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Overhearing Wollstonecraft

January 8, 2011

I am remembering why I wanted to write about Mary Wollstonecraft. Here is what she was contending with: Rousseau: “Women ought to have but little liberty . . . . they are apt to indulge themselves excessively in what is allowed them. . . .”; and “[women should] constantly remain either under subjection to men, or to the opinions of mankind; and are never permitted to set themselves above these opinions.”; and “formed to obey a being so imperfect as man, often full of vices, and always full of faults, women ought to learn betimes to suffer injustice, and to bear the insults of a husband without complaint.” I plucked these quotes out of Mary’s “Vindication of the Rights of Women.” She responds to these and other criticisms of women with admirable humor and intelligence: “all the sacred rights of humanity are violated by insisting on blind obedience; or the most sacred rights belong only to men.” or “Is not this a direct and exclusive appropriation of reason? The rights of humanity have thus been confined to the male line from Adam downwards.” She uses God, Locke, and common sense to refute arguments against women’s rational abilities.

I have read “The Vindication” countless times, but today I feel like I got a little closer to Wollstonecraft. Before, I read her through a kind of scrim, through what other scholars have thought of her. Now, in the give and take with Rousseau, I feel like I’ve just overheard her at a party, arguing with someone. She sounded clear and direct, like herself. I wonder why I never heard this before. How funny she is, in particular. It’s as though she just slipped out the door.

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