A Vindication of the Rights of Woman - Week #3

Week 3 of the Readalong covers chapters 6–11 which deal with early childhood, concepts of modesty vs humility, a woman's reputation, class differences, and parent-child relationships.  Whew!  In all seriousness, though, while I personally would have chosen a narrower scope for such a book, I admire Mary's willingness to take on a broad range of subjects and deal with each one in some detail.

I think my biggest takeaway from the book thus far is how much it puts into context Jane Austen's work (and, no doubt, her contemporaries').  After an Austen phase in my tweens, I later became disenchanted with her stories, finding (frankly) not much in them which seemed relevant to my life.  However, if I had any doubt before what "sensibility" means or whether Anne Elliot's odious relatives were true to life, those doubts have been dispelled by reading Vindication. In fact, for the first time, I earnestly want to re-read Jane Austen, because everything makes sense now, and I think I could appreciate her novels more. 

Again, like Austen's novels, Mary's treatise still doesn't seem entirely relevant to modern day.  But viewed historically, it's pretty fascinating.

Answers to discussion questions:

1. Have you found any differences of opinions, yet?

Sometimes I'm not sure where she stands on the whole question of class.  On the one hand, she seems pretty adamant against distinctions based on birth and wealth, and argues (understandably) that those who rely on privilege to get by are hurting themselves as much as the commoners.  Then in chapter 9 she make a distinction between "women in the common walks of life...called to fulfill the duties of wives and mothers" versus "women of a superior cast" who she would like to see in positions of power, such as government and medicine.  I don't know if it's something lost in translation (of centuries) or if she could have elaborated more, but it seems a little contradictory to put women into two buckets like that.

2. What do you think about her ideas in parenting? She believed that natural parental affection was more like self-worship. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Not having been a parent, it's not really in my purview.  If I were a parent, I would teach a child to trust and obey me while they were still too young to understand the situation - "blind obedience" in Mary's words.  However, as soon as they were old enough to understand, I would certainly spend the most effort on helping them learn to reason things out and fully understand why rules exist and how they are helpful.  Which is, I think, what she is getting at.

From what I've observed, parents who pursue a "blind obedience" policy don't necessarily do it out of ego, so I'm not sure about "self-worship"...perhaps in some extreme cases.  I think what usually happens is the parent thinks their experience will, in every instance, completely correlate to their child's life and experiences, so they will takes rules from their own childhood and apply them to their child's life without necessarily re-examining the context. 

In a digital age, this can actually be dangerous, because there are so many new possible experiences for children that didn't exist previously.  So while implementing one specific rule, a parent may be missing out on another piece of the equation.  I feel a better approach would be to identify core principles and teach your child how to apply them to any situation.

*takes off the parenting hat*

3. Do you agree with the author's remarks on modesty, chastity, or discretion? Why or why not?

I really liked Mary's take on modesty, especially in this quote: "Modesty must be equally cultivated by both sexes..." (Ch 7)

In some social circles, the onus (at least sartorially) is entirely on women to be modest.  Mary rightly observes it's a two-way street, though she is talking mostly about attitude and behavior.  She calls out men who "stare insultingly at every female they meet," what I imagine to be the 18th-century equivalent of catcalling.  Sad to say that two hundred years later, some of us can still recount experiences of being rudely addressed or even touched by a stranger, no matter how modest in appearance or behavior we were.

I was also interested by her comments on girls at boarding schools, who were being raised with a lack of privacy when sleeping, washing, etc. Mary believed "girls ought to be taught to wash and dress alone..." (Ch 7)  I may be biased, being a very private person by nature, but I completely agree.  (My mom told me that when she was growing up, communal showers after PE were mandatory...ick!)

Overall, though there is some repetition, I'm finding a lot of gems in the book.  I'm looking forward to finishing it this week!

Comments

  1. Great post. This work is so famous and important. I have not read it but I need to do so soon. You bring up so many fascinating points here. The Jane Austen connection is but one of them. I think that is particularly fascinating. Great thinkers and artists have always played off one another and influenced one another. Thinking and delving into such connections is one of the great joys related to reading.

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    1. Yes, I love reading books by several contemporaries in an era, or reading a book which inspired another book. I'd be curious to know Austen's thoughts on the same subjects. Maybe her letters might contains some clues.

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  2. I'll work backwards...your mom was right. I went to Jr. High where communal showers were mandatory. No one ever showered, but we had to undress to our undergarments and walk around the giant open shower and have our name checked off by the PE teacher, or we would be marked down for not...walking around the shower in our underwear. Today I think of it as perverse, and I doubt they do this anymore. At least I hope they don't. So, I'm with Wollstonecraft on that point. The more discreet a woman can be, the more powerful I think she appears (not that Wollstonecraft said that, but I think it).

    The parental issue about self-worship: I believe she meant...parents think their babies are a reflection of themselves and they worship the child for it. (Do you see that today? I do. The child can do no wrong; after all, their child is absolutely perfect...b/c it is an image of themselves.)

    The self-love argument could also cross over into the tyrannical parent who demands total submission from the child b/c the adult sees himself as totally perfect, and expects the same of the child...bc the child is a reflection of the parent. I don't believe she actually made this argument, but that is the connection I was making.

    I totally agree about the contradictions in the first argument. I struggled with that, too. The upper class had its issues, but what did she expect would happen to women when they entered the upper classes?

    I also wondered about the sensibility issue. I get how she uses it here, but I cannot help thinking about Austen's Sense and Sensibility. After reading S&S, I walked away with a positive understanding of using sensibility properly; now Wollstonecraft has me thinking differently about it. Is that what you were thinking?

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    1. Re: self-worship and reflection - I can see that happening... I've heard of parents who defend their kids' bad behavior. I guess if they feel their parenting has been slighted by their kids' behavior being called out, then rather than own up to the mistake, they'd like to claim there's no problem. :P

      It's been over a decade since I read S&S, so take my memory with a grain of salt... :) but I recall associating "sensibility" with Marianne Dashwood's emotions-driven behavior. Wollstonecraft seems to use the word in a negative light, and also talks quite a bit about "rakes," making me think of Marianne's romance with Willoughby. Trouble is, I can't remember if Marianne was behaving badly or just super naive!

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