Tuesday, June 18, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft was an immensely influential British political philosopher in the late eighteenth century. An advocate for women’s rights, her best known work is the treatise: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

I’ve seen Wollstonecraft and her book referred to time and again in novels and nonfiction histories of the time period and, each time, I’ve thought: I should read that Rights of Woman book. Eventually, I bought it and set it on my shelf. Finally, I chose it as both my nonfiction back to the classics choice AND one of my TBR challenges. Since I am woefully behind on both challenges with June drawing to a close, I pulled out the book.

I made it through to the end. In all honesty, I have to admit I skimmed a great deal of it. I tried to read it, but my eyes kept glossing over. I even fell asleep a couple of times. There are interesting passages, but the interesting parts are buried under mounds of verbiage. She repeats herself, wanders off on tangents, gives gossipy examples. . .this may be the most boring book I have ever tried to read.

Part of the problem is that it is dated. I can appreciate the fact that it was revolutionary in its day. Wollstonecraft was a woman far ahead of her time. The fact that she wanted equality for women, at least educational equality–even co-ed elementary school with mixing of social classes!–shows how progressive she was. And while the points she makes seem painfully obvious now, I do recognize that they are not universally obvious even in the twenty-first century. Women still have not achieved even basic human rights in some parts of the world. But that doesn’t make the book any easier to slog through.

The introduction to my Folio edition (introduction by Claire Tomalin) states: "The Vindication is a book without any logical structure: it is more in the nature of an extravaganza. What it lacks in method it makes up for in élan, and it is better to dip into than to read through at a sitting." I think I should have heeded the warning. There are lots of gems in here, things that made me nod in agreement. But the bits that could hold my attention were few and far between. Most of the time I was thinking: Ugh. I am really not a political philosopher.

And that, I think, is my real problem with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I’m not a philosopher. I had the feeling she could have put her main points on 4 or 5 powerpoint slides and swayed me with her argument in about 5 minutes. Her argument is strong and convincing but there isn’t really all that much to it. (Meaning she seems to be stating the obvious–so I guess in a way, it’s horrifying that she wasn’t.) But I really didn’t need 270 rambling pages of her beating her points to a pulp.

At any rate, I’m counting this for my nonfiction back to the classics challenge (hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much) and the TBR Pile Challenge (hosted by Roof Beam Reader.)