A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

by Mary Wollstonecraft

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According to Wollstonecraft, in what way will bettering women’s education benefit men?

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In addressing this issue, Wollstonecraft may be tempering or moderating her actual views in order to make them more convincing and "acceptable" to a male-dominated society.

In chapter 12 of the Vindication, she begins by discussing education in general and the defects in the current system. At first, her point is, perhaps surprisingly, that the manner in which boys are educated is harmful to them. Schooling as it currently exists creates a situation in which bad morals are inculcated:

At school boys become gluttons and slovens, and, instead of cultivating domestic affections, very early rush into the libertinism which destroys the constitution before it is formed; hardening the heart as it weakens the understanding.

Boarding schools, she indicates (in an interesting anticipation of George Orwell's views 150 years later in Such, Such Were the Joys), are especially harmful to the spirit. The essence of her critique is that boys who attend public schools (i.e., what Americans today would describe as exclusive private schools) are disconnected from the real world and become "selfish and vicious" because they're "shut out from social converse." The artificial, exclusively male milieu of such schools gives these young men a false and immoral way of viewing the world. The teachers, as well, tend to be a "dogmatic, luxurious set of men.... pedantic tyrants." Wollstonecraft also attacks the false manner in which, she asserts, religious observances are conducted within the educational system—but does not actually attack religion itself.

At first glance, these criticisms by Wollstonecraft would seem to have little to do with her overall thesis about the oppression of women. But the point she goes on to make is that if boys and girls were educated together, they would be prepared for the real world of marriage and domestic life. Women, she says, because of their current lack of education, become spoiled and amoral themselves. The solution is to establish a new system of "proper day-schools." By being educated alongside men, women will learn to become the companions of men in marriage rather than just their "mistresses," and thus, "virtue" will prevail in society, because there will be a foundation of it in "reason." The domestic foundations of the family and home life will be strengthened, and it's to the benefit of men and the entire structure of society for this to happen.

Again, one wonders if this is simply an argument Wollstonecraft puts forth because men will agree with it, when her real point—that the education of women should be an end in itself—is necessarily a veiled one. In her own personal life, she was unorthodox: a freethinker who didn't require the conventional ingredients of marriage and domestic life. But in the 1790s, it would have been too radical and subversive to state that women should be treated on an equal plane with men because it is their right, independent of any advantage that would accrue to men by it. Similarly, her mention of religion in connection with education seems a veiled way of...

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questioning religious practices in themselves. Nevertheless, her thesis as a whole in theVindication is obvious enough, despite the concessions to tradition and patriarchy she seems to grant in this chapter.

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Mary Wollstonecraft is often referred to as one of the forebearers of modern feminist theory. Her eighteenth-century work "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman" essentially postulated that the central issue of gender equality was a woman's right to an education. It's essential to note that this treatise was written at a time when patriarchal society largely viewed women as inferior to men in matters of reason, logic, and intellect.

Wollstonecraft felt these notions were ill-conceived because better educated women (like herself) would be in a more superior position to help contribute to society as a whole. Their contributions, therefore, would ultimately benefit men as well as other women who inhabited that society. Disallowing female contributions from the national discourse literally meant eliminating half of society's potential brainpower.

Moreover, she saw women as the primary educators of the young. Through education, women shaped the mindset of future generations for the benefit of mankind—men and women alike. More specifically, they were molding the minds of young boys who would grow into men and become tomorrow's leaders. Therefore, it was important as educators to be educated themselves.

In addition, she saw educated women as critical to a stable marital relationship, which would of course be of benefit to the man because it would lead to a more cohesive family unit and better sexual experiences. In other words, educated wife, happy life. She felt a woman with strong reasoning abilities and a deep well of knowledge could better maintain a marriage with a man who saw her as an equal, which, again, would result in better-educated children.

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Wollstonecraft's ideas were considered radical in her time, but to us they can seem tame and even conservative. In her Vindication of the Rights of Women, she advocates for better education for women primarily so that women can become more useful and companionable wives to their husbands and better mothers to their children. 

She argues that instead of teaching women to be manipulative and silly by giving them little access to knowledge and ideas, women should be educated, like men, as "rational" people so that their husbands will want to talk to them and spend time to them, so that they can offer their husbands wise advice and manage the household well, and so that overall they contribute to the betterment of society. Women are as capable of reason as men, she argues, if they are given access to the same education. 

Wollstonecraft envisions separate spheres for men and women, with men out in public and women in the home. Because women are the parent that raises the children, she believes they should be educated to provide wise guidance. This would provide society with both better adult men and better wives for these men in the future.

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