A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women

To me, the heart of her argument’s current value (assuming that we can all agree that women are not inherently inferior to men and don’t need to be told that anymore; though it is still almost certainly true the we do still need to be told) is an educational one (perhaps why she take special offense at the educational writings of Rousseau). Proper education leads to people of any gender becoming fully moral creatures. The failure to properly educate women leads to them lacking, in most cases, full moral agency. At the same time, the rearing of children, who we want to be grow into moral creatures, is left to them, so shouldn’t we educate them properly so that they can raise the next generation of moral agents?

While usually coached in broader terms (we should educate women and here is why), towards the end she takes time to criticize boarding schools and being soul crushing and advocates for classless (that, without distinction between social classes), co-ed, local schooling. She even suggests school uniforms to erase socio-economic signifiers.

Rousseau is a special target of criticism (and his views on women, to modern ears, are outlandishly retrograde) and she quotes liberally and at length from him, particularly from Emilie (where he discusses the hypothetical education of a Sophie who, it’s safe to say, does not receive the same level of instruction as her male counterpart). But while reading her takedown of him, I kept going back to an anecdote I read: James Boswell (of Johnson fame) had sought out Rousseau and ingratiated himself into his company and eventually escorted his partner across the English Channel, but also either seduced or was seduced by Rousseau’s lover. Shallow of me, I know, but while being inspired by Wollstonecraft to reject him, it’s humorous to think of him being cuckolded.

She also takes some time to reject the value of Fordyce’s Sermons. I know of these because there are mentioned by characters in the novels of Jane Austen (I think the Bennett’s unpleasant cousin reads from them). She rejects them because his writing is too florid and encouraging sensibility. As you might guess, she does not mean by sensibility what we mean. You might think of it as meaning being too emotional or not sufficiently rational. To return to Jane Austen, the title Sense and Sensibility might give you a clue that she, at least, does not think ‘sensibility’ to be what we would call sensible.

It’s not all education, though. While not well advanced nor elucidated, she seems to make an argument for something like a minimum basic income and also notes what psychologists now understand about how poverty itself leads to bad decisions. She speaks of how poverty can lead to a ‘frigid system of economy which narrows both heart and mind.’

A touch of patriotism stirred my heart as I read this line:

But the days of true heroism are over, when a citizen fought for his country like a Fabricius or a Washington, and then returned to his farm to let his virtuous fervor run in a more placid, but not less salutary stream.

She takes a moment in the final chapter to advocate for healthy living. Nothing fancy: diet, exercise, and listening to legitimate medical professionals. I say legitimate because she singles out some quacks, among them ‘magnetizers.’ Interestingly, her daughter’s famous novel was inspired by curiosity about new and sometimes quackish ideas about life and health. Also, interesting: quacks are still selling magnets for health benefits today.