A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Posts Tagged ‘new year

Mary Wollstonecraft: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

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And so here we are: the final book of the year and the last post of this blog. And what better way to round off this canter through some of the highlights of women’s lit past and present than to leapfrog back a few centuries to one of the early trailblazers?

Memories and attention spans being what they are, we have a tendency to think that we, or at a stretch the generation before us, invented most of the big ideas. From sexual intercourse beginning in 1963 to the term ‘wireless’, we congratulate ourselves on working it all out pretty much from scratch.

When it comes to feminism, we can be particularly smug. Alright, so we vaguely remember the suffragettes. But they were a bit quaint and genteel with their high-necked dresses and bustles, weren’t they? Really the whole thing only kicked off with Germaine Greer and after that, well, it all went a bit quiet. In fact it’s only in the last year or so with sheroes like Kat and Caitlin showing us how to be women that feminism has truly got off the ground.

Well, not quite. And there are few texts more qualified to show up the flaws in such short-termism than Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

Published in 1762, the text sets out Wollstonecraft’s arguments against the marked inequality she sees between men and women at all levels in society. This, she claims, stems from a ‘false system of education’, which prizes ‘delicacy’ above all other traits in women, denying them the opportunity to  develop their talents and interests in a meaningful way, and encouraging them to focus all their attention on being attractive objects for men to amuse themselves with. Given such an education, she writes, is it any wonder that women’s ‘minds are not in a healthy state’?

From this she proceeds to set out her stall for a new and better system of education that would enable women to develop their faculties and reasoning on the same footing as men, and give them the opportunity to take up independent positions and responsibilities in society. Give us a chance, she argues, and if it turns out we’re no good at it, at least you’ll have solid proof of women’s inadequacies rather than mere conjecture.

Writing from personal experience and observation, Wollstonecraft includes many anecdotes to illustrate her points. Inevitably, some of her own bugbears creep in, lending the text an occasionally quirky air. The observations on the indecency of women changing in the same room as each other and the frivolity of reading novels, for example, are products of Wollstonecraft’s time and taste, rather than central planks of the argument, but they lend the book some welcome colour.

Readers with any knowledge of more recent feminist literature will be struck by the amount that Wollstonecraft anticipates. From observations on the way men ‘inwardly despise’ women, foreshadowing Greer’s comments nearly 200 years later, to compelling arguments against gender-specific toys that might have been made by Kat Banyard, Wollstonecraft repeatedly sets out arguments that will be rehearsed over centuries to come. Even her reflections on the generations it is likely to take for true equality to take root find their echo in Marilyn French, Greer and Caitlin Moran.

But perhaps most striking of all, is the point that Wollstonecraft leads with in her introduction: that inequality stems from a tendency to ‘consider females as women rather than human creatures’. Having spent a year reading women writers, this seems to me to be the problem facing women authors these days too. Until we get past the stage of thinking of books by women as a sort of sub-set of literature proper and realise that they are every bit as diverse, compelling, complex and vital as those by men (as I hope this blog has gone some small way to showing), women will continue to be under-read and under-published and intelligent young women will continue to regard books by their contemporaries as somehow lesser.

Wollstonecraft was on to this more than two centuries ago. Isn’t it time the rest of us caught up?

Thanks to everyone who has followed and commented on this blog over the past year, and to all those who have suggested books. It’s been a great pleasure and privilege to have your support. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read (or even if you haven’t), please join me on my next adventure. I’d really appreciate your help.

Best wishes for 2012.

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Written by Ann Morgan

December 31, 2011 at 6:40 pm