25 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on August 3, 2001
If you need to read this for a college or high school class, or as part of a women's studies project that you are doing for some other purpose, then I'd like to assure you that it won't be all that painful. You may even enjoy it and wish that you'd found this book sooner, all on your own. I was only assigned to read parts of it, but I finished the book by choice.
It's interesting and well writen. Some of the language and nearly all of the issues that are brought up are inflamatory. In class discussions I compared the book to "Fight Club," and was nearly laughed out of the room, but I am at least partly serious. It does have the edge of a social visionary who wanted to shake things up and blow old fashioned society out of the water. No soap bombs, though, but that's only a technicality.
If you have any choice in the matter I would suggest that you choose this book over stuffier works by less forward thinkers. I swear that reading it won't hurt that badly.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 25, 2010
In both the Preface and the Introduction, Wollstonecraft emphasizes what she sees as the root cause of the failure of men to treat women as equals. Men discourage women from achieving the same education that men routinely are given, and as long as women are denied this education, then they can never hope to achieve social and economic parity with men. In her opening remarks to Talleyrand, she is gently optimistic that her powers of persuasion will be sufficient such that he "will not throw my work aside." Her other comments are couched in similar conciliatory terms: "I call upon you, therefore, now to weigh what I have advanced respecting the rights of women."
It is not only the lack of educational opportunity for women that rouses Wollstonecraft's ire. She connects this lack with a general lack of respect to a morality that has become "an empty name." Men cannot acknowledge morality in women unless they can first acquire it in their own persons. The only way, she notes, for men to do both is for them to permit women to have sufficient access to education that will lead women to acquire virtue. Wollstonecraft suggests that virtue in women cannot occur until men respect them enough for women to feel virtuous. As long as men see women as trophy wives, alluring mistresses, and idolized objects of unneeded Renaissance gallantry, then the oppression of women will continue under a paternalistic hand. Wollstonecraft's annoyance clearly is evident when she considers that men have appointed themselves the gender guardian of what is best for women: "Who made man the exclusive judge if women partake with him the gift of reason?" Throughout history, she continues, tyrants of all stripes have been "eager to crush reason; yet always assert that they usurp its throne only to be useful." Men of Wollstonecraft's day are very much like the tyrants of former eras, and the female victims of the present are no less oppressed than all the victims of the past.
Wollstonecraft roundly condemns men for their own dearth of virtue in that when men see no need to expect virtue in women, then they feel no necessity to show it themselves. The result of this failure to expect or exhibit virtue is their seeking extra-marital affairs, a state she terms a "box of mischief." When men stray in this manner, their wives may follow suit or even neglect their children. All that remains for such women is to seek to obtain by cunning and guile what their men ought to dispense freely.
In the Introduction, Wollstonecraft builds upon the same idea that women are deprived of equality by being denied a proper education. Surprisingly enough, she does not lay the blame squarely on men. Wollstonecraft writes of various faults that women commit that enable men to get away with such heavy-handed actions. She writes as if women are little more than clay figurines to be molded exclusively by men: "The minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement." This "enfeeblement" has its origins in a myriad of sources, all of which women are seemingly unable to resist. She writes of "books of instruction" (written by men of genius) which purport to be models of delicate feminine behavior. It is unclear from context whether "genius" is meant ironically. Even more startlingly, Wollstonecraft admits flat out that in some respects at least, men are biologically superior to women: "In the government of the physical world, it is observable that the female, in general, is inferior to the male. The male pursues, the female yields--this is the law of nature." She adds that "this physical superiority cannot be denied." She does grant that men take unfair advantage of this immutable law of nature by widening what should be merely a biological gap into a sociological chasm: "But not content with this natural pre-eminence, men endeavor to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for the moment." Women, it follows, cannot help but be "intoxicated by the adoration which men, under the influence of their senses, pay them."
