Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1806
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...
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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 education does not develop a good person, but one who is immature; incapable of sustained, orderly thought; and, therefore, easily influenced. However, this person will still exert her will indirectly. Such an education does not produce a good citizen, Wollstonecraft argues, and it would be for the good of society to educate women’s reason.
This type of domestic education does not produce good wives or mothers either, she argues, and these are the primary human (not female) duties of women. A woman is taught to earn her way by charming and flirting, fascinating a man. Wollstonecraft is quick to point out that love does not last: The cornerstone of any good marriage is friendship. A woman would do better to inspire respect rather than sensual fascination. Furthermore, a woman who is constantly concerned with pleasing men does not make a good mother. She does not have the character to guide her own children, and sometimes views her daughters as rivals rather than becoming their mentor and friend. This can be damaging to the family, particularly if she is left a widow, and, in turn, damages society. Here, Wollstonecraft employs her most famous image, stating that this current miseducation produces women much like hothouse flowers, which are artificially induced to bloom too early and, therefore, become weak.
Wollstonecraft argues that having too much power over another person also damages human character. Monarchs, she points out, are frequently put on the throne through treachery and crime. How can a person be properly educated in reason and morality when that person is surrounded by such activity? Wealth, in fact the entire aristocratic system, produces abuses of power and cripples the human character, she contends. All military branches are based on inequality, on obeying without understanding. Not only the monarch, the aristocracy, and the military, but also priests and husbands rely on blind obedience for their power. She contends that as the divine right of kings has been rejected through reason, the divine right of husbands over their wives should end as well. Society should work to develop well-educated, moral citizens. To that end, society would do well not to develop professions that produce warped human beings, since all human character, not just of women, is formed by the habits of one’s occupation and society at large.
Wollstonecraft’s views show the influence of the Enlightenment. Enlightenment philosophy developed alongside the scientific revolution that followed the Spanish Inquisition, witch burnings, and the Protestant Reformation. The Inquisition and witch burnings came from a worldview based on tradition and dogma. Persons who did not obey the Catholic Church or the king without question were tortured and murdered; many women who were burned were accused of disobeying their husbands, the Church, or the monarch. The Reformation, and the subsequent period now called the Enlightenment, can be viewed as a reaction against the extremes of this time. Reason was emphasized above dogma; the Reformation gave each individual direct access to God, whereas earlier one had to approach the divine through the priesthood. The structure of European government, the divine right of kings, was also called into question. If individuals could approach God themselves, they could also govern themselves. These ideas, in addition to the Iroquois Federation system of government found among Native Americans, fueled the American and French revolutions and subsequently spread until the United States and most of Europe adopted forms of democracy as the primary system of government.
Wollstonecraft concedes that men are superior to women in physical strength, but writes that this is a superiority of degree, not kind. Women and men are similar in the kind of virtues they should and do possess, if not in the amount. Therefore, women should be educated in a manner similar to that of men and be treated as human beings, not as a special subspecies called feminine. Having made this concession, Wollstonecraft states that since a natural physical superiority exists, men should feel no need to produce unnatural weakness in women. She argues for natural exercise for girls, rejects feminine garments that restrict and damage the body, and encourages girls to express themselves naturally rather than developing simpering, weak ways to entice men.
This essay often argues directly with Rousseau, John Milton, and other poets and philosophers. It also addresses itself to a variety of books and manuals written as advice on how women should conduct themselves and raise young girls. The same points underlie these direct critiques: Women should be encouraged to be reasonable, not simply feminine; girls should be allowed healthy exercise and play; an overemphasis on being feminine rather than human is harmful not only to women but also to men and society in general.
Wollstonecraft anticipates psychological models of human development in her discussion of the source of gender differences. While the authors she critiques argue that girls naturally have a fondness for dress and appearance, or love to play with dolls or listen to gossip because it is their nature, Wollstonecraft points to the everyday circumstances of little girls’ lives to explain their predilections. She also points out, anticipating novelist-critic Virginia Woolf in her feminist essays, that men also have a fondness for dress: One could simply observe military men, judges, or priests. In this same vein, in her critique of some male professions, Wollstonecraft argues that miseducation can produce foolish men. The foolishness of women that men often criticize has been produced by society through women’s miseducation. Foolishness is not a gender characteristic, but a trait that comes from miseducation, a condition that can be remedied.
The essay concludes with recommendations on how to correct the problems it has outlined. First, women should be properly educated. Women must be able to support themselves in case a husband or family member cannot do so. Giving women access to the professions will reduce prostitution and social problems. Women also should have the legal rights of citizens—the rights to own property, have custody of their children, and participate in government.
Wollstonecraft’s essay produced a great stir, both critical and favorable. Public opinion, however, was scandalized after her death when her husband, William Godwin, published the frank facts of her life—sex outside marriage, an illegitimate child, and a suicide attempt. Feminist ideas were branded as immoral and dangerous, apt to lead other women to live such a life. Nevertheless, whenever concerns for women’s rights rise in the public consciousness, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is pulled from the shelf, dusted off, reread, republished, and discussed with a great stir, both critical and favorable.