I've got a Scotch-taped, library-lended 1967 copy of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in my hands. My friend and I are reading it together in the third series of what, given that we are but two, probably isn't most people's idea of a 'book club.' But it works for us; we are moving through important texts in women's history, and there's always a lot to talk about...
While I've only recently begun Vindication, there are striking points that are worth expanding outside of the conversations of Katie and I.
Now, Vindication was published in 1792. It ignited the feminist movement of the nineteenth century, particularly suffragist campaigns around the world. Wollstonecraft draws heavily from Enlightenement ideas, as well as her experience in France during that country's revolution, in her exploration of society and gender.
Nobody was writing anything like this in 1792. J.S. Mill wouldn't write The Subjection of Women for another 77 years.
Charles W. Hagelman, Jr. wrote the introduction to my edition of Wollstonecraft's radical book. It includes this backhanded bit, which, unfortunately, indicates Hagelman's overall tone:
"What gives her book its timeless appeal is not primarily the originiality or the profoundity of her ideas (for they have neither), nor the eloquence of her prose (which is not always eloquent), but her devotion to her fellow men and her concern for their well being."
Compare that to Wollstonecraft's words from her own introduction to her book:
"I wish to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of body and mind, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt."
Wollstonecraft goes on:
"Dismissing, then, those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel, I ... aim at being useful... wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments..."
Her emphasis is in every human being's capability for reason. Hagelman doesn't seem inclined to take her up on these terms, or, indeed, to have read the book at all.
In praising "her devotion to her fellow men," Hagelman traps Wollstronecraft in the very box she intended to break. Nowhere does Hagleman engage with her arguments, or her advocation for education for women and their ability to act as rational, capable human beings (rather than being merely decorative). He praises her, instead, for being a nice woman. In non-inclusive language to boot.
At the end of my copy is a chronology of her life (and it was a fascinating life), and that same lack of understanding of Wollstronecraft's ideas seems to pervade it as well--as evidenced by, for example, the entry that reads:
"Her daughter, named Mary (who became Shelley's wife), was born 30 August."
Simple enough. But it's interesting that the aside most worth mentioning about Mary Wollstroneraft Shelley is that she was the wife of a famous man: Percy Bysshe Shelley, rather than for her own significant accompslishments. Why didn't the parenthetical read '(who went on to write Frankenstein)'?
Wollstonecraft wrote, in Vindication: "...meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty, to the desire of establishing themselves,---the only way women can rise in the world,--by marriage."
This edition of Vinidcation comes 175 years after Wollstonecraft wrote it; and still the presumptions she faced then were present in 1967. It would be a mistake to believe that the same deep-rooted tendency (and by 'tendency,' I mean 'sexism') that values women for their 'devotion' to various men rather than their own intellect and imagination has disappeared today.
It is out of an awareness of the worth of women's words and ideas that Women In Media & News exists; that the literary journal Calyx exists; that the Center for New Words exists; and that BeingJane, the Feminist Majority Foundation, the National Organization for Men Against Sexism, About-Face, the journal Feminista!, the International Women's Media Center, and the storied newsjournal Off our backs exists.
I suppose that it goes withouth saying--and yet, I'm saying it--that if I've gotten this much inspiration and fodder for thought by halfway through the first chapter of Mary Wollstonecraft's book, you too might find it worth your time.