Friday, April 10, 2015

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

March was Women’s History Month. Last year, I read Dorothy Sayers’ excellent duo of essays, Are Women Human?, reviewed here. For 2015, I read Mary Wollstonecraft’s seminal feminist work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.


This year, I decided to go with the book that is widely considered the most important book written at the dawn of the first wave of feminism. Published in 1792, it was intended in large part to be a response to Charles Talleyrand's report to the French legislature in which he recommended that women be educated only in domestic pursuits. Wollstonecraft also took on popular “conduct manuals” of the day, which advised women in the art “femininity;” and directed special attention to Rousseau, who went as far as to say that women should be educated in a way that makes them pleasing to men.

When it was first published, it actually was received positively. However, after she died giving birth to Mary Shelley, the future author of Frankenstein, her husband, William Godwin, made the terrible mistake of writing a biography of her life, and revealing a bit too much of her sexual history. For society of that time, her child out of wedlock and other love affairs (prior to her marriage) were sufficiently unthinkable that her argument was then dismissed summarily, and she became a bit of a byword as to the end result of feminist philosophy. Actually, this still persists today in the claim in some circles that “feminism”™ is about encouraging women to be promiscuous.

Eventually, Wollstonecraft’s book regained its reputation, and its place in the canon of important and influential books.

While she argued for full education, property and political rights for women, it was not until nearly a century later, in 1882, that England finally passed the Married Women’s Property Act, allowing married women to own and manage their own property, rather than passing that ownership and control to their husbands upon marriage. It was not until even later than that that women were permitted to vote and hold office. At the time, women sacrificed their very personhood - legally speaking - upon marriage, as William Blackstone noted:

“By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.”

Wollstonecraft was a product of the Enlightenment, and naturally founds her argument on reason. Namely, the necessity of reason in order to attain virtue. As she argues, mere blind obedience isn’t virtue, and one not trained in the exercise of reason and logic cannot truly formulate a virtuous course of action.

In contrast, Talleyrand and Rousseau argued that, while men should be trained in logic and reason, women should be taught “manners,” “grace,” and the art of “beauty.” And, of course, a key part of that was that women should be pleasing and obedient to men. Wollstonecraft argued that:

“This is only keeping them in rank and file, it is true. Strengthen the female mind by enlarging it, and there will be an end to blind obedience; but, as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists [that is, libertines] are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a play-thing.”

It wasn’t just cultivation of the mind that Wollstonecraft believed would aid women. She also believed - contrary to the popular belief at the time - that women needed physical exercise. Dr. Fordyce ( a preacher and writer who is quoted at length throughout the book) wrote in published sermon the following regarding exercise by females:

“Let it be observed that in your sex manly exercises are never graceful; that in them a tone and figure, as well as an air and deportment, of the masculine kind, are always forbidding; and that men of sensibility desire in every woman soft features, and a flowing voice, a form, not robust, and demeanor delicate and gentle.”

Wollstonecraft rejoins that this stereotype of frail and weak women would disappear “if girls were allowed to take sufficient exercise, and not confined to close rooms till their muscles are relaxed and their powers of digestion destroyed.”

“To carry the remark still further, if fear in girls instead of being cherished, perhaps, created, were treated in the same manner as cowardice in boys, we should quickly see women with more dignified aspects. It is true, the could not then with equal propriety be termed the sweet flowers that smile in the walk of man; but they would be more respectable members of society, and discharge the important duties of life by the light of their own reason.”

I was struck by a desire to transport Wollstonecraft to the Twenty-first Century, and introduce her to my daughters, full of courage, strength, and intelligence - and to my wife, and to millions of other women who bring their courage, wisdom, and strength to bear in our society. I would love for her to see athletes like Serena Williams and Mia Hamm. I would like her to see the many women who lead at the national level around the world. And I would love her to see the judges and lawyers working for justice in our legal communities.

It is hard to overstate this point. For those opposed to the full humanity and equality of women, strength of body and mind is a real threat, and makes women unfeminine and therefore undesirable.

