A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Chapter 1 : The Rights and Involved Duties of Mankind Considered | Summary

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Summary

  • Wollstonecraft begins with general principles she believes the reader will accept. She identifies reason, virtue, and knowledge as the elements that "distinguish the individual." She acknowledges many flaws in the society of her time, including the servile flattery afforded to "hereditary honors, riches, and monarchy." These things led philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to condemn society and embrace solitude.
  • Wollstonecraft has strong disagreements with Rousseau. She claims his "arguments in favor of a state of nature are plausible, but unsound." She agrees with his rejection of the artifices of aristocratic society but objects to Rousseau's celebration of "savagery." Wollstonecraft also notes that Rousseau does not claim living as a savage produces any particular virtues. Rousseau goes against God, she insists, and she prefers to trust in God rather than Rousseau. The solution is the "establishment of true civilization," she claims, rather than Rousseau's idea of a society of man in his "state of nature."
  • The real problem with society, she argues, is "arbitrary" and "regal" power—in other words, the monarchy and aristocratic power. With poor leadership from kings and nobles, how can the ordinary man be wise? It is "madness" to put the lives and health of so many under the power of a single "weak fellow creature."
  • She also criticizes professions "in which great subordination of rank constitutes its power," calling them "highly injurious to morality." As examples she cites a standing army, sailors and "naval gentlemen," even the clergy and the "rules" of fashion for gentlemen. She points out that "the character of every man is, in some degree, formed by his profession" and argues against a society filled with professions that force men to look foolish.

Analysis

This book was published in 1792, a time when the French Revolution was still in progress and America was experimenting with setting up a democratic republic, a new constitution, and a Bill of Rights. Wollstonecraft connects her arguments with the philosophies and politics of those recent events, so she begins with the idea that reason, virtue, and knowledge are vital qualities. Few philosophers of her era would disagree. In fact, her entire first chapter focuses on broader ideas about society and monarchy rather than women's rights. This is a necessary first step to persuade her audience, which would be other, predominantly male, intellectuals. Wollstonecraft wants to establish herself as an intellectual, too. If the reader agrees with her on these broader ideas, Wollstonecraft may be able to keep the reader on her side as she ventures into the far more controversial territory of women's education.

Still, Wollstonecraft does not play it safe in this chapter, directly attacking the controversial and highly influential philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau had arguments with organized religion, which may be why Wollstonecraft refers to him as "against God." He wrote extensively about humans in a "state of nature"—that in a healthy society, humans are naturally good to themselves and others. Wollstonecraft suggests he advocated an actual return to a primitive state, something most scholars agree he did not do. Rousseau and Wollstonecraft disagreed in many areas, and she will refer to him often throughout this book.

Wollstonecraft also addresses how a profession shapes a man's view of the world. Because women were not, and could not be, professionals, this is, by definition, a critique of men. Wollstonecraft agreed with John Locke, the Enlightenment philosopher whose ideas helped inspire the American Revolution. Locke emphasized the idea of a "social contract," which argued governments draw their power from the consent of the governed. Along similar lines Wollstonecraft objects to careers that require slavish obedience rather than the ability to think for one's self. She consistently rejects unquestioning obedience throughout the book.

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