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.
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.
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.
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.