It think Wollstonecraft makes a good point, however, that the basis of a good relationship between men and women isn’t some “romantic” sort of “fondness,” by which she (and others of her time) meant protectiveness, pity, and - she argues - condescension, combined with sex appeal. Rather, as she puts it, a long lasting relationship must be founded on mutual respect and friendship, which can only be between intellectual equals.

“Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!”

As a man in a truly companionate marriage, to someone I respect and admire, I feel truer words have never been spoken. Equality, strength of mind and body, courage, and a dedication to do the right thing are not “masculine” traits after all, and their abundance in a woman does not diminish her “femininity” in the slightest.

As Wollstonecraft puts in perhaps the best line of the book:

“I know that libertines will also exclaim, that woman would be unsexed by acquiring strength of body and mind, and that beauty, soft bewitching beauty! would no longer adorn the daughters of men. I am of a very different opinion, for I think that, on the contrary, we should then see dignified beauty, and true grace; to produce which, many powerful physical and moral causes would concur. - Not relaxed beauty, it is true, or the graces of helplessness; but such as appears to make us respect the human body as a majestic pile fit to receive a noble inhabitant, in the relics of antiquity.”

Although this book doesn’t go as far as later works would in advocating for the full “political, social, and economic equality” of women; (That’s the dictionary definition of “feminism.”) it does stand for the proposition that we are morally equal, and equally responsible for our own actions; and that, thus, both men and women should be given the tools of reason and education to fulfil that moral responsibility.

As Wollstonecraft puts in regarding the fear that women who give up their power of “feminine” manipulation give up their power to control men, “‘Educate women like men,’ says Rousseau, ‘and the more they resemble our sex the less power they will have over us.’ This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.”

Note on the language and style:

This book does suffer from some of the stylistic challenges of the era. I am pretty darn good at reading old books, but the language and rhetorical style did slow me down a bit. Wollstonecraft uses an interesting combination of styles. In part, she uses the high rhetorical style, full of logic and other “masculine” signifiers. At other times, she appeals to “sensibility,” which we may consider to be a combination of “emotion” and “female intuition” as we use those terms today. Thus, some parts read very much like a man would write to other men. Other parts are either a more typical “female” style or the way that a man would write to a female, considering her more sensitive to emotional appeal and less amenable to logic. It is an interesting combination. I suspect that Wollstonecraft intended to write to both genders, and thus chose a hybrid style that would speak to both the way they were accustomed to be addressed.

Note on the main sources of quotes:

Wollstonecraft quotes several contemporary authors and then proceeds to eviscerate their arguments.

The most prominent is Rousseau. I’m not much of a Rousseau fan. He falls, for me, in the same category as Sartre, for being personally loathsome and for perpetrating pernicious ideas. Not that they couldn’t be right some of the time, but that enough of what they said was harmful that the good was too hard to pick out. Rousseau’s personal life showed a great disrespect for women and a serious narcissistic streak, while his writings often seem to lose touch with reality. His idea of the “noble savage” has aged particularly badly in retrospect. Contrary to his belief, societies “untainted” by modern technology, government, and ideas were no utopias, but tended rather to be hotbeds of misogyny, violence, and savagery. Not that modernity is great shakes, but more that humans always have been breathtakingly violent and destructive to each other. Sad fact.

The others are also interesting. I already mentioned Dr. Fordyce, the preacher who published a series of sermons on proper “feminine” behavior, and Tallyrand, with his proposal to limit the education of women by force of law. Another was Dr. Gregory, who wrote an open letter to his daughters on how they should act.

All these show the ingrained beliefs of the time, particularly in Anglo-European society. Although Wollstonecraft is skilled in her rebuttals, the most striking thing about the extended quotes of these authors is just how sure they were that women were congenitally inferior, and that a certain detailed set of behaviors was necessary to be a “true woman.” To our modern ears, these ideas are beyond ludicrous. They are offensive and demeaning. At the time, however, they were unfortunately accepted by all too many as the way the world was. Time and feminism have proven them wrong, of course. Women are not the intellectual inferiors of men. Then can and do participate in the political process, and serve in office with the same distinction as men. (Sometimes better, for that matter.) They can and do participate in athletic pursuits, and the best of them can kick the butts of the vast majority of men. (Let’s say I have plenty of personal experience in that.)