The strength and persuasiveness of Wollstonecraft's arguments are diluted by her being unable to detach herself from her thoroughly middle-class status. Those who reside above her on the economic ladder seemingly reside in a universe untouched by matters that relate to those lower on the scale. She, as one of the middle class, is in a "natural state," and thus amenable to the laws of nature and the power of rhetoric. Those who are of the upper class are "weak, artificial beings raised above the common wants and affections of their race, and in a premature unnatural manner, undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society!" Such women are to be pitied since their education "tends to render them vain and helpless." What Wollstonecraft does not acknowledge is that such female vanity and helplessness are not limited to the empty-headed women of the rich. In fact, it is these very traits that she so lamentably bemoans that are so entrenched in the females of her own middle class. Life, for these rich women, is limited to a useless search for amusement in a world bereft of it.
Wollstonecraft further suggests that women are at least partially to blame for their unchivalrous treatment by men. She assumes that given the least amount of gallantry by men that women will immediately assume the fawning traits of docility that so enrage her: "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." The favored male tactic to suppress and dominate women is to show untoward gallantry and excessive politeness at all times. Wollstonecraft terms all such patriarchal barbarities as "the soft phrase, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste," all of which inevitably lead to such actions as "almost synonymous with epithets of weakness," From these actions by men, she concludes that "those pretty feminine phrases" do no more than to engender a "weak elegance of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners" in women. Thus, in comparing the elegance of gallantry to the endurance of virtue, women may seek the latter but settle for the former.
The language and style of her book have caused future critics to discern a disparity between the clearly stated message and the less clearly phrased rhetoric. On one hand, Wollstonecraft promises that her writing will be the very epitome of simplicity and conciseness, yet on the other the content belies the asserted intent. She writes of her intended simplicity: "I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style--I aim at being useful; and sincerity will render me unaffected; for wishing rather than to persuade by the force of my arguments, than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods, nor in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which coming from the head, never reach the heart." This sounds very much as if she places considerable urgency in keeping matters expressed as clear and unaffected as possible. Flowery diction, then, ought to have no place in her book. However, at the start of her Introduction, she uses a series of botanical metaphors whose elegance is intrusive:
"The conduct and manners of women, in fact, evidently prove, that their minds are not in a healthy state; for like the flowers that are planted in too rich a soil, strength and usefulness are sacrificed to beauty; and the flaunting leaves, after having pleased a fastidious eye, fade, disregarded on the stalk, long before the season when they ought to have arrived in maturity. One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education."
The issues of apparent inferiority raised in both the Preface and Introduction are revisited in later chapters of Wollstonecraft's book. Each time that she considers why men are permitted to so thoroughly dominate women, she more often than not implies that there is some defect lurking within women that men are quick to expand upon to justify a series of patriarchal actions that are no less than tyrannous despite the ostensible gallantry with which they are couched.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 4, 2011
I read Mary Wollstonecraft's piece, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, for a western civ class. Initially, I found the text hard to understand. However, if one pairs the piece with Rousseau's writings (particularly Emile, or, On Education) the writing really comes to life. Ms. Wollstonecraft wrote this book as a rebuttle of some of Rousseau's beliefs. When the two are coupled, it is very interesting to compare and contrast. Great place to start when looking at the true meaning of "equality" a famous mind like Rousseau was striving for at this time period. Dense prose, though. Be warned!
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2010
When Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, the status of women in England was marked by a series of laws and customs that relegated them to second-class citizens. Among other shortcomings, women were routinely denied the right to vote, to divorce equitably, and to maintain property rights on a par with men. The source of the problem, she saw, lay in an inadequate education that guaranteed that women had to ally themselves to men merely for the basics of survival. After centuries of such a misaligned alliance, women had been reduced to whimpering, simpering clinging vines who had to use guile and beauty to maintain their current level of existence. If women were given a proper education, Wollstonecraft foresaw a time when men would no longer feel the need to exert a patriarchal hegemony over women who could then dispense with guile and beauty as a means to achieve equality. A problem in her paradigm soon arose when it became apparent that there was a gap between her stated intent and her means toward achieving that intent.
