A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

by Mary Wollstonecraft

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Mary Wollstoncraft's objective was to prescribe a way that women's "manners" might be modified in order to raise them from the societally oppressed position of being considered nothing more than objects of pleasure for men (James Fordyce and John Gregory) to their rightful positions as spiritual, moral and rational beings. Wollstonecraft founded her arguments upon Christian religious precepts that equate the creations of man and woman as being of equal worth since the one was derived from the other though formed differently. She argued for equal opportunity for women to fulfill their spiritual, intellectual and moral potential through equal education.

Wollstonecraft made the argument that, since created with equality, it was just, right, and in keeping with God's intention that women reach full intellectual and moral potentiality, just as men are encouraged to do. She asserted that women's manners must be changed in regard to education and physical activity: women must undertake physical exercise and women must have the intellectual education founded in reason that men had. 

There are two major weakness in how Wollstonecraft chose to argue her case, though weakness in the presentation of her argument does not equate with weaknesses in her premise or her conclusions. Weakness in presentation are restricted to presentation since alternative devices for presentation might have been opted for without altering the premises or the conclusions.

The first weakness is that Wollstonecraft speaks of men and women and full access to education, yet, in truth, she is speaking only of elite men and women who were at the top of England's social structure in Western civilization. Her argument would have been stronger she had accounted for ways in which her remedies of activity and education were applicable to all classes of women in reference to the privileges of all classes of men. This applies to distinguishing Western civilization from those of other cultures: Does her premise and conclusion apply equally across cultures, and, if so, how does it apply? [Modern feminists and governments have addressed this in countries like India so the answer is now clear, yet her argument may have been stronger if her presentation had recognized a broader scope than Western civilization.]

The second weakness is that her analogies called into question the very structures and relationships that were virtually unquestioned in her era and understood and perceived as the order handed down by God: God ordains and governs kings, King ordains and governs clergy, Clergy governs Man, Man governs woman etc. Thus to use the "oppression" she identified in these institutions was to indirectly subvert her own argument for equal opportunity based on spiritual equality by denouncing the underlying spiritual order of society. Had she found metaphors or analogies in less dearly held structural beliefs, her arguments may have been stronger.

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