I think that, therefore, the most powerful part of this book to me, was the horrid quotes. And here is why:

Note on Christian Patriarchy and Gender Essentialism:

I remember that the curriculum I learned from as a high schooler, which was somewhat Fundamentalist oriented, had nothing good to say about Rousseau. I’m not sure I really disagree with that assessment, as I noted above. For every good line, I find he has ten wince-worthy ones.


I was struck by this fact as I read through all of the quotes from Rousseau’s Émile:

The view of womanhood prevalent in the Christian Patriarchy movement - and indeed in far too much of mainstream Evangelicalism, with their worship of a certain view of “femininity” doesn’t actually come from the Bible.

It comes from:

Jean-Jacques F-ing Rousseau.

I was a bit shocked to see that pretty much the majority of Doug Phillips’ “Tenets of Biblical Patriarchy” and the whole cloth of the teachings of others of his ilk could be found in Rousseau’s paean to his vision of “femininity” in Émile.

I kid you not.

From female submission, to “modesty” culture, to the idea that woman was created to serve man, to the idea that women trade sex for economic security from men and thus should learn to withhold sexual favors from their husbands, to the segregation of the genders, to the prohibition of exercise (see, Piper, John), to the idea that women should cultivate a “mild disposition,” to the idea that women should be focused on being “pretty,” to the truly evil teaching that a woman should obey her husband in matters of faith.

Let me hit some highlights lowlights.


“For this reason, the education of women should be always to relative to the men. To please us, to be useful to us, to educate us when we are young, and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy. So long as we fail to recur to this principle, we run wide of the mark, and all the precepts which are given them contribute neither to their happiness nor our own.”

“Girls are from their earliest infancy fond of dress. Not content with being pretty, they are desirous of being thought so...they are hardly capable of understanding what is said to them, before they are governed by talking to them of what people will think of their behavior.”

(Related is Dr. Gregory’s admonition to cultivate a fondness for dress in women.)

“Woman and man were made for each other; but their mutual dependence is not the same. The men depend on the women only on account of their desires; the women on the men both on account of their desires and their necessities: we could subsist better without them than they without us.”

“[W]omen have, or ought to have, but little liberty; they are apt to indulge themselves excessively in what is allowed them.”

“There results from this habitual restraint a tractableness which women have occasion for during their whole lives, as they constantly remain either under subjection to the men, or to the opinions of mankind; and are never permitted to set themselves above those opinions. The first and most important qualification in a woman is good-nature or sweetness of temper: formed to obey a being so imperfect as man, often full of vices, and always full of faults, she ought to learn betimes even to suffer injustice, and to bear the insults of a husband without complaint; it is not for his sake, but her own, that she should be of a mild disposition.”

“[For a woman,] reputation is no less indispensable than chastity. A man secure in his own good conduct, depends only on himself, and may brave the public opinion: but a woman, in behaving well, performs but half her duty; as what is thought of her, is as important to her as what she really is. It follows hence, that the system of a woman’s education should, in this respect, be directly contrary to that of ours. Opinion is the grave of virtue amount the men; but its throne among women.”

There are similar sentiments regarding the need for women to avoid opinions of their own, defer to men, serve, men, and the whole pile of horseshit served up by Doug Phillips, John Piper, Doug Wilson, Bill Gothard, Jonathan Lindvall, Kevin Swanson, and so many others.

The whole thing is straight out of Rousseau!

Oh, and then there is this gem. I remember Gothard teaching that since women are to be absolutely subject to men, that the man gets to pick the spiritual direction of the family. The woman can only “disobey” if he commands her to do something that she believes is a positive sin.

Could THIS idea come from Rousseau as well?

