A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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Course Hero, "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Study Guide," November 29, 2017, accessed November 15, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Vindication-of-the-Rights-of-Woman/.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Chapter 3 : The Same Subject Continued | Summary



  • Wollstonecraft asserts that "bodily strength seems to give man a natural superiority over women ... the only solid basis on which the superiority of the sex can be built." But if strength is good, why are women so proud of being "delicate" and weak? How can a woman be any good as a wife and mother if she must spend all her time protecting herself from illness?
  • Women remain weak because society does not teach them to use their bodies in any useful or challenging way. Instead, sewing and playing with dolls are the kinds of activities put in front of girls to master. If that's all the activity open to them, no wonder they remain weak and unprepared to fulfill more roles in society. Wollstonecraft again refutes Rousseau, who claims girls inherently prefer such things. In her experience, she says, a girl will not choose such things unless others teach her to do so.
  • Wollstonecraft also begins another theme in the book—attacking the "sensualists." Wollstonecraft claims they have caused problems because they only praise physical beauty rather than intellectual beauty.
  • Beauty may help a woman obtain a good husband, but what happens if he dies? The wife will now need to serve as both mother and father, and her preparation has encompassed only those skills needed to raise children and please a husband and father. Women may have different duties than men, Wollstonecraft says, "but they are human duties" and deserve respect.


Wollstonecraft was centuries ahead of her time by suggesting socialization could be responsible for common gender-specific behaviors. She again critiques Rousseau, who thinks girls instinctively gravitate toward dolls, citing her personal experience teaching young women, which Rousseau did not have. Wollstonecraft argues girls play with dolls because parents and caregivers teach them to do so, rather than because of some inherent desire. To this day parents and educators continue to debate the socialization of toy preferences in boys and girls and to what degree physiological, biological, and genetic factors play a role in this. Her argument about the physical opportunities available to women is also prescient, recognizing how the teaching and even the dressing of girls could discourage certain physical movements—think corsets and wearing dresses for gym class. Keeping her proposals reasonable, she acknowledges the physical superiority of men. Wollstonecraft does not suggest women can do everything just as well as men, nor does she think they should.

Wollstonecraft rejects "sensualism," a growing movement in philosophical and literary circles of the era that focused on the expression of the senses as truth. Sensualists rejected a purely rational approach to life. Wollstonecraft's writings in the early 1790s, including this one, were strongly rationalist and firmly opposed to sensualism's celebration of the emotional. Society in Wollstonecraft's day encouraged women to embrace their emotional sides, and people accepted this as natural behavior in females. Wollstonecraft argues women are emotional because no one has taught them to be rational, and the constant focus on women's physical beauty leads them to focus attention on their senses and appearance rather than on logical reasoning and the formulation of abstract ideas.

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