A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft - Essay

Mary Wollstonecraft


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Mary Wollstonecraft

The following entry provides criticism of Wollstonecraft's political treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). See also, Mary Wollstonecraft Criticism.

Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a declaration of the rights of women to equality of education and to civil opportunities. The book-length essay, written in simple and direct language, was the first great feminist treatise. In it Wollstonecraft argues that true freedom necessitates equality of the sexes; claims that intellect, or reason, is superior to emotion, or passion; seeks to persuade women to acquire strength of mind and body; and aims to convince women that what had traditionally been regarded as soft, “womanly” virtues are synonymous with weakness. Wollstonecraft advocates education as the key for women to achieve a sense of self-respect and a new self-image that can enable them to live to their full capabilities. The work attacks Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau who, even while espousing the revolutionary notion that men should not have power over each other, denied women the basic rights claimed for men. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman created an uproar upon its publication but was then largely ignored until the latter part of the twentieth century. Today it is regarded as one of the foundational texts of liberal feminism.

Biographical Information

Wollstonecraft was born in London in 1759, the second of six children. Her father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, was a tyrannical man, and as she was growing up Wollstonecraft watched her mother bullied and mistreated by him. At the age of nineteen Wollstonecraft left home to make her own way in the world. In 1783 she aided her sister, Eliza, escape an abusive marriage by hiding her from her husband until a legal separation was arranged. Wollstonecraft and her sister later established a school at Newington Green before she moved to Ireland to work as a governess to the family of Lord Kingsborough. In 1787 she returned to London and embarked on a literary career. The following year Wollstonecraft was hired as translator and literary advisor to Joseph Johnson, a publisher of radical texts. She soon became acquainted with prominent intellectuals in radical political circles. When Johnson launched the Analytical Review, Wollstonecraft became a regular contributor of articles.

In 1790, in response to Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in which she disputed Burke's conservative position and advocated for the rights of the poor and the oppressed. In 1791 two events took place that prompted Wollstonecraft to write her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The first was the writing of the new French Constitution, which excluded women from all areas of public life and granted citizenship rights only to men over the age of twenty-five. The second was the report on education given by Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord to the French National Assembly recommending that girls' education should be directed to more subservient activities. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is dedicated to Talleyrand, and Wollstonecraft appeals to him to rethink his views. While she was working on the treatise, Wollstonecraft fell in love with the married painter and philosopher Henry Fuseli. When she was rejected by him, and after her newly published treatise caused a stir in England, she moved to France. There she witnessed Robespierre's Reign of Terror; she would later criticize the violence of the French Revolution in her history, An Historical and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French Revolution, and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (1794). In Paris Wollstonecraft met Captain Gilbert Imlay, an American timber merchant, with whom she later had a daughter, Fanny. When Imlay deserted her, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide. Soon after she lived with the philosopher William Godwin, whom she eventually married. In August 1797 she gave birth to their daughter, Mary (later Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein), and less than a month later she died.

Plot and Major Characters

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman begins with a dedication to Talleyrand-Périgord, the Late Bishop of Autun, asking him to reconsider some of his ideas about the education of girls and women. In her dedication Wollstonecraft states that the main idea in her book is based on the simple principle that if woman is not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue. Her argument in the thirteen chapters that follow is that rights are based on human reason and common human virtues, which are empowered by God. Because people have tended to use reason to justify injustice rather than promote equality, a vindication of the rights of women is needed. Her work begins with a discussion of sexual character, then offers observations on the state of degradation to which woman is reduced by various causes; presents critiques of writers who have rendered women objects of pity or contempt; shows the effect that an early association of ideas has upon the character; discusses the notion of modesty as it is applied to women; shows how morality is undermined by sexual notions of the importance of a good reputation; outlines the pernicious effects that arise from the unnatural distinctions established in society; discusses parental affection and one's duty to parents; comments on national education; presents examples of the folly that the ignorance of women generates; and concludes with reflections on the moral improvement that a revolution in female manners would produce.

In the course of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft criticizes the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, she judges, has an inadequate understanding of rights and is wrong when he claims that humans are essentially solitary. Indeed, one of the principal projects and strategies of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is to turn Rousseau's egalitarian principles against his negative characterization of women in Emile (1762). She challenges Burke also, who she views as having a mistaken conception of the nature of power. A great deal of her treatise attacks the educational restrictions and “mistaken notions of female excellence” that keep women in a state of “ignorance and slavish dependence.” She argues that girls are forced into passivity, vanity, and credulity by lack of physical and mental stimulus and by a constant insistence on the need to please, and ridicules notions about women as helpless, charming adornments in the household. She sees women as too often sentimental and foolish, gentle domestic “brutes” whose fondness for pleasure has been allowed to take the place of ambition. Wollstonecraft suggests that it is only by encouraging the moral development of every individual to success and independence that a true civilization will work.