“As the conduct of a woman is subservient to the public opinion, her faith in matters of religion should, for that very reason, be subject to authority. [Gothard code word noted.] Every daughter ought to be of the same religion as her mother, and every wife to be of the same religion as her husband: for though such religion should be false, that docility which induces the mother and daughter to submit to the order of nature, takes away, in the sight of God, the criminality of their error.”

Holy f-ing crap.

This is EXACTLY the horseshit that Gothard taught. God would judge women (and children - minors or adults) not on whether they did the right thing, but whether they obeyed their “authorities.” God would judge the authority - that is, the man - for the error. But all the woman or child was required to do was obey.


And Gothard and so many others - even within more mainstream Evangelicalism - teach this horseshit.

Which comes, not from the Bible, but from Jean Jacques F-ing Rousseau. Good lord!

Perhaps, though, Wollstonecraft had it right about these false teachers:

“There seems to be an indolent propensity in man to make prescription always take the place of reason, and to place every duty on an arbitrary foundation.”

And thus, a duty to use one’s own conscience and intellect to determine the right and ethical way to act is replaced by a prescription to “obey authority.” Shut up, and obey your "authority." Which means your pastor in any case, and your father or husband if you are a woman. Don't EVER actually think for yourself.

Having read this book, I am reminded again that it is essential to look beyond the bubble of one’s own “tribe” and actually learn history, philosophy, and ethics from other paradigms. So much of what we accept as “gospel” when it comes to gender and gender roles is really just the horseshit of past centuries, repackaged, polished,  and given the gloss of “godliness.”

A note on slut shaming:

There is still a tendency to ascribe sexual impurity to any woman who dares assert herself as an equal. It’s the old “Madonna/Whore” dichotomy at work. This was certainly the case for Wollstonecraft. After she wrote this book, she fell in love with Gilbert Imlay, and eventually became his mistress. They had a child, but he deserted her. In the aftermath of this breakup, she attempted suicide, but was fortunately rescued. She later married William Godwin, but died giving birth to their child, as noted above.

Godwin, not being the most aware of the inevitable results of revealing this information, went ahead and publicised Wollstonecraft’s past. Predictably, there came the usual and inevitable claims that “feminism” ™ led to out-of-wedlock births and suicide. Only true “submission”™ to a man (and the surrender of all her profits from her writing) would lead to true happiness. Thus, her claim that women needed education and equality was crap, because she wasn’t perfect personally, and her ideas could be disregarded. Thus has it ever been, but I hope will not always be.

A few links:

For more on the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 in England, see this Wikipedia article.  It matches what I learned in law school on the subject.

Likewise, here is further information on the issue as it played out in the United States during the Nineteenth Century.

I love the Harriet Beecher Stowe  quote:

[T]he position of a married woman ... is, in many respects, precisely similar to that of the negro slave. She can make no contract and hold no property; whatever she inherits or earns becomes at that moment the property of her husband.... Though he acquired a fortune through her, or though she earn a fortune through her talents, he is the sole master of it, and she cannot draw a penny....[I]n the English common law a married woman is nothing at all. She passes out of legal existence.

I will also note with approval that my home state of California was FAR ahead of the march of justice for women in this matter in its doctrine of “community property.” Not only could married women own their own separate property, but they were entitled to one half of the property acquired during marriage on the theory that their domestic contributions were worth every bit as much as the monetary contributions of the man.


  1. That's pretty interesting about the parallels between Rousseau's teaching and patriarchal teachings. I've always seen a lot of parallels with Plato, too, though of course he was also a persona non grata. I need to get around to reading this. Right now we are reading a biography of Abigail Adams and enjoying her advocacy for educating women even though she could appreciate Fordyce's Sermons. :-P (And that, in turn, puts me in mind of *Pride and Prejudice*.)

    1. Yes indeed. If you are reading Plato, you might find some time for Aristotle's Politics. It changed my perspective on what Saint Paul was talking about when he spoke of women, children, and slaves.

      Also, I had completely forgotten the P&P reference to Fordyce. Nicely done!

