Duck Duck Book

31 – vindication
04.12.2006, 12:44 pm
Filed under: history & geography, literature

Vindication : a life of Mary Wollstonecraft / Lyndall Gordon. 
New York : HarperCollins, c2005.
[MCL call number: B-Wo836g 2005; eight copies, no holds]

Mary Wollstonecraft is famous for her book Vindication of the Rights of Woman, first published in 1792, but still in print and widely read in college women's studies classes even today.   Modern readers often remark that it is surprising how modern Wollstonecraft's ideas seem — quickly summed up, Wollstonecraft's argument in Vindication of Rights of Woman is that if we give women the opportunity to be whole people (an opportunity that they've never had but deserve), everything will work better for everyone. 

Think on this thesis for a minute, and consider what it might be like to be a woman who held such views in late 1700s England.

Then take note of some of the other features of Wollstonecraft's life:  When she was in her twenties, Wollstonecraft and her sister started a school for girls, with the central principle that education is about opening minds, encouraging questions, and loving your pupils instead of about rote memorization or the inculcation of order and respect for hierarchy.  Then she wrote a book about educating girls.  She went to Paris just at the time when the French Revolution was turning a bit sour and a lot bloody, and stayed even though she had to learn French and find a way to escape being taken to the guillotine for being English.  She wrote a book about this too.  She made a journey to Scandinavia, with her infant daughter on a mission to resolve a murky business matter for her lover.  She wrote a book inspired by this journey as well.

Wollstonecraft was famous for her writing, knew some of the most influential intellectuals of her time, and managed to live a life largely defined by her own interests and desires, despite the obstacles.  Her story is fascinating, and yet it is not well known. 

There are many reasons to read Vindication in particular.  It is a well-researched and thorough analysis of an interesting woman's story.  Gordon treats Wollstonecraft's life in light of her feminism, her commitment to her family, her vocation as a teacher, and above all, her passion to be, in her words "the first of a new genus" — a compassionate, creative, intellectually vital person determined to live as much on her own terms as possible.  Vindication is long, but I found myself relishing the sheer bigness of the story, and I was sorry to reach the end, even after 450 pages.  Read it.


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