Tuesday 8 September 2020

Book Review of 'Vindication of the Rights of Woman' by Mary Wollstonecraft.

This is easily the best read of mine in this year, till date. For someone who rarely reads nonfiction, Mary's Vindication caught my attention at the word go and refused to let go till the end.

Those readers who might consider this as mere feminist literature, must do a rethink because it is unfair to label it as such. When we still lap up a lot of the relationship and parenting tips, that the web churns out for us today, the book is an eye opener that surprises and even shocks readers with its timeless wisdom. The book discusses the ills and evils riddling the society right from class distinctions to prostitution. It also points out the role of flawed literature that feeds these very evils, that is relevant even today.

For those who think this is a men-bashing feminist book, think again. Wollstonecraft bashes women more, for false pretenses that fool men into buying into their supposed delicacy.

Moreover, it doesn't stop with mere discussions but provides succinct solutions to every problem, with a foundation of education. 

Centuries after it was published, the relevance strikes chords to remind us how ahead of her times Wollstonecraft was. 

There are three unusual aspects in the structure : a dedicatory letter, an introduction and a glossary even before the chapters begin.

The dedicatory letter in the beginning of the book to the former bishop of Auren, M.Tallyrand Perigold.

'If the woman isn't fitted by education to become man's companion, she will stop the progress of knowledge'

What is surprising is the length of the dedication, with explanation as to why change needs to be brought into the existing system. 

The introduction talks about the neglect of women in society at large owing to the flawed system of education. Also, the glossary is at the beginning, before the chapters, not at the end. This in itself makes a statement as to what is to come in the chapters.

There are 13 chapters, dealing with varied topics, with the underlying themes reiterated at regular intervals.


The narration is distinctive of the age it was written in. The sentences are long and flowing with verbiose embellishments, but the narrative is easy to follow and understand. I found this book a lot easier to finish than Virginia Woolf's books ( although Woolf belonged to an age a century and a half later). 

In fact it is difficult to believe that Wollstonecraft was a contemporary writer of Coleridge, whose Biographia Literaria is one of the hardest reads, although the style is more or less similar. One may perhaps attribute this to the variance of topics under discussion in these works, that are not comparable on many counts. 

Nevertheless, Wollstonecraft has a gripping style that makes readers turn pages faster than books of her contemporary writers.


While the chapters are dedicated to certain subjects under discussion, there are some common features that run parallel to almost all of them. In addition to Women's education, Rousseau occupies a lot of ink in the pages. 

Wollstonecraft tears Rousseau's work (Emile) apart without mincing words. Other authors like Dr.Gregory ( Father's Legacy to his daughters) are attacked in the first three chapters. 

Wollstonecraft's definition of education is still different from what it is today. She is on target when she points out 


'To gain affections of a virtuous man, is affection necessary?' - Chapter 2

How different are women today? The Facebook-Instagram culture has proved the need for validation or attention.
Having said that, the attention-seeking trait is hardly reserved to women. I wonder what Wollstonecraft's reaction would have been had she been alive today.

As for education, the world has indeed come far in some ways. Today, women educate themselves for independence unlike the education of the eighteenth century, where women were educated for dependence on men. 

It is difficult for readers to fathom that this piece of literature was penned in a century where there were no women authors that Wollstonecraft could even cite for reference. The fact that she uses a novel like Clarissa by Richardson to point out the  role of rain in ruining the lives of women. 

The flaws of literature of the age we're indeed reprehensible. However, the irony is that the same kind of literature still thrives and is lapped up by both men and women in the market till date. This does not augur well for us when we are forced to agree with Wollstonecraft's take. 

'But if bodily strength is something men boast of having, why are women so foolish as to be proud of weakness, which is a defect?' - Chapter 3

Bang on. We see too many women who are still ruined by sloth, laziness and silly notions of beauty and delicacy. 

We are regular witness to ladies who are robust enough to have birthed multiple kids, and yet put on a show of great  weakness & delicacy (read laziness) to perform housekeeping chores or keep their brains active with useful reads. One has to only read WhatsApp group chats to realize the excessive dependence on maids and cooks to even sustain a basic running of the familial unit.

One thing that strikes readers as the book's pages are turned is the powerful way Wollstonecraft puts forth her ideas. Many quotable quotes may be obtained from every other page. It is almost as if the author stands on a podium addressing a rapt audience and demanding answers or churning out her convictions with a convincing air.

'Women are systematically degraded by trivial attentions that men think it manly to pay to females' - Chapter 2

She points out that this is an insult to her intelligence. 

The world is still trying to convince itself of the superiority of beauty over brains, to little avail. 

Wollstonecraft's grouse against flawed literature takes a powerful stance when she dedicated an entire chapter 5 to point out some stalwarts who were culprits of the same.

Rousseau, Fordyce, Gregory, some women and Chesterfield occupy dedicated portions to receive their share of flak. 

Readers cannot help being astounded by the sheer courage of Mary Wollstonecraft to have openly taken such a severe stance, in an age such as that. Even in the supposed advancement of the twentieth century, authors like J.K.Rowling and E.L.James adopted male pseudonyms to tackle the gender bias in literary arena. 

The points on modesty in chapter 7 as well as morality and reputation in Chapter 8 hold good till date, unfortunately for society. 

Chapter 9 is interesting because it criticizes the evils of being rich, so to speak. The discussion on property rights takes on a different, hilarious but ironic tinge, when she connects it to spoilt lazy sloth of hereditary heirs.

The childcare concerns in the tiny chapter 10 are concise and on target as well. The supposition that meek wives make foolish mother's may not be generally true, however one has come across multiple instances of the same in one's life. Wollstonecraft's premise that a good mother must have sense, with an independent mind cannot be argued with. Looking at how some kids (or adults)have turned out is proof of the respective parenting.

Also, the duty to parents in Chapter 11 is a bold premise that rings true as well.
'Slavish bondage to parents cramps the faculty of the mind'. She points out that there needs to be a line towards respect for parents too.

'Irregular parental authority injures the mind.' - Chapter 11

Aren't all child psychologists saying this even today?

The views on national education in chapter 12 look at the larger picture while the concluding chapter goes back to segmented bashing of certain harms of women's ignorance. 

It is important to note that she does not criticize women for dressing up, only for the reasons they dress up for. The arguments made about ignorance on childcare appear largely valid till date.

'From the tyranny of man, greater number if female follows proceed'
- Concluding thoughts, Vindication of the Rights of Woman.


A must read for those who misunderstand feminism, including some so-called feminists 

I rate the book 4.8 out of 5. Extra points are for sheer nerve of the author.

Mary Shelley's mom was far ahead of the 18th century. One but wonders what she would have penned, had she been alive today. Her book continues to stay completely relevant centuries after she is gone.


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