      The post was already to long, so I omitted this, but when you do get around to reading Wollstonecraft, you may find interesting her evolving views on female sexuality. In Vindication, she argues that desire needs to be set aside in favor of reason, and given the legal status of women, I could see her aversion to bad marriage. In later works, she argued (ahead of her time) that females were sexual too, and that their needs were as important as men. Amazing that we are still having that argument today...

  2. I recently saw someone, who I know to be some kind of conservative Catholic (he comments on many of the history blogs that I read and he actually self-describes as a "Thomist"), post that exact quote from Blackstone and claim it wasn't sexist, it was just a system that ended up not working because men frequently abandoned women. He also strongly implied that to call it "sexist" would be to judge history by modern standards, which makes you an agenda-driven liberal who fails to understand historical context. I assume conservatives never judge history by their own standards. (To be fair, though, this guy wasn't actually advocating for a return to coverture.)

    My thoughts:

    1. I don't think I'm ever going to agree very much with any person who seriously believes that a woman literally ceasing to be a person in the eyes of the law, was somehow okay, even by relative standards. Although, if they don't like "sexist," I could always go with "non-factual," "false" and/or "profoundly reality-impaired" instead…which are equally good descriptors of the stuff you quoted above. ;-)

    2. I'm not sure how anyone can wholesale condemn judging history by your own standards, because let's face it, everyone does it, all the time, on both sides of any aisle, political or otherwise. Certainly there are times when people let their own opinions / agenda / worldview / whatever get in their own way so much that it hinders true understanding, but nobody can ever get away of at least SOME degree of moral judgment-making on history…and said judgment will presumably be in accord with their own morals ("agenda").

  3. There is a certain delicious irony in a "Thomist" rejecting one of the key ideas of Aquinas, which is that all truth, regardless of where it is found, is God's truth. (This is one reason why the Van Til/Rushdoony sorts LOATHE Aquinas.) Thus, the truth of female personhood should be accepted even if it was "discovered" by those dang liberals. (Or something like that...)

    You are right that we all judge history by our own standards. While we should be aware of our biases, certainly, I don't think we are wrong to condemn the laws and institutions of the past because they were typical of the time. If anything, we should be doubly careful of venerating the institutions of the past, because we often fail to understand the safeguards and counter measures that were necessary to make them work. (Thus, we import the injustice without the mercy...)

    Also on that point, there is nothing wrong with coming to the conclusion that the old way of doing things was wrong. I would prefer it if slavery, to take one example, is judged by modern standards. It was wrong then, and is now. Does that make the slaveowners past monsters? No. That is where the historical context comes in. Likewise, was Blackstone morally bankrupt? Of course not. But the law was still unjust. It was then, and remains so now.

    Or to put a really sharp point on it: We can understand that the Psalmist was speaking from the perspective of his time in history, and still realize that "Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." isn't a good prescription for warfare.

    I'm also stealing "profoundly reality-impaired." I'm reasonably certain that this is the actual clinical condition affecting Doug Wilson.

    1. Yeah, the guy seems to view most things through a political lens, in which everyone to the left of him is part of "the Left," whether they actually self-describe as being on the Left or not. He also seems to be part of a very specific strain of online Catholicism which promotes the integration of Republicanism (meaning the party) and Catholicism, despite the fact that there's quite a few, let's just say, tensions between the two (as there are between Catholicism and the Democratic party - it's almost as if Catholicism predates American politics or something :-D ). So I think that's what's going on there.

      I react in a similar way to you, when I encounter claims like another one I read in the past few weeks, that you risk teaching your daughter to dislike Western civilization by telling her that there has never been a female president because of "patriarchal hegemony." Just because Western civilization made a big mistake (an exclusively male-dominated gender system) doesn't mean Western civilization is, as you put it, morally bankrupt or worthless. Which is probably best seen in the fact that Western civilization eventually decided to work on fixing its own mistake.

      And again, if the person doesn't like the phrase "patriarchal hegemony," there are lots of other ways to describe what was going on…some of them even more colorful :-)