Mary Wollstonecraft began her political writing career in 1790 by publishing A Vindication of the Rights of Man, the first rebuttal of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In this work, she refuted the conservative claims of Burke and his idealization of the English tradition, and she championed the French cause of revolution. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman can be seen as the logical sequel to A Vindication of the Rights of Man, and it takes up many of the same themes. Wollstonecraft dedicated the book to the French statesman Talleyrand, and throughout she points out the superiority of French society over English society. She also repeatedly stresses that a society built on respect for rationality and equality rather than inherited positions of superiority must deal with the issue of women and their place as rational beings in that society.

This book was written at a time of great political upheaval throughout the world, and Wollstonecraft hoped, like many, that France was following the United States to lead the world into a new era of enlightened social thought and practice. Though those dreams were not fulfilled, the work still stands as the most significant early feminist statement of the interrelatedness of gender, social class, and economics.

Women as Human Creatures

In Wollstonecraft’s introduction to the work, she states the main themes she will treat, pointing out that women do have a great many faults she wishes to address but that, unlike other writers, she intends to consider women as human creatures, not as some separate species who have nothing in common with men. She also states that she will pay more attention to the middle class, as she sees the members of that class as most likely to benefit from the changes she proposes. Poor women are often courageous and strong but, because of monetary constraints, lack the opportunity to advance beyond sheer backbreaking toil. Rich women she sees as already so corrupted by luxury as to be beyond all hope of redemption.

In the dedication, she implores Talleyrand to contemplate her pleas for national education of women, on two basic grounds: first, that if women are not educated to be fit companions for the new class of rational men who she hopes will gain power, they will impede the progress of knowledge and the virtue it engenders; second, that if women are to be excluded from the rights of society with no evidence that they are not as rational as men, the injustice and tyranny of this exclusion will prove that the revolution and all its talk of equality and freedom are a lie.

Power and Corruption

In chapter 1, Wollstonecraft states that the only real basis for happiness among human beings is to be found in reason, virtue, and knowledge, and that knowledge and virtue can come only from the proper exercise of reason. She gives a brief overview of European history to point out that hereditary power has been the chief cause of misery and vice and that the new mode should stress rationality over any assumed prerogatives. Wollstonecraft points out that power always corrupts weak men, and therefore not only hereditary monarchies but also any professions subordinating by rank are injurious to morality, especially a standing army. Later she will develop the analogy of women and the army at greater length.

Debunking Women’s Inferiority

Wollstonecraft uses her second chapter to point out the various arguments advanced over the ages to prove that women are substantially different from, and inferior to, men. She agrees that women are indeed guilty of many vices that men attribute to them, but she calls these vices the “natural effect of ignorance.” She reprimands men for striving to keep women in a state of perpetual childhood and then scolding them for not acting more adult. The proper form of education cannot be achieved until society is differently constituted, she states, and this proper form would be an education that strengthens the body instead of making a virtue of weakness, and fits the mind for independence.

Finally, she evaluates the current attitudes of other writers, especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whom many account as a misogynist), toward women, and contends that they are blinded by their own desires and preconceptions. Though Rousseau and others stress the importance of reason and equality in political affairs, they assert that a woman should be only the toy of a man and bend all her efforts to please him. This is bound to end in disaster for all, declares Wollstonecraft, since a woman so constituted is not fit to be a wife, a mother, or a citizen. She ends the chapter by concluding that the argument that “it has ever been so” rebounds on the men who are opposing hereditary monarchies, institutions that have also existed unopposed for many years.

In chapter 3, Wollstonecraft responds particularly to Rousseau and his idealized character Sophia, the prototype of the helpless, weak, conniving female. She refutes his notion that girls are naturally drawn to dolls and to sewing, and points out that the habit of custom is more to blame for girls’ actions than are their own desires. Further, women are not likely to endeavor to improve their minds when they are more likely to achieve social place and economic ease by feigning ignorance and weakness. Wollstonecraft stresses that if we can subject an entire sex to the arbitrary caprices of their husbands and fathers, where will this unjust subjection end? Though women and men may have different duties, they are both human and must be regulated by the same principles of order, reason, and independence.

Rebuttal of Rousseau

In chapter 5, Wollstonecraft responds specifically to several writers who have contributed to the problems women face in society, in her view. The first is Rousseau, already treated at some length. She greatly admired Rousseau’s political writing and his revolutionary spirit, but she finds his notions about women ludicrous and downright dangerous. She quotes Rousseau at length and dismantles most of his conclusions as arising not from observation or logic but from his own preconceptions and base desires. To his suggestion that girls are naturally flirtatious, she replies that they could not be otherwise, having been rewarded for such behavior from birth. His protestations of women’s natural state of dependence and desire to be obedient she sees as the natural result of years of servitude forced on them; how could they be otherwise? Wollstonecraft also points out the flaw in Rousseau’s reasoning. He states that beauty is valued only for a little while, yet friendship lasts and forms a deeper bond than romantic love between husbands and wives, as do children. If, then, beauty and artificial graces inevitably pall, why does he make the acquiring of them a woman’s chief duty? Why does he discourage the very education and exercise of reason that would fit a woman to be a good friend and a worthy mother?

