Discuss the theme of Mary Wollstonecraft's essay "A Vindication of the Rights of Women."
The title gives away the main theme of this essay: in it, Mary Wollstonecraft focuses on women's rights, arguing that women should be allowed to have the same educational opportunities as men and that denying them this opportunity inhibits their "usefulness" to society as well as making them unhappy. The strength of her essay is that she chooses to present women as human beings first, only considering their gender as a secondary issue.
Thus the main theme of this essay is that women should have the same access to education as to men so as to help all of humanity improve itself. Note her comments on the current state of affairs:
One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers...
Note the alliteration and imagery in the "barren blooming" of women that the author sees. Denying women a "proper" education has meant that women are only "anxious to inspire love" when they should be focusing their minds and talents on nobler and more fitting aspirations.
A Vindication of the rights of Woman is Wollstonecraft's fundamental work where she outlines feminism and her view on the rights of women. It is often spoken as her most important work and the first definitive work on the subject. The themes include:
1. the importance of education and the importance that women be given a more liberal education.
2. There should be more treatises on the nature and existence of gender differences.
3. Rosseau, a contemporary philosopher, argues that women should be taught to obey and please, only educated enough to please men. Wollstonecraft argued vehemently against this.
4. Wollstonecraft also argued against Edmund Burke (he argued that men should govern themselves) using the problems the working classes experienced as her ammunition.
5. Using the recent admission of the time that women had souls (!!!!) she uses the following argument:
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 formed merely by the prejudices of society. An education that develops the mind is essential for any ... creature.
Wollstonecraft was the first preemminent "feminist" who struggled to ensure that women were perceived as "rational" as well as primarily "emotional."