Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 728
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 senses, then both men and women begin life with equal intellectual potential, and the importance of environment and education—so vigorously argued by Wollstonecraft—is supreme. Rousseau’s more current ideas influenced an entire generation of thinkers and writers, and were formative in the early stages of what is now called the “Romantic” age of English literature. Wollstonecraft repeatedly refers to Rousseau, both in her text and in extensive footnotes, most often to take issue with him on his view of women as weak and passive creatures born only to please men.
Another important influence on Wollstonecraft was Catharine Macaulay, whose Letters on Education (1790) was enthusiastically reviewed by Wollstonecraft in the Analytical Review, an important liberal journal. Like Wollstonecraft after her, Macaulay was interested not only in reforming female manners through physical exercise and education but also in challenging the traditional idea that women were intrinsically inferior to men. Equally influential, though in a negative sense, were such writers of female “conduct” literature as James Fordyce and John Gregory, whose popular books advised young women to avoid all physical and intellectual endeavors and to concentrate instead on making themselves more attractive and pleasing to men. Wollstonecraft clearly recognized such texts as lying near the heart of the problem: Men who instructed young women to behave as meek and passive objects of desire, as though such behavior were “natural” to their sex, were in essence preparing them for a life of subordination and oppression. To Wollstonecraft, such instruction was itself a form of enslavement, aimed at fashioning creatures fit only for life in a “seraglio.”
In any discussion of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, it is also important to recognize—as her critics often have not—the limits of Wollstonecraft’s radicalism. Although the work may rightly be called a “feminist manifesto,” and although Wollstonecraft’s program for social reform may have required fundamental changes across the sociopolitical spectrum, it most certainly did not call for or entail an essential reconfiguration either of the family or of woman’s role in the family. Nothing in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman even remotely suggests that women should abandon the idea of motherhood. If anything, Wollstonecraft’s theoretical “model” for the enlightened society was the middle-class household seen as an independent social-economic unit managed by the middle-class woman. Wollstonecraft would never have agreed with the idea that a woman’s only place is in the home, but she did see the “domestic sphere”—where, in her capacity as wife and mother, a woman functions as primary educator and caregiver—as the place where the progress of civilization can most effectively be advanced.