(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft sets an enormous task for herself—nothing less than a wide-reaching critique of human society—and she meets the challenge head on. Her aim, she says early on, is to be “useful,” and from the first page the reader senses her determination to shun “delicacy” and to pursue the truth wherever it leads her. In order to appreciate the full extent of Wollstonecraft’s vision, it is important to note precisely where and how far the truth does lead her. Her critique does not stop at the issue of female oppression but reaches out further to examine the ways in which society functions to oppress and enslave whole classes of people across the social spectrum. What finally makes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman so important and “relevant” a document is Wollstonecraft’s tacit recognition that the establishment of women’s rights can only be accomplished through a radical, sweeping transformation of society as a whole that abolishes all oppression.

Although Wollstonecraft’s political and social views were without doubt radical and even revolutionary, she was in other ways—especially in terms of her intellectual heritage—a child of her age. As was the case with many of her contemporaries, two of the chief influences on her thought were the English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) and the French writer-philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). By the 1790’s, Locke’s ideas about education and government, in particular, had long been incorporated into mainstream thought, as had his “sensationalist” theory of how people learn. If the mind at birth is, as Locke held, a tabula rasa (clean slate), and humans acquire knowledge only through experience, by way of the...

(The entire section is 728 words.)