A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

by Mary Wollstonecraft

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Explain one example of how Wollstonecraft uses religion as part of her arguments in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

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Chapter 13 of the Vindication contains several of Wollstonecraft's most pointed commentaries on religion.

Earlier in the book, she has mentioned the rituals in the Established Church that she regards as "relics of popery." In her view, the instructors at colleges and public schools (i.e., what Americans refer to as private schools) are adherents of this superficial, ritualized aspect of religion. The young men who attend these institutions are corrupted in some sense by the hypocrisy of the teachers. This, in turn, bolsters the entire social dynamic in which women are disenfranchised and mistreated. It's unclear at this point whether Wollstonecraft is criticizing merely the trappings of religion (as dissenters from the Established Church had long done) or is criticizing religion itself.

In chapter 13, she asserts that many women, especially, have been preyed upon by men who claim to have the ability to tell the future and to work miracles. In her view, this practice is a direct contradiction of Christian belief and the concept of a single, all-powerful Deity. That women have been so duped is an indication of men's having attempted to keep women in a state of ignorance and credulity.

But Wollstonecraft extends this into an argument that seems to question one of the main elements of traditional Christian belief. She finds it strange that men should believe that a just God would punish souls for any purpose other than to reform them. The concept of eternal punishment makes no sense to her.

Wollstonecraft anticipates, to an extent, the arguments her contemporary Thomas Paine would put forth a few years later in The Age of Reason. However, her assertions are focused more directly on superstition as an element of the oppression of women rather than attacking Christianity itself.

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Mary Wollstonecraft makes repeated appeals in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to "God and virtue." As with many thinkers of the Enlightenment, Wollstonecraft was a deist, someone who believed that God had created a perfectly intelligible world but no longer played any continuing role in His creation. Hence there were no miracles, no acts of divine intervention or suchlike. Above all else, God had created a rational world in which it was absurd that over fifty percent of the population should be denied their capacity to reason by the artificial constraints imposed upon them by a male-dominated society. Wollstonecraft's religious beliefs were natural, as opposed to the revealed religion of more orthodox strains of Christianity.

There are over fifty references to religion in the Vindication, indicating that it was, in Wollstonecraft's mind, inextricably linked to her feminism. In particular, Wollstonecraft is keen to exhort women to develop the right relationship with the Almighty:

In treating, therefore, of the manners of women, let us, disregarding sensual arguments, trace what we should endeavour to make them in order to cooperate, if the expression be not too bold, with the Supreme Being.

Women should not submit to men, but to God. He endowed them with rationality, and it is a woman's reason that leads her to recognize her dependence on God. This is far removed indeed from the thoroughly irrational submission to men that women are forced to experience in society. Rational ideas of emancipation have been placed in women's minds by God, and it is only by reflecting on those ideas that women will truly understand the true nature of their subjection in society:

These may be termed Utopian dreams. – Thanks to that Being who impressed them on my soul, and gave me sufficient strength of mind to dare to exert my own reason, till, becoming dependent only on him for the support of my virtue, I view, with indignation, the mistaken notions that enslave my sex.

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The core of Wollstonecraft's argument is secular in nature. Wollstonecraft is mainly concerned with demonstrating that many of the supposedly inferior traits that important eighteenth century thinkers ascribed to women were not innate, but rather a product of their environments and society's expectations. Yet Wollstonecraft also argues from natural rights, claiming that women, like mankind in general, were created by God with a mandate for improvement. In a passage aimed at Rousseau, she makes the point clear:

Why should he [God] lead us from love of ourselves to the sublime emotions which the discovery of his wisdom and goodness excites, if these feelings were not set in motion to improve our nature, of which they make a part, and render us capable of enjoying a more godlike portion of happiness? ...Rousseau exerts himself to prove that all was right originally...and I, that all will be right.

She uses this argument as a foundation for her larger point, that the "separate spheres" posited by Rousseau for men and women were confining. Women were capable of, and indeed had a divine mandate for, improvement and betterment through education. Men who argued for keeping women in a state of childlike submission were standing in the way of what Wollstonecraft perceives as the reason for man's creation.

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