Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women
1. Wollstonecraft explains that “Women are told from their infancy, and taught by the example of their mothers, that a little knowledge of human weakness, justly termed cunning, softness of temper, OUTWARD obedience, and a scrupulous attention to a puerile kind of propriety, will obtain for them the protection of man; and should they be beautiful, every thing else is needless, for at least twenty years of their lives” (84). This statement points to the process of socialization that teaches girls to cultivate an identity of calculating childishness and fragility. What are the effects of molding girls in this way when it comes to marriage and motherhood (67, 95, 100, 119); obedience (84, 91, 93); false refinement and appearances (87, 89, 91, 93, 99, 107); and physical delicacy (95, 99, 105). You may choose to focus on one of these topics in a comprehensive manner, or seek to analyze passages from a number of these topics.
2. Throughout chapter 2 Wollstonecraft argues that education has stunted women’s intellectual, emotional, and spiritual growth (see pages 84, 88, and 89). She also highlights that the best education (for men and women) is “such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart” (86). Summarize what Wollstonecraft believes to be the inadequacies of education for women. After, explain what she imagines would be an ideal education. What limitations do you see in her judgments about education? Present your assessment of Wollstonecraft’s ideas in a concluding paragraph.
3. Explain Wollstonecraft’s attitude toward the aristocracy and the military, as exemplified by the following quotation: “But for this epoch we must wait–wait, perhaps, till kings and nobles, enlightened by reason, and, preferring the real dignity of man to childish state, throw off their gaudy hereditary trappings; and if then women do not resign the arbitrary power of beauty, they will prove that they have LESS mind than man” (87, see also 67, 104, 112). Specify the problem that Wollstonecraft has with these institutions. Why does she think that reason is an antidote to tyranny from rulers of states and homes?
4. In the 18th century, virtue was defined as “A particular moral excellence; a special manifestation of the influence of moral principles in life or conduct” (OED). However, Wollstonecraft’s repeated references to virtue mean something more. She urges that “Women ought to endeavour to purify their hearts; but can they do so when their uncultivated understandings make them entirely dependent on their senses for employment and amusement, when no noble pursuit sets them above the little vanities of the day, or enables them to curb the wild emotions?” (94). She also sees virtue as too often “sacrificed to temporary gratifications, and the respectability of life to the triumph of an hour” (107). Identifying one other passage in the text that also addresses the idea of virtue, begin your essay by explaining what Wollstonecraft means by virtue in three passages. In three to four body paragraphs, discuss why Wollstonecraft’s definition of virtue is important for transforming women from dependent creatures into valuable members of society. In your conclusion, you may discuss whether her definition of virtue has relevance in today’s society.
5. Wollstonecraft is quite skeptical about love, stating baldly that there is a need to “restrain this tumultuous passion, and to prove that it should not be allowed to dethrone superior powers, to usurp the sceptre which the understanding should ever coolly wield” (93). Why does she say that “Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship!” (95). See also pages 94, 96, 100. What does she think are the consequences of teaching women to believe in the lofty powers of romantic love? Discuss why Wollstonecraft damns romantic love. In a concluding paragraph, explain why you agree or disagree with her.
(Informal assignments that provide an opportunity to reflect on or relate to the text but do not assume mastery of the text.)
A paraphrase involves restating complex ideas from a source in your own words. Below are some quotations from Chapters 2 and 3 of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. As a group, paraphrase the quotation that correspondents to your group number. Aim to condense the quotation and to explain the main ideas, not every sentence. You will share this paraphrase with everyone in the last 15 minutes of class.
1. “To do every thing in an orderly manner, is a most important precept, which women, who, generally speaking, receive only a disorderly kind of education, seldom attend to with that degree of exactness that men, who from their infancy are broken into method, observe. This negligent kind of guesswork . . . prevents their generalizing matters of fact, so they do to-day, what they did yesterday, merely because they did it yesterday” (88).
2. “As a proof that education gives this appearance of weakness to females, we may instance the example of military men, who are, like them, sent into the world before their minds have been stored with knowledge or fortified by principles. The consequences are similar; soldiers acquire a little superficial knowledge, snatched from the muddy current of conversation, and, from continually mixing with society, they gain, what is termed a knowledge of the world; and this acquaintance with manners and customs has frequently been confounded with a knowledge of the human heart” (88-9).
3. “Besides, the woman who strengthens her body and exercises her mind will, by managing her family and practising various virtues, become the friend, and not the humble dependent of her husband; and if she deserves his regard by possessing such substantial qualities, she will not find it necessary to conceal her affection, nor to pretend to an unnatural coldness of constitution to excite her husband’s passions. In fact, if we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex” (95).