This gap lay in two overlapping arenas of thought. In the first arena, Wollstonecraft could not divorce herself entirely from the stifling hand of a patriarchal hegemony that seemed almost as natural to her as it did to the men who used it to justify a thorough quashing of female rights. Wollstonecraft did not believe in the equality of men and women as feminists today so relentlessly urge. She saw the sexes as different in such a fundamental way that it never occurred to her to seek to redress the lack of gender inequality by questioning this unspoken premise. Men had a physical superiority over women that simply could not be denied--only acknowledged. What remained for her was to appeal to the better side of men by persuading them that it was in their best interests to forego their well-entrenched custom of male gender supremacy first by viewing women according to Wollstonecraft's new paradigm and second by acting on that view by discarding the outmoded habits of gallantry and paternalism that she saw as the root cause of the plight of women. Convincing men to do this would be no easy task nor would it be any easier to persuade women to discard their tried and true means of feminine wiles that acted in concert with male gallantry to maintain the uneasy status quo. Wollstonecraft's tract was well-intentioned but it is painful for the modern reader to learn that part of the reason for the failure of the book to achieve widespread acceptance until nearly a century later was due to her unbalanced perception of how men relate to women on levels ranging from the social to the intellectual to the physical. She could articulate with clarity and forcefulness that men were the superior gender with regard to biology, but her other arguments assumed secondary and unexamined bases that she could only allude to without ever recognizing her own true limitations. Men who received a formal education, she reasoned, must inevitably develop powers of exactness in reasoning that were concomitant with such an education. Women who were denied the same education or received an inferior version of it could not hope to achieve a similar lofty means of intellectual prowess. Feminine reasoning thus was limited to "so they do today, what they did yesterday, merely because they did it yesterday." It did not occur to Wollstonecraft that a rigorous sense of reasoning lay not in formalized education but rather inhered within women themselves. Further, she assumed that the knowledge that women gained from whatever source was both quantitatively and quantifiably different from that which men so effortlessly attained. Thus, the true unspoken stumbling block preventing the equalization of the genders lay more in Mary Wollstonecraft's internalization of the inferiority of women than it did in the lack of education that she saw as the cause of that inferiority.
The second source of her failure to connect viscerally with both genders in her age was due to the discrepancy between her stated goals and the means she used to achieve those goals. In the Preface and the Introduction, Wollstonecraft was direct in stating that she must maintain a clear line of demarcation between the virtues of simple and plain English which she associated with male thinking and the excesses of figurative language and tropic expressions of elegance that she connected with feminine thinking. "Elegance," she stated, "was inferior to virtue." Further, she wrote that "I shall disdain to cull my phrases or polish my style, and sincerity will render me unaffected, for wishing rather to persuade by the force of my arguments than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time in rounding periods or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings." Unfortunately for her logic, she proceeds to violate these very precepts of simplicity and directness.
In Chapter I, she writes metaphorically: "For what purpose were the passions implanted? That man by struggling with them might attain a degree of knowledge denied to the brutes; whispers Experience." This obvious personification does not fit in with her avowed aim of non-tropic language. Later in the same chapter, she takes Rousseau to task in a verbal explosion of heavenly metaphors: "Man has been held out as independent of his power who made him, or as a lawless planet darting from its orbit to steal the celestial fire of reason; and the vengeance of heaven, lurking in the subtle flame, sufficiently punished his temerity, by introducing evil into the world."
What are we to make of these frequent gaps between intent and realization? Literary critics today tend to analyze her text using the binary language of deconstructive thought, that is taking two pairs of opposing ideas and separating them with a slash: natural/unnatural, free/controlled, man/woman etc. Unless we today assume that Mary Wollstonecraft could presciently assume the discovery of a mode of thought not dreamed of until the 1960s, we are left with the obvious, that she tried to level the economic playing field in the best way that she could. That she made what we call either blatant blunders or enduring insight is secondary to her stated goals. Women deserve a fair shake and education was the means toward that end.