Major Themes

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman argues for equality for women and girls not only in the political sphere but in the social realm as well. It asks readers to reconsider prevailing notions about women's abilities. Some of the main issues that Wollstonecraft emphasizes are education, virtues, passion versus reason, and power. She argues that the current roles and education of women do women more harm than good and urges reform that would provide women with broader and deeper learning. She also discusses the virtues that will develop a “true” civilization. However, she rejects traditional notions of feminine “virtue” and sees virtues not as sexual traits but as human qualities. She also insists that intellect, or reason, and not emotion, or passion, be the guiding force in human conduct. Society's association of women with emotionality and thus vulnerability must to be countered, she argues, by the use of reason and engagement in strenuous mental activity. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft talks a great deal about power—in terms of the status quo, in regards to women's position in society, and so on—but ultimately what she urges is for women to have power not over men but over themselves.

Critical Reception

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was much acclaimed in radical political circles when it was published, but it also attracted considerable hostility. The statesman Horace Walpole, for example, called Wollstonecraft “a hyena in petticoats,” and for most of the nineteenth century the book was ignored because of its scandalous reputation. Beginning in the late twentieth century, literary critics and philosophers began to take great interest in Wollstonecraft's treatise as one of the founding works of feminism. Some issues discussed by commentators of Wollstonecraft's treatise are the author's attitude toward sexuality, ideas about education, the role of reason versus passion, attitudes toward slavery, the relevance of the work to contemporary struggles for rights, the unflattering portrayal of women, and the status of the work as a foundational feminist text.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Thoughts on the Education of Daughters: With Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life (essay) 1787

Mary: A Fiction (novel) 1788

Original Stories from Real Life; with Conversations, Calculated to Regulate the Affections, and Form the Mind to Truth and Goodness (children's stories) 1788

A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (essay) 1790

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (essay) 1792

An Historical and Moral View of the Origin and Progress of the French Revolution, and the Effect It Has Produced in Europe (essay) 1794

Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (letters) 1796

The Wrongs of Woman; or, Maria (unfinished novel) 1798; published in Posthumous Works of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman; also published as Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman, 1975

A Wollstonecraft Anthology [edited by by Janet M. Todd] (essays, novels, children's stories, and letters) 1977

Collected Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft [edited by Ralph M. Wardle] (letters) 1979

James L. Cooper and Sheila McIsaac Cooper (essay date 1973)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Cooper, James L. and Sheila McIsaac Cooper. “Mary Wollstonecraft: Enlightenment Rebel.” In The Roots of American Feminist Thought, pp. 15-24. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1973.

[In the following essay, Cooper and Cooper offer a general introduction to Wollstonecraft's background and her interest in sexual equality before discussing the significance of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a foundational text for American feminist thought.]

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) shocked genteel Englishmen and Americans “with the most indecent rhapsody … ever penned by man or woman.” A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was nonetheless “so...

(The entire section is 3876 words.)

Elissa S. Guralnick (essay date autumn 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Guralnick, Elissa S. “Radical Politics in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Studies in Burke and His Time 18, no. 3 (autumn 1977): 155-66.

[In the following essay, Guralnick argues that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is much more than a feminist tract, and is a statement of extreme political radicalism that extends to criticizing, for example, the monarchy and the British educational system.]

Since its publication in 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman has been treated almost exclusively as a feminist manifesto, a simple defense of women's rights. Although critics have generally allowed that the...

(The entire section is 4844 words.)

R. M. James (essay date April-June 1978)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: James, R. M. “On the Reception of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Journal of the History of Ideas 39, no. 2 (April-June 1978): 293-302.

[In the following essay, James discusses the early reviews of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which were largely favorable, and compares them to the later reviews after Wollstonecraft's reputation had collapsed.]

It is popularly assumed that Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was greeted with shock, horror, and derision when it appeared early in 1792, that the forces of reaction massed against this bold attempt to assert the equality of woman...

(The entire section is 5385 words.)

Anca Vlasopolos (essay date autumn 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Vlasopolos, Anca. “Mary Wollstonecraft's Mark of Reason in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Dalhousie Review 60, no. 3 (autumn 1980): 462-71.

[In the following essay, Vlasopolos claims that A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written for “men of reason,” whom Wollstonecraft recognized as being the owners of power and able to implement the ideals she espoused.]

