A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Study Guide." Course Hero. 29 Nov. 2017. Web. 14 Nov. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Vindication-of-the-Rights-of-Woman/>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, November 29). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved November 14, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Vindication-of-the-Rights-of-Woman/

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Study Guide." November 29, 2017. Accessed November 14, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Vindication-of-the-Rights-of-Woman/.


Course Hero, "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Study Guide," November 29, 2017, accessed November 14, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Vindication-of-the-Rights-of-Woman/.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Chapter 4 : Observations on the State of Degradation to Which Woman Is Reduced by Various Causes | Summary



  • Wollstonecraft says women have been "degraded" by society, a lack of education, and the attitudes of men. Society and the attitudes of men work together to prevent a comprehensive education for girls and women. Wollstonecraft believes this lack of real education causes many of the faults usually attributed to women.
  • People—principally men—incorrectly believe the purpose of education is to prepare a child for the world. Wollstonecraft believes education should help the individual take a step toward eventual perfection, both spiritually and intellectually.
  • Knowledge requires "the power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations," she argues, but this has been denied to women because men believe "it is inconsistent ... with their sexual character." Wollstonecraft challenges men to prove this "inconsistency."
  • She defines reason as "the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth." Women cannot develop the skills of rational thinking fully because fathers and husbands shelter and overprotect them: Wollstonecraft believes reason develops as a response to adversity; instead, "pleasure is the business of a woman's life."
  • Wollstonecraft asks "affectionately" why women accept such a state, and she answers herself: people tend to make the best of their situation. She suggests some women enjoy their lives because they don't know any better. She compares women to rich men, who do not know how to do anything useful but enjoy their lives and work on improving their etiquette and manners.
  • Society teaches women to focus on "sensation," to enjoy novels and music and gallant behavior by men. She argues this focus on emotion weakens the rational part of a woman's mind. The effect is often they act and think like children.
  • She again takes issue with Rousseau, who dislikes the idea of a "man's education" for women because a woman so educated will have less power over men. Wollstonecraft is glad of that. She doesn't want power over men. She wants women to acquire power over themselves.
  • Society expects a wife and mother to manage her family and household, but if she is not well-educated, how can she competently manage her family? On the other hand, if she isn't caring for her family, she is no better than her husband's mistress because she is only there to please him. Wollstonecraft repeats the suggestion that marriage based on friendship might be more successful than marriage based on romantic love.
  • Wollstonecraft addresses specific situations which some women face. A widowed mother must serve as both father and mother, but how can she, when her education is inadequate? Wollstonecraft describes unmarried women who are left dependent on brothers because the men in her life do not let her make her own decisions.
  • She discusses polygamy in foreign countries and cites pseudo-science about the effects of polygamy. Wollstonecraft also explores "marriage with the left-hand"—living together without being married—and how it affects women who choose this arrangement because they are "broken off from society." She points out the consequences of such a union are far worse for the woman than the man.


Wollstonecraft presents her ideas on the purpose of education. She talks of drawing conclusions and generalizing ideas with an eye toward continual improvement of the individual, aiming for perfection. At the time education for men rarely met those standards, and education for women never did. Instead, both boys and girls were often trained for their societal duties rather than the topics or skills a modern student might expect. The goal of feminine education was to prepare the young woman to be a good companion to her future husband.

Wollstonecraft repeatedly uses logical arguments from Enlightenment thinkers and transfers those arguments to her topic of women's education. She ties women to the "rich," asserting neither really contributes to society but spends time and energy on being "ornamental." She is quick to assert, however, that women may remedy that if they are given an appropriate education. To those who claim women can't handle it, Wollstonecraft has a ready answer: prove it. Allow women to try and if they fail, they will have proven themselves too weak.

Wollstonecraft makes the revolutionary claim that women deserve a good education because they are human beings, but she also strategically supports her argument with hypothetical examples to illustrate her point. The widowed mother, for example, demonstrates how an inadequate woman's education could damage an entire generation of both men and women. Her strictures on the fate of unmarried women, polygamists, and "marriage with the left-hand" represent her desire to address a wide range of potential situations for women.

Why the focus on marriage? Wollstonecraft objected to the reality that women's education was solely to train them to be good wives. She puts a strong emphasis on logic and friendship in selecting a mate, rather than beauty or fortune. Keep in mind that in 1792 Wollstonecraft was an unmarried young woman who was supporting herself. She may have had personal experience with the challenges of men who rejected an intellectual woman. Shortly after the publication of Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she would meet and begin a sexual relationship with Captain Imlay. Later she would also have a sexual relationship out of marriage with William Godwin. Wollstonecraft experienced "marriage with the left-hand" as she calls it, but at the time of this writing, she seems to be relatively naïve about the reasons why a woman might pursue love and passion instead of marrying for friendship. Also, Wollstonecraft was not immune to some of the other prejudices of her day, as shown by her citation of pseudo-science on polygamy in Africa and other far-off countries.

Wollstonecraft focuses primarily on middle-class and upper-class women. But poor women in 1792 would get virtually no education and would have far more to do than just pleasing their husbands. Wollstonecraft, like Charles Dickens and many other late 18th- and early 19th-century writers, believed the poor may be more virtuous than the rich if only because of a lack of options.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about A Vindication of the Rights of Woman? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!