Context

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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Wollstonecraft uses her second chapter to point out the various arguments advanced over the ages to prove that women...

(The entire section contains 5501 words.)

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