Underneath the tough talk of the speaking voice in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman hides a number of concessions to male readers and covert strategies for the defense of Wollstonecraft's sex and person. In a century in which philosophers and artists dissociated...

(The entire section is 4392 words.)

Orrin N. C. Wang (essay date fall 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Wang, Orrin N. C. “The Other Reasons: Female Alterity and Enlightenment Discourse in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.The Yale Journal of Criticism 5, no. 1 (fall 1991): 129-49.

[In the following essay, Wang argues against readings of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as a text that represses female imagination in favor of male reason, seeing the work as a complex study about repression, reason, gender, and imagination.]

It is uncannily fitting that Mary Shelley should dedicate her famous Romantic novel, Frankenstein, to her father, William Godwin, and not to her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft. The...

(The entire section is 9415 words.)

Steven Blakemore (essay date winter 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Blakemore, Steven. “Rebellious Reading: The Doubleness of Wollstonecraft's Subversion of Paradise Lost.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 34, no. 4 (winter 1992): 451-80.

[In the following essay, Blakemore argues that in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft engages in a radical, systematic subversion of John Milton's Paradise Lost and, further, that she subverts the feminist myth she herself creates.]

In 1784 Immanuel Kant published his famous essay in which he defined “enlightenment” as man's emergence from self-imposed nonage and challenged people to begin liberating themselves by pursuing knowledge instead...

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Amy Elizabeth Smith (essay date summer 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Smith, Amy Elizabeth. “Roles for Readers in Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Studies in English Literature 32, no. 3 (summer, 1992): 555-70.

[In the following essay, Smith examines A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to determine the intended audience of the work and argues that the treatise addresses both male and female readers.]

Critics who have sought to characterize the implied audience for Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) have been unable to reach a consensus. Most take one of two positions, arguing either for a primarily male or a primarily female audience.1...

(The entire section is 5920 words.)

Moira Ferguson (essay date autumn 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Ferguson, Moira. “Mary Wollstonecraft and the Problematic of Slavery.” Feminist Review 42 (autumn 1992): 82-102.

[In the following essay, Ferguson examines Wollstonecraft's discourse on slavery in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other works as it pertains to the “enslavement” of women as well as to colonial slavery.]

A traffic that outrages every suggestion of reason and religion … [an] inhuman custom.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

I love most people best when they are in adversity, for pity is one of my prevailing passions....

(The entire section is 9216 words.)

Tom Furniss (essay date summer 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Furniss, Tom. “Nasty Tricks and Tropes: Sexuality and Language in Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman. Studies in Romanticism 32, no. 2 (summer 1993): 177-209.

[In the following essay, Furniss offers a deconstructionist reading of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and questions its relevance for modern struggles for rights.]

The following discussion of Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Woman necessarily raises general questions about the textual analysis of texts which have become important in the history of a political movement. It is intended as a deconstructive reading of Rights of Woman which traces and analyzes the...

(The entire section is 13798 words.)

Catriona MacKenzie (essay date fall 1993)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: MacKenzie, Catriona. “Reason and Sensibility: The Ideal of Women's Self-Governance in the Writings of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Hypatia 8, no. 4 (fall 1993): 35-55.

[In the following essay, MacKenzie argues against interpretations of Wollstonecraft that stress her commitment to a liberal philosophical framework and valuation of reason over passion, claiming that in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other texts Wollstonecraft exposes the inadequacies of traditional liberalism.]

When morality shall be settled on a more solid basis, then, without being gifted with a prophetic spirit, I will venture to predict that woman will be...

(The entire section is 9987 words.)

Sally-Ann Kitts (essay date April 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Kitts, Sally-Ann. “Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: A Judicious Response from the Eighteenth-Century Spain.” Modern Language Review 89, no. 2 (April 1994): 351-59.

[In the following essay, Kitts discusses a 1792 review of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in a Spanish periodical that was very favorable but which played down the work's more revolutionary aspects.]

Those familiar with Mary Wollstonecraft's radical feminist text, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, may be surprised to discover that it received a lengthy and favourable review in a periodical published in the reactionary Spain of 1792....

(The entire section is 5545 words.)

Susan Gubar (essay date fall 1994)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Gubar, Susan. “Feminist Misogyny: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Paradox of ‘It Takes One to Know One.’” Feminist Studies 20, no. 3 (fall 1994): 453-73.

[In the following essay, Gubar analyzes Wollstonecraft's feminism and her often unflattering portraits of women in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and other texts.]

