A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Main Ideas

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Natural Rights and Liberty

Wollstonecraft was a follower of John Locke, a British writer and philosopher. Locke wrote almost 100 years before Wollstonecraft, and his ideas on natural rights influenced the American Revolution and England's Glorious Revolution, during which Catholic King James II was deposed and replaced by his protestant daughter, Mary II, and her husband, William III. Locke argued that human beings had certain inherent rights just because they were humans. He included life, liberty, and property among those rights, which later inspired Jefferson's "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" in the Declaration of Independence. In theory, natural rights applied to all people, including women. In practice, women's rights were severely curtailed, which is what Wollstonecraft argues against in Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

One of Locke's natural rights was liberty. Wollstonecraft argues women lack liberty and provides many examples to support her argument. Women's education was severely limited, and girls who asked to study specific topics were often refused. Women's legal rights were subsumed by those of their husband's, leaving women with no legal identity of their own. Women's career choices were severely restricted. Wollstonecraft repeatedly uses imagery of cages or chains and compares women to African slaves to further emphasize her point: society unreasonably curtails women's natural rights.

Importance of Reason

Wollstonecraft repeatedly contrasts reason and emotion (or sensibility) throughout the text. This is intentional. Society at that time saw reason as the domain of men and emotion as the domain of women. Wollstonecraft challenges that belief, arguing women have the capacity to reason just as well as men if given the opportunity.

Some referred to the Enlightenment as "The Age of Reason" because it celebrated the rise of rational and science-based thinking over myth and superstition. The Enlightenment venerated wisdom and rationality above all other things, and some Enlightenment thinkers believed the emotional tendencies of women proved their inferiority to men. Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, insists women are emotional because social forces it. She describes how schools do not teach logic, science, or math to girls but do so with boys, and women must spend their time with more sensitive, and emotional concerns like marriage and children. Women were also encouraged to read novels and other emotionally charged materials because science and history were deemed too difficult or too indelicate for the female brain.

Wollstonecraft told Enlightenment thinkers they were forcing women into intellectual servitude by preventing them from developing their ability to reason. In effect, she calls on Enlightenment thinkers to stand up for what they profess to believe in—the triumph of reason and lifting the common person, in this case a woman, from darkness into the light. It is important to note that Wollstonecraft was writing near the end of the Enlightenment, and she represents a transition that was beginning to take place in intellectual circles: the beginning of Romanticism and other ideologies that sought ways to combine emotion with reason. Wollstonecraft does not reject emotion entirely—some of her passages are quite vehement—but she saw a place for emotion within a rational life. This is typical of later Enlightenment thinking.

Duty

The word "duty" crops up throughout the text, and for good reason. Wollstonecraft's arguments are not merely aspirational: she has a strong practical basis for her ideas as well. Enlightenment thinkers had grappled with the ideas of "duty" and "moral responsibility" for years. These thinkers often rejected conventional religious practices (though Wollstonecraft did not), but that raised the question of what moral duties existed outside the realm of "God's law." For Wollstonecraft both reason and God's law require people to do their "duty." For women this largely means caring for children; however, she does not specifically label the procreation of children as a duty, though that was often viewed as an expectation for married women in her time. One of Wollstonecraft's more practical arguments is that by educating women they can become better wives and mothers.

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