4. “How women are to exist in that state where there is to be neither marrying nor giving in marriage, we are not told. For though moralists have agreed, that the tenor of life seems to prove that MAN is prepared by various circumstances for a future state, they constantly concur in advising WOMAN only to provide for the present. Gentleness, docility, and a spaniel-like affection are, on this ground, consistently recommended as the cardinal virtues of the sex; and, disregarding the arbitrary economy of nature, one writer has declared that it is masculine for a woman to be melancholy. She was created to be the toy of man, his rattle, and it must jingle in his ears, whenever, dismissing reason, he chooses to be amused” (100).
5. “But I still insist, that not only the virtue, but the KNOWLEDGE of the two sexes should be the same in nature, if not in degree, and that women, considered not only as moral, but rational creatures, ought to endeavour to acquire human virtues (or perfections) by the SAME means as men, instead of being educated like a fanciful kind of HALF being, one of Rousseau’s wild chimeras” (106).
6. “Women deluded by these sentiments, sometimes boast of their weakness, cunningly obtaining power by playing on the WEAKNESS of men; and they may well glory in their illicit sway, for, like Turkish bashaws, they have more real power than their masters: but virtue is sacrificed to temporary gratifications, and the respectability of life to the triumph of an hour” (107).
7. “[T]ill women are more rationally educated, the progress of human virtue and improvement in knowledge must receive continual checks. And if it be granted, that woman was not created merely to gratify the appetite of man, nor to be the upper servant, who provides his meals and takes care of his linen, it must follow, that the first care of those mothers or fathers, who really attend to the education of females, should be, if not to strengthen the body, at least, not to destroy the constitution by mistaken notions of beauty and female excellence” (107).
8. “Girls and boys, in short, would play harmless together, if the distinction of sex was not inculcated long before nature makes any difference. I will, go further, and affirm, as an indisputable fact, that most of the women, in the circle of my observation, who have acted like rational creatures, or shown any vigour of intellect, have accidentally been allowed to run wild, as some of the elegant formers of the fair sex would insinuate” (110-11).
9. “Let not men then in the pride of power, use the same arguments that tyrannic kings and venal ministers have used, and fallaciously assert, that woman ought to be subjected because she has always been so. But, when man, governed by reasonable laws, enjoys his natural freedom, let him despise woman, if she do not share it with him; and, till that glorious period arrives, in descanting on the folly of the sex, let him not overlook his own” (112).
10. “It is time to effect a revolution in female manners, time to restore to them their lost dignity, and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners” (113).
(In-class 10-minute writing assignments that might be discussed with whole class. Students might also be asked to return to what they wrote at the beginning of the class, and to add to or to make changes to what they previously thought.)
1. At the beginning of Chapter 3 (see pages 109-111), Wollstonecraft suggests that children, especially girls, need to be given more freedom to play independently. The situation she describes is pertinent today as parents continue to debate “helicopter” (over-protective) vs. “free-range” (relaxed) parenting. Do you think Wollstonecraft would subscribe to the “helicopter” or “free-range” parenting model? Do you agree with her parenting philosophy? Do you think modern children are given too much or too little freedom?
2. At the end of Chapter 3 (see pages 119-120), Wollstonecraft observes that without discipline and a higher sense of purpose, men and women give in to distractions, “noisy pleasures, and artificial passions” (120). Do you find this to be true today? What vices or distractions do you have, and how do they undermine your goals in life?
3. In her letter to M. Talleyrand-Périgord, Wollstonecraft bluntly states that “from the weak king to the weak father of the family; they are all eager to crush reason” (67). What do you think is the connection she makes between kings and patriarchal heads of households? (An additional exercise, ask students to write a protest letter.)
4. Wollstonecraft judges that “The great misfortune is this, that they both [soldiers and women] acquire manners before morals, and a knowledge of life before they have from reflection, any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. The consequence is natural; satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority” (89-90). Why does she make a connection between soldiers and women? Do you agree that soldiers and/or women develop “manners” before “morals.”
5. In several passages in the text, Wollstonecraft attacks the idea that women should be still and passive, while men should be physically active. What do you think of exercise? Why does Wollstonecraft feel that it is important for women to be initiated into physical activity early on? See pages 95, 99, 105.
6. Do you think that differences between the sexes are innate and biological, or nurtured and taught? Describe an example that supports your point of view. What does Wollstonecraft think? Explain why you agree or disagree with her.
Short Answer / Critical Response
(Opportunities to write creatively or imaginatively about the text, and shared with the class.)
1. Wollstonecraft talks about ways that eighteenth-century women become “slaves to their bodies” (111). What does she mean by this? In what ways is this still true today? How might Wollstonecraft suggest that we combat some of our modern problems with women’s body image issues?