Wollstonecraft also dismisses the sermons of Dr. James Fordyce, a popular work of the time, as poorly written and argued nonsense. She points out that another popular text, by Dr. John Gregory, is not as ridiculous or as poorly written but argues from wrong principles. Wollstonecraft also lists several women with whose works she disagrees and cites the letters of Hester Chapone and Catherine Macaulay as worthy of praise.

Social Conditions of Women

In chapters 6 through 11, Wollstonecraft enumerates many problems common to women, as well as the societal conditions that she sees as giving rise to these conditions and helping to perpetuate them. She treats sexual morality at some length, and she contrasts true morality with the appearance of morality that women are urged to maintain by their training. She also stresses the deleterious effects of concentrating all thoughts of female morality on chastity alone, instead of on the whole person as a citizen and a human being. She underscores the fact that until women and men are praised and elevated in society only for discharging their duties with honor, society can never advance. She points out the failure to attend to duty of English politicians, soldiers, and society women alike. However, while they continue to be rewarded for improper behavior, one can hardly expect them to do otherwise. Wollstonecraft also finds this reciprocity in the parent-child bond and finds that women who are unfit for motherhood tend to raise children who do not respect them or take care of them when they are in need.

In chapter 12, Wollstonecraft points out the many failures of the educational system, particularly boarding schools, which she finds to encourage sloth, vice, and viciousness. She advances a system of day schools so that students may live at home. Further, these schools are to be nationally supported, so that teachers need not rely on parents for their salaries, which leads to bad educational practices. She also proposes coeducation as a way of preparing boys and girls to live in society with each other. Each student should be allowed to rise on his or her own merit, and nothing else. Wollstonecraft also proposes that the class system be removed from the schools, and common respect for all humanity—and for animals—be part of the curriculum.

Argument for Women’s Rights

In the final chapter, Wollstonecraft recaps her earlier arguments and advances the notion that only by repairing the defects created by the wrongful treatment of women can society truly be advanced to a state of moral rightness based on reason. With women prone to so much folly by their lack of understanding, their advancement to rationality would bring a host of benefits to both women and men, and to any nation. She concludes by stating that most of women’s follies proceed from the tyranny of men, and if women are given their rights they will also acquire all the virtues needed to exercise them.

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A Woman of Our Time

The impact of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was initially limited, as Wollstonecraft’s ideas were so radical for their time that many considered them nonsensical. Further, her personal life subjected her to much scorn in society and made espousing her views even more unpopular. However, with the rise of feminism in the twentieth century, Wollstonecraft was elevated to a great degree. She was often cited by early suffragists as having provided the best argument for women’s full participation in democracy.

It was only in the 1970’s that she reached her full peak of influence. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is now regarded as the first major text of feminist philosophy, and...

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

As an expression of protest, A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMEN seems mild today. Wollstonecraft, following Rousseau on the subject of female education, was mainly concerned with gaining for women the right to be educated so that they would be fit companions for men and have a chance to become equally accomplished intellectually.

Her essay, however, goes beyond arguing for an equal education for women. It is also an expose of numerous injustices to women, such as the denial of the right to vote, to hold office, to own property, or to perform any but the lowest jobs. The impact of the essay stems from examples of abuses drawn from the author’s experience rather than from abstract arguments.

Though she...

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

The Work

Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, subtitled With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects, followed fast on her work Vindication of the Rights of Man (1790), the earliest radical rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s conservative Reflections on the French Revolution (1790). In the second book, dedicated to Talleyrand, the French minister of education, Wollstonecraft agitated for “a revolution in female manners.” She argued that complete and genuine social reform depended on validation of women as rational, moral beings fully capable of attaining virtue and knowledge and of contributing to civic welfare. Disputing the traditional view of women...

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Form and Content

First published in London in 1792, in the wake of the American and French revolutions, Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was itself a revolutionary book—a powerful argument for the establishment of legal, political, and social equality between men and women. Though by no means the first “feminist” writing in English (that honor should properly go to Mary Astell, who wrote approximately a hundred years before Wollstonecraft), Wollstonecraft spoke with uncommon force and vigor about the institutionalized, culturally sponsored oppression of women. Wollstonecraft’s governing premise in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman can be traced back through Thomas Jefferson and the American...

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History did not treat Wollstonecraft kindly—or at all fairly. The initial reception of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was largely positive (although it can be argued that the early reviewers of Wollstonecraft’s work, most of whom regarded it as a treatise on “female education,” either missed or overlooked its more radical implications). Shortly after her death in 1797 (of complications following the birth of her second child—a daughter, Mary, who was later to marry the poet Percy Shelley and write her own story of power and oppression, Frankenstein), however, the press began to vilify Wollstonecraft. As reactionary forces gathered in the wake of the failure of the French Revolution to produce the...

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Additional Reading

Conger, Syndy McMillen. Mary Wollstonecraft and the Language of Sensibility. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994. A scholarly, well-documented assessment of Wollstonecraft’s change in attitudes toward the language of emotions and feeling, from uncritical acceptance to critical rejection to a mature reacceptance and adaptation of it to new contexts, including feminism and political revolution. A corrective to standard twentieth century interpretations of Wollstonecraft that focus on the emphasis on reason during her middle years. Contains few details about her personal life and relationships....

(The entire section is 679 words.)