A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Title: A Vindication of the Rights of WomanBook Challenge
Author: Mary Wollstonecraft
Publication date: 1792
Genre: Non fiction (philosophy; feminism)

What’s it about?A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Wollstonecraft’s book is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. The author is responding to the widely held belief of the time that women should not receive an equal education to men, and the majority of the work focuses on the importance of education to women.

Feminism was not a known term or philosophy in the late 18th century. It is not even clear whether Wollstonecraft herself believed men and women to be necessarily equal in all spheres; her main point is that, if women are deemed unequal to men, then they cannot be held responsible for the superficial way they behave. To educate them, she insists, would be to equip them with the same rights – and therefore responsibilities – as men, and society could only benefit as a result.

The book was intended as the first of three volumes, but sadly the author died before she could complete the rest. Nonetheless, it is an incredibly direct attack on the educational system of the time, and lays the responsibility for change – and the betterment of society – firmly at the door of the men in power.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

This was another one from the university library, which I took out at the same time as Faust. When I went back to return Faust, having already renewed both books once, I ended up spending an entire afternoon in the library finishing this book, so that I could return it at the same time and not have to renew it again. There’s nothing like a deadline to get you working!

What did I learn from it?

I learned a fair amount about the educational system in the UK in the late 18th century, and how that has developed into what we have today. For example, in the 21st century the term ‘public school’ in the UK (although not in the US) means what many of us would actually refer to as a ‘private school’. But back in Wollstonecraft’s day, the word ‘public’ differentiated these schools (predominantly all-male and boarding) from private education carried out at home.

Wollstonecraft raises issues with both systems – boarding and home schooling – and states that it would benefit both girls and boys to attend co-educational day schools. This would enable them to mix with each other, allowing them to see the opposite sex as companions rather than strangers, and would also help both sexes remain aware of the importance of the domestic sphere.

How did it make me see the world differently?

As with several of the other books I’ve read in recent months, there’s a recognition that, although we have clearly made progress since the author’s day, human nature is such that bad things will still happen.

Women, at least in the UK, are now educated in essentially the same way as men, and many go on to achievements in traditionally male spheres in far greater numbers than was possible in 1792. However, for every woman (or man…) who is keen to develop themselves with a view to fixing the world’s issues, there is another who prefers to skim over the hard work in favour of surface niceties.

I have an optimistic view of human nature, and I am not convinced that this is down to any innate defect in individuals. Rather, I suspect it is a matter of what we are raised to believe. Are we encouraged to think that we hold the power to change our lives, or are we suckered into a hamster wheel of meaningless, underpaid, overworked jobs? If the latter, it’s not surprising that we fall back on easy treats and superficial cares to make life bearable. Ironically, it may even be the very system of education desired by the likes of Wollstonecraft that is now depriving people of the habit of thinking for themselves.

The question is how everyone can be encouraged to realise that they (a) have the power to act independently and (b) can actually make a difference. Everyone has some quality that makes them stand out from the rest, even if that is not in the areas Wollstonecraft envisaged. And if everyone were to recognise their power for good and their ability to create change, the chances of their turning the other way would be much smaller.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

I’m pretty well educated, but I am just as guilty as the next person at listening overmuch to what others tell me. Now, obviously that is not in itself a bad thing! We need to take on board others’ views if we wish to develop a tolerant, balanced perspective of the world.

But what can happen, when you try to honour other people’s attitudes too much, is that you lose sight of your own way. Even – or perhaps especially – when those you’re listening to are good, helpful, insightful people, it’s easy to get caught up in the shoulds, the oughts and the mustn’ts. By paying too much attention to what others think, we lose the ability to discern what we, deep down, in our hearts feel to be true. The constant stream of likes, favourites and shares on social media only adds to this problem: our inner wisdom gets drowned out by the noise, and it can be a struggle to regain it. ‘Other people who had this view also thought…‘ could be the algorithm for our times.

I decided at the start of this year that my word for 2015 would be ‘Intuition’. I would use this as a focus for homing in on what I believe to be my truth, my way in the world, and not let my path be muddied by what the masses around me might want from me. To some extent I’ve achieved this, but I realised recently that I still have an inclination to ask others what I should do when, really, I already know what I want to do and am only seeking validation.

And so I am taking the step of disengaging from some of the communities I have been frequenting: mostly online groups populated by people just like me. I’ve grown too used to asking what they think before I do something new, and I have far too many ideas to be checking each and every one of them before I start. So I’m removing the temptation to do that, and will be leaving a number of these groups in the next few days. I will still seek practical help when I need it – but I won’t let my own truth be tempered by the many other truths out there.

I intend to write my own algorithm for life.

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!

On the Origin of Species

On the Origin of Species

Title: On the Origin of SpeciesBook Challenge
Author: Charles Darwin
Publication date: 1859
Genre: Non fiction (science)

Technical note

I actually read the 6th edition of this work, which was published in 1872 and is known as The Origin of Species, i.e. dropping the ‘On’. But I’m still counting it as my 1850s book!