2. Wollstonecraft is debating the purpose of education: whether it is designed to advance the individual toward virtue, or to help one “prepare for life.” Think of your purposes in getting an education. What does a college education mean for you, or for your family? Are you the first in your family to go to college? Do you see education as a journey of personal growth, as a training for a future job, as both?
3. What does it take be a radical? Think about #blacklivesmatter, Occupy Wall Street, the movement to legalize gay marriage, or New York Fast Food workers’ fight to raise the minimum wage. What strategies did one of these groups use to achieve their goals? What do you see is a connection between their strategies and Wollstonecraft’s, if any?
(Open book quiz given toward the end of the unit to re-affirm key terms.)
Wollstonecraft often uses vocabulary whose meaning has changed from her own time to ours. For each of the following word give a one to two sentence explanation of how Wollstonecraft is using the term. This should not be a dictionary definition; it should reflect Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Notes are permitted.
- Corporeal accomplishments:
Teacher’s Guide for Terminologies
- virtue (84, 107)—alludes to reason, knowledge, understanding, not just moral goodness or sexual purity
- reason (88)—logical thinking and deductive thought-processes, a key theory arising out of the Enlightenment
- passions (96)—strong, wayward feelings or ‘appetites,’ not necessarily sexual
- employments (96, 98)—activities in which one spends one’s time, hobbies
- constitution (105)—physical health and strength
- modesty (107)—respectable humility and shyness, usually false and put on
- manners (02)—the behaviors and mannerisms deemed appropriate for respectable, upper-middle class women, i.e., fragility, demureness, soft-spokenness, passivity
- sensualist (90)—someone devoted wholly to physical and sexual pleasure
- corporeal accomplishments (88)—frivolous achievements and passive activities that keep women occupied as entertainment for men, i.e., embroidering, sewing, flower arranging, water-color painting, singing
- aristocracy (87)—the nobility, highest class of society with heredity rights, especially the French royals
(*Handout vocabulary list before reading. **Definitions from New Oxford American Dictionary)
Instructions: Highlight and define the following terms from your reading.
- vindication (title)—
- sagacious/sagacity (88)—
- tyranny (87)—
- hereditary (87)—
- cypher/cipher (90)—
- libertine (94)—
- insipid (92)—
- eradicate (93)—
- abhorrence (93)—
- gallantry (93)—
- dissimulation (94)—
- affectation (95)—
- voluptuous (96)—
- coquettish/coquetry (97)—
- uncultivated (97)—
- abject (99)—
- docility (100)—
- indolent (101)—
- emancipated (101)—
- sober (102)— serious
- despot (107)—
- eloquence (108)—
- inculcated (110)—
- ramifications (112)—
- fallible (115)—
- encumbered (116)—
- yoke (116)—
- impotent (117)—
- discriminating (117)—
- exertions (120)—
Teacher’s Guide for Vocabulary Journal
- vindication—the justification for some act or belief
- sagacious/sagacity (88)—showing an ability to understand difficult ideas and situations and to make good decisions
- tyranny (87)—cruel or oppressive rule or governance
- hereditary (87)—holding a position or title that was passed on from your parent or an older relative
- cypher/cipher (90)—a person who has no power or is not important
- libertine ()—a person, especially a man, who behaves without moral principles or a sense of responsibility, especially in sexual matters.
- insipid (92)—lacking vigor, energy, or uniqueness
- eradicate (93)–to remove something completely: to eliminate or destroy
- abhorrence (93)–to dislike someone or something very much
- gallantry (93)–very brave behavior: polite attention shown by a man to a woman
- dissimulation (94)–to hide under a false appearance
- affectation (95)–the act of taking on or displaying an attitude or mode of behavior not natural to oneself or not genuinely felt
- voluptuous (96)–giving pleasure to the senses
- coquettish/coquetry (97)–a flirtatious act or attitude
- uncultivated (97)–underdeveloped, not studied or directed
- abject (99)—degrading or unpleasant
- docility (100)–easily taught, led, or controlled
- indolent (101)–not liking to work or be active
- emancipated (101)–to free someone from someone else’s control or power
- sober (102)—solemn, serious, sensible
- despot (107)—a person who has a lot of power over other people
- eloquence (108)—discourse marked by force and persuasiveness
- inculcated (110)—to cause something to be learned by someone by repeating it again and again
- ramifications (112)–something that is the result of an action, decision, etc.
- fallible (115)–capable of making mistakes or being wrong
- encumbered (116)–to cause problems or difficulties for someone
- yoke (116)–something that causes people to be treated cruelly and unfairly especially by taking away their freedom
- impotent (117)–lacking power or strength
- discriminating (117)—having or showing refined taste or good judgment
- exertions (120)–physical or mental effort
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.