Saturday, October 11, 2008

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft


This classic work by Mary Wollstonecraft has been chopped down and repackaged as a sort of pocket size essay by Penguin. I think the full book is around 350-400 pages. This Penguin edition is 130 pages. Nowhere on the book does it state that it is a truncated version. You have to read the small type on the page that contains all the publishing info to discover this. I feel Penguin have been a bit naughty, as anyone new to Wollstonecraft may mistake this for the full text.

I first learnt about A Vindication of the Rights of Woman when reading The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer in my early twenties (I only read the first hundred pages and it took me another 15 years before I read the book in full). Greer’s book was chocka block full of quotes from A Vindication. Since then the book has always stayed in my head as a ‘must read at some stage’. As luck would have it, I was recently given this nicely presented Penguin quickie-version.

Having read this short version I certainly hope to read the full treatise at some later stage. Wollstonecraft writes like a philosopher and all her thinking is grounded in hard common sense. Her basic argument is that women are the intellectual equals of men, and that they only behave in frivolously female ways because they have been taught to do so.

This last point may still be up for debate. Recently on the Oprah Winfrey show the host was asked by guest Barbara Walters, ‘Can you walk in those shoes’. Winfrey said no, but that was okay because she didn’t have to walk, only sit. So there you have the contradiction, women have more and more come into their own, but still thwart themselves in other areas (invaliding their feet, which should be used for walking, and turning them into useless ornaments).

Wollstonecraft’s personal life seemed to be at odds with her philosophical writings. She involved herself in tumultuous affairs and attempted suicide on several occasions.

No matter. Her work is of the highest quality; her insights are sharp, penetrating and original. I loved how she said that the soldier and frivolously feminine woman were basically cut from the same cloth, the ridiculous slaves of archetypal expectations.

Whether typical male and female behaviour is the result of nurture or nature is something that will continue to be debated. Yet no one can dispute the first part of Wollstonecraft’s argument, that women are the intellectual equals of men, and therefore deserve an equal status in society.

What a tragedy that Wollstonecraft died giving birth to another genius, Mary Shelley.

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