practical, cerebral and professional topics appropriate to their abilities. Good. Men shouldn’t be encouraged to fuck around as much as possible, while women are told to be chaste. Women who are told their whole lives to only talk about fashion and children shouldn’t be criticised when they only ever talk about fashion and children. People who have never been taught anything shouldn’t be mocked for their ignorance. Children who are spoilt grow up to be shits. People in England care more about the welfare of animals than they do about humans more unfortunate than themselves. Everyone should take sex a bit less seriously. Men who seduce women and run away, leaving them pregnant, should bear financial responsibility for the child. People who resist change should be treated with suspicion. Financial and social “privilege” makes for bad behaviour. Men holding open doors and picking up things is patronising and encourages women to revel in a physical weakness that is detrimental to their mental and bodily well-being. Spending all ones time reading fiction gives false ideas about life and usually results in chronic unhappiness…
These are all her ideas. Wollstonecraft espoused a slew of “radical” opinions concerning gender, education and politics that are standard in the modern age. Yeah, there’s a lot about god too, but whatever. Ignore it. Let it slide. Because when she is on the button, she is on the button. When she chastises the misogynistic works of Rousseau in great detail, when she pulls in patronising guides to feminine behaviour by awful men, she locates her work within a hostile society that wouldn’t really begin to respond for many, many years. The book is great, in its ideas, though not constantly a thrill to read. But it’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, not the fucking Goldfinch. It’s not meant to thrill.
In Wollstonecraft’s personal life, trapped in a terrible relationship with an adulterous liar and then, later, dying in childbirth (the birth of the child who would become the Mary Shelley of Frankenstein fame**), she suffered the exact kind of classic female traumas that her book writes about the ways to fix. She was able to support herself financially by working, she was part of the liberal intelligentsia of the London of the time, she was adventurous and brave and wrote with a great passion of things that quite directly impacted on her life. She was flawed, she was human, she was FUCKING ALIVE.
NB: The introductory essay in my edition, by Miriam Kramnick, was incredibly informative and a real joy to read.
Vindication of the Rights of Woman veers from the beautiful and lyrical, via the digressive rant, to the straightforward plea for urgent change. It is important for its place in history and, alas, still sadly relevant.
I’d recommend the book, and Miriam Kramnick’s introductory essay, very highly. YEAH!
* I wanted to put “seminal” and then add, as a footnote, “in both senses of the word, given how attractive I find emancipated women”. I decided to not do this. I was in fact considering littering this whole post with quasi-sleazy jokes about me posing with this classic feminist tract in order to look intellectual, liberated, attractive. I even added “#hotmalefeminist” to the list of tags (presuming, wrongly, that I’d be able to take a flattering picture of myself at ten thirty on a Sunday night after four sixty hour working weeks in a row), and now can’t delete it. But none of that would be appropriate. It would be pandering, ultimately, to the kind of parochial, chauvinistic, blokey readership that I don’t want. Though it might have been funny…
** That was probably patronising. Surely anyone prepared to read five hundred words of me spewing about Vindication of the Rights of Woman knows who fucking Wollstonecraft’s daughter is, right? (Or was this footnote patronising?)