 

What’s it about?On the Origin of Species

Darwin’s seminal work, which rocked the 19th century, posited that species on earth were not created immutable but, instead, evolved over a period of generations through a process of natural selection. Variations in species ensured that, over time, those best adapted to deal with the challenges in their environment would outlive those less suited: the ‘survival of the fittest’.

The prevailing theory among naturalists at that time was closely linked to the teachings of the Church; it held that life on earth had been designed ‘as is’ by the Creator, and therefore could not change. In particular, humans were believed to be unique creations, unrelated to other organisms. Darwin’s theory – backed up by substantial amounts of evidence – threw all of this into dispute.

By the time of the 6th edition, his views were gaining wider acceptance, at least within the scientific community. 150 years on, an even greater consensus has been reached (with some notable exceptions…), as his work has become central to modern evolutionary theory.

Read more information on Goodreads.

Where did I get hold of the book?

Rather appropriately for a work concerning itself with ancestors, I found this on my late grandma’s bookshelf. It’s part of a collection of lovely old hardback books, which reminds me of childhood holidays spent visiting my grandparents. The smell of the book takes me back 30 years – I didn’t think, then, that I would ever end up actually reading this one…

What did I learn from it?

I learned a massive amount about the detail of Darwin’s theory. These days we are all familiar with the general gist – that organisms adapt to their environment for their best chance of survival – but it’s only on reading about the sheer extent of his evidence that you realise what an incredible piece of work this is.

The insights into the 19th-century scientific process are fascinating. We think of science these days as being conducted in sterile labs, with men and women in white coats prodding things in petri dishes, far removed from the messy realities of life. Not so for Darwin. He thought nothing of spending an hour sitting watching an ant-hill, just to see what movement there was of the different ants resident there. He would be sent the legs of deceased birds by fellow scientists, and would detach the clods of earth clinging to them, in order to water the seeds that might be stuck therein, to see if they would germinate after such a prolonged period out of the ground.

Did you also know that Darwin was a pigeon fancier? Yup. He kept a variety of these birds, as he felt the best way to test out his theory was to observe one particular species in detail. And pigeons were the lucky creatures.

How did it make me see the world differently?

Small, incremental changes are just as vital as big ones

One major insight I had was that the theory of natural selection is closely linked to what I’m trying to do here with the Book Diaries. It’s all about very small steps taken over a period of time, leading incrementally to much bigger changes in the long term. In other words – and this is how it relates to you – if you can get into the habit of making tiny changes on a regular basis, the process will become more familiar, and eventually you will find it easier to make the really big changes – or, even, that they happen of their own accord.

The importance of libraries

I also had a huge wake-up call about the way we access information these days. (Well, not exactly a new insight: more of a reminder.) Perhaps it was because I spent an afternoon watching the ’80s TV version of The Day of the Triffids, but I suddenly realised that, if we were ever to experience a global catastrophe – that wiped out the majority of human life on earth and caused the destruction of civilised society as we know it – would we be in a position to rebuild?

The scientific progress that has been achieved by people like Darwin has taken generations. Libraries have been filled with books such as The Origin of Species, and many more practical works on growing crops, breeding animals, building homes and so on. But in recent years we have become so used to finding whatever we need via the internet that the value of physical information storage has taken a bit of a beating. Libraries are being closed across the country, bookfunds are being slashed, and access is becoming ever more restricted.

While I hope it’s unlikely that we will experience a global catastrophe any time soon (although we clearly cannot be complacent on this score), just think: how frustrating do you find it when your favourite internet site goes down even for a few minutes? What if the power went off for a whole evening? A week? Longer? What would you do then if you needed to find something out? Where would you go? Who would you ask?

For anyone who likes to have a contingency plan in life, I’d simply say: make friends with your local librarians and do everything in your power to help libraries stay open.

What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?

Altering my reading practice

Reading such a demanding non-fiction book has brought into sharp relief how much easier it is for me to read a work of fiction – at least for the purpose of this challenge. When reading non fiction I’m trying to make sure I retain all the facts; when reading a story I’m generally swept along by ‘what happens next’. If the book in question is ‘genre fiction’ (i.e. plot driven) rather than literary, it’s easier still.

Not wishing to get into an argument about the merits of different types of fiction, the aim of the Book Diaries is for me to read more books and, thereby, grow as a person with each new read. It is entirely possible to grow even by reading what others may dismiss as mere potboilers. The key, as I’ve said before, is to think about what you, personally, take from each book and apply that in a practical way in your own life.

After The Origin of Species, I think that every one of the books remaining on my list for this year will seem easier in comparison. And so I will attempt to do what I haven’t done for ages, and read a chapter or two last thing at night before turning out the light. Darwin, much as I love him, isn’t really bedtime reading.

My own research

One other thing. I’ve been putting off working on my supernatural novel, but The Origin of Species has reminded me that I’ve long been fascinated by the 19th century and its conflicted attitudes not only to science and religion but also to magic and the occult. I’m going to try and carve out some time to do more research for my novel on the back of this recent experience – maybe this is just what I need to find my second (or third) wind…

Over to you…

Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?

If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?

Please share in the comments below!