In a self-reflexive essay representative of current feminist thinking, Ann Snitow recalls a memory of the early seventies, a moment when a friend “sympathetic to the [women's] movement but not active [in it] asked what motivated” Snitow's fervor.

I tried to explain the excitement I felt at...

(The entire section is 9065 words.)

Harriet Guest (essay date summer 1995)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Guest, Harriet. “The Dream of a Common Language: Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft.” Textual Practice 9, no. 2 (summer 1995): 303-23.

[In the following essay, Guest considers the similarities between the arguments in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Hannah More's Structure, noting especially the representation of the corruption perceived to be endemic among middle-class women.]


‘Have you read that wonderful book, The Rights of Woman’, wrote Anna Seward to Mr Whalley, on 26 February 1792. ‘It has, by turns, pleased and displeased, startled and half-convinced me that its author is oftener right than...

(The entire section is 8130 words.)

Cindy L. Griffin (essay date winter 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Griffin, Cindy L. “A Web of Reasons: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the Re-weaving of Form.” Communication Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 1996): 272-88.

[In the following essay, Griffin proposes a nonlinear form of argument, based on the form of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which she believes will assist readers in recognizing the complexity of the work and the need to reconsider notions of effective rhetorical form.]

Mary Wollstonecraft, recognized as one of the most influential feminists in history, strived to express her views in an age when the opinions and thoughts of women were seen as insignificant....

(The entire section is 9864 words.)

Ewa Badowska (essay date fall 1998)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Badowska, Ewa. “The Anorexic Body of Liberal Feminism: Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 17, no. 2 (fall 1998): 283-303.

[In the following essay, Badowska analyzes the image of the “appetitive body” in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and explores how Wollstonecraft links the image with notions of femininity in her work.]

Every day [Wollstonecraft] made theories by which life should be lived. … Every day too—for she was no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist—something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and forced her to model them afresh....

(The entire section is 9293 words.)

Ruth Abbey (essay date summer 1999)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Abbey, Ruth. “Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship in the Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft.” Hypatia 14, no. 3 (summer 1999): 78-95.

[In the following essay, Abbey analyzes Wollstonecraft's views on the political nature of the family and marriage in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and her attitude toward sexuality in her unfinished novel, Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman.]

According to the feminist political theorist Susan Moller Okin, the challenge facing liberal thinkers is to incorporate fully issues of gender and the family into their thinking about justice. She insists that “We can have a liberalism that fully includes women only if we...

(The entire section is 7626 words.)

Jenny Davidson (essay date winter 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Davidson, Jenny. “‘Professed Enemies of Politeness’: Sincerity and the Problem of Gender in Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.Studies in Romanticism 39, no. 4 (winter 2000): 599-615.

[In the following essay, Davidson compares Wollstonecraft's treatment of insincerity in politics and social life in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with William Godwin's less gendered political arguments in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice.]

Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) identifies dissimulation as a specifically female problem....

(The entire section is 7774 words.)

Lisa Plummer Crafton (essay date summer 2000)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Crafton, Lisa Plummer. “‘Insipid Decency’: Modesty and Female Sexuality in Wollstonecraft.” European Romantic Review 11, no. 3 (summer 2000): 277-99.

[In the following essay, Crafton explores Wollstonecraft's attitude toward female sexuality and her condemnation of artificial decorum and propriety in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.]

Modesty must be equally cultivated by both sexes or it will ever remain a sickly hothouse plant whilst the affectation of it, the fig leaf borrowed by wantonness, may give a zest to voluptuous enjoyments.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of...

(The entire section is 8974 words.)

Daniel Engster (essay date September 2001)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Engster, Daniel. “Mary Wollstonecraft's Nurturing Liberalism: Between an Ethic of Justice and Care.” The American Political Science Review 95, no. 3 (September 2001): 577-88.

[In the following essay, Engster examines A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and A Vindication of the Rights of Men and shows how Wollstonecraft's ideas bear on the current debate in political and moral philosophy about justice and care.]

In recent years, feminist scholars have proposed political theories based upon an ethic of care as an alternative to liberal theories of justice.1 Although these scholars have paid little attention to the ideas of historical...

(The entire section is 11555 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Flexner, Eleanor. Mary Wollstonecraft. New York: Penguin Books, 1972, 307 p.

Scholarly account of Wollstonecraft's life that emphasizes her early years.

George, Margaret. “One Woman's Situation”: A Study of Mary Wollstonecraft. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970, 174 p.

Political and psychological study of Wollstonecraft that explores the connection between her life experience and her political ideas.

Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1798. Reprint. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1987, 224 p.


(The entire section is 614 words.)