A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Context


The French Revolution

France in the 1780s was an undemocratic nation. The French legislature, called the Estates-General, was composed of three classes or "estates": the clergy, the aristocracy, and the commoners. Although, commoners, many of them peasants, made up 98 percent of the country, the clergy and nobility consistently outvoted the commoners. When King Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General to meet in 1789, the commoners argued for representation based on population. The Estates-General rejected their claims, sowing the seeds of the revolution. Peasants in France were often starving and could be imprisoned merely on the word of a nobleman. Many of those unjustly imprisoned were kept in the Bastille, a fortress-like building in the city of Paris. In July 1789 peasants stormed the Bastille, freeing the prisoners. They began attacking the nobility, seeking revenge for years of suffering. In August they adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, an aspirational document similar in some ways to the American Declaration of Independence (1776). In 1791 a constituent national assembly drafted and approved a new constitution. It was guided by some of the more moderate voices in France at that time; it retained the monarchy but granted legislative powers to the new Legislative Assembly.

These events transpired before and during Wollstonecraft's writing of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She viewed the French Revolution as a positive step, an opportunity for the common people of France to claim control of their nation. After its initial publication, Wollstonecraft met Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a French diplomat who was known to have some rather limited views on women's education. She dedicated the second edition of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to him, in the hope it might inspire him to provide a better education for women in the new France.

After A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft traveled to France and began writing a book about the French Revolution. However, the revolution began to take a more violent direction. Revolutionaries led peasants to execute the king, the queen, and many officials of the former aristocratic government, and it was no longer safe for English citizens to remain in France. For a time Wollstonecraft pretended to be the wife of her American lover, Captain Imlay. Later, she left France entirely.

Women's Lives in Late 18th-Century England

Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. At the time women in England faced very few choices. Girls received a limited education. A wealthy family might send their daughter to school, but she would mainly learn skills with which to entertain and entice her future husband. Poorer children of both genders usually received little or no education at all. English universities, such as Oxford or Cambridge, did not permit women to attend. This was not true in all countries; some women in other European countries had the opportunity to attend universities, even becoming respected scientists.

In England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, women had no legal rights. A girl was the property of her father until she married, at which point she became the property of her husband. Careers were not an option for women of good families. While women in poorer families often needed to work to contribute to the household, the work was often unhealthy or occurred in illegal circumstances.

Wollstonecraft's life demonstrated many of the challenges women faced. Her family suffered because of her father's poor financial choices, but no one could stop him because he was the head of the household. She needed to support herself, but her job opportunities were limited to what she described as the "menial" work of a governess or running her own small school, which failed financially. She eventually found work with a radical publisher in London, but few women would have had the qualifications for such work. To maintain her employment Wollstonecraft taught herself several languages to translate texts for her employer. Wollstonecraft drew on personal experience as well as societal attitudes in writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

The Enlightenment

Wollstonecraft was writing near the end of the Enlightenment, which was a period of history that celebrated the rise of rational and science-based thinking. British scientists like Isaac Newton were important contributors to the Enlightenment. This period saw the rise of political theories that celebrated democracy and the common man; Enlightenment ideals shaped the politics of many leaders of the American and French revolutions of the late 18th century. Adherents often rejected involvement in organized religion, though Wollstonecraft did not.

English philosopher John Locke was a major figure in the Enlightenment and a huge influence on Wollstonecraft, though he wrote almost 100 years before the publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Locke argued that human beings had certain "natural rights" that humans earned simply by existing. He included life, liberty, and property among those rights, which later inspired American politician Thomas Jefferson to include "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in his writing of the Declaration of Independence. In theory natural rights applied to all people, including women; however, in practice women's rights were severely curtailed. Locke emphasized the idea of a "social contract," which argued governments draw their power from the consent of the governed, an idea that would strongly influence the direction of the American and French Revolutions. Wollstonecraft's argument that women should be better represented in government reflects this idea.

Locke's ideas on education also influenced her. He believed the mind is a blank state at birth—a tabula rasa. A proper education can fill the brain with the best ideas to produce a productive, moral community of individuals. Wollstonecraft does not specifically mention the tabula rasa, but her ideas follow a similar pattern: a woman's mind is a blank slate, and if you do not educate her, you cannot expect her to produce worthwhile, complex ideas.

Wollstonecraft did not fully embrace all Enlightenment thinkers, however. She reserves strong words for French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Rousseau was a controversial and highly influential philosopher of the Enlightenment. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Rousseau had arguments with organized religion, which Wollstonecraft did not support. Rousseau wrote about the potential for humans to live in a primitive "state of nature," where human altruism and goodness could thrive. Wollstonecraft seems to believe he was advocating an actual return to that primitive state, something most scholars agree he did not support.

Most problematically for Wollstonecraft, Rousseau's views on the education of women are sexist. He wrote a book called Emile (1762), in which he describes his view of the appropriate education for a young man named Emile and the young woman, Sophie, he will marry. Although Emile's education is appropriately rigorous for a young man in this ideal society, Rousseau's prescription for Sophie is she should learn how to please her man. Rousseau argues women prefer playing with dolls and learning to sew, so those areas should be the focus for their education rather than abstract, complex topics. Wollstonecraft intensely disagrees with Rousseau's stance on women's role in his ideal society.

Wollstonecraft devotes a portion of her book to responding to ideas, enlightened and otherwise, expressed by other writers. There are a couple of purposes for this strategy. First, because she makes a strong argument about how inadequate most women's education is, she needs to demonstrate her own command of the leading ideas and theories of her time. Second, she wants to place her ideas in the context of other Enlightenment thinkers. Part of her argument to the reader is that a truly enlightened person would not deprive women of their ability to become enlightened, too.

Feminism, Sensibility, and Sexuality

Over the years scholars have debated to what extent Wollstonecraft qualifies as a true feminist. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she encourages men to view women as thinking creatures but never explicitly claims women are equal with men. Although she briefly advocates for career options for women, she spends more time addressing how a better education could improve women as wives and mothers. She spends minimal time addressing other sexist standards of the day, including a husband's ability to beat or rape his wife without consequence. She reassures the reader a woman can learn to think without being "masculine."

Wollstonecraft struggles with women's sexuality in the book. She argues that women who are sexually active outside of marriage should not suffer because of it, but she also spends a lot of time addressing the ideas of "modesty." She argues strongly against sensibility, sentimentality, and sensuality—interchangeable terms at that time for feelings and emotions—as the opposite of rational behavior.

Some of these contradictions appear in feminist writings throughout history. Feminist writers and women in general may be conflicted over the place of love, marriage, and sexuality in a woman's life. For all Wollstonecraft's arguments against sensibility and sexuality, she made very unconventional and emotional choices in her personal life, including relationships that led her to attempt suicide and multiple sexual relationships outside of marriage, behaviors that were scandalous in her time.

Over 200 years after her death, most scholars seem to agree that Wollstonecraft was a feminist in the modern sense of the word, a bold thinker who recognized the ways in which society socializes both boys and girls into specific roles and behaviors and who recommended ways to correct these prejudices.

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