Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects is considered by many to be the manifesto of feminism and one of the first written expressions of feminist ideas. Although others before Wollstonecraft had written about the need for women’s rights, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (as the work is best known) is the first comprehensive statement about the need for women to be educated and for philosophical treatises on the nature of gender differences.
Like many late eighteenth century essays, this text may seem to later readers to ramble and repeat ideas when the point has already been made. Wollstonecraft is expressing new and radical concepts that shocked many, and which were connected to the ideas fueling the French Revolution, an event that so frightened the English government that it suspended most political and many civil liberties during this time. Wollstonecraft’s repetitions and careful, sometimes overstated, logic can be explained as the natural reflex of anyone who introduces revolutionary notions to a culture.
Wollstonecraft’s primary concern is the education of women. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is, in large part, a rebuttal to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas, expressed primarily in his book Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763; better known as Émile: Or, Education, 1911) concerning the proper education of men and women. Rousseau contends that civilization has debased humanity, which would be better off in what he calls the state of nature. He argues that women should be educated to be the solace and companions of men when men wish to turn from serious pursuits and be entertained and refreshed. Accordingly, the guiding principles of a woman’s education should be to teach her to obey and to please.
The title of Wollstonecraft’s collection also reflects that of another work, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (1790), which Wollstonecraft wrote in response to English conservative philosopher Edmund Burke’s criticisms of the French Revolution, which he expressed in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke rejects not only the revolution’s violence, but also the premise that all men could and should govern themselves. Wollstonecraft’s critique points out the flagrant problems among the working classes in England, effectively disputing Burke’s claims.
Wollstonecraft bases much of her argument in favor of women’s education on the fact, which had only recently been agreed on, that women do have souls. She asserts that because women are immortal beings who have a relationship to their creator, they must be educated in the proper use of reason. She believes that the quality that sets humans apart from animals is reason, and the quality that sets one human apart from another is virtue. Rousseau argues that emotion is the preeminent human quality; Wollstonecraft contends that humans have passions so they can struggle against them and thereby gain self-knowledge. From God’s perspective, the present evil of the passions leads to a future good from the struggle to overcome them. The purpose of life for all humans, not just men, is to perfect one’s nature through the exercise of reason. This leads to knowledge and virtue, the qualities God wishes each person to gain. It is, therefore, immoral to leave women in ignorance or to be formed merely by the prejudices of society. An education that develops the mind is essential for any mortal creature.
The essay argues that both wealth and gender roles create major problems in society, because both tend to create unequal relationships among humans. Inequality leads either to slavery or to despotism, both of which warp the human character. Wollstonecraft contends that all humans have a will to exert themselves, and that they will do so. Dependence on a father or husband, which was woman’s lot at the time in which Wollstonecraft wrote, creates cunning and deceit just as slavery did. Wollstonecraft argues that women’s typical education in the home is a common knowledge of human nature, the use of power in indirect ways (cunning), a soft temper, outward obedience, a “puerile propriety,” and an overemphasis on beauty. This type of...