A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Study Guide

Mary Wollstonecraft

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Summary



Note, Advertisement, and Introduction

The publication begins with a brief note from Wollstonecraft to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a French statesman, whom she hopes will change his mind about women's education after reading her book. Wollstonecraft introduces her main argument: adult women's faults and deficiencies are the result of the inadequate education they receive.

Chapters 1–6

Wollstonecraft places her argument in the context of societal ideas of the time: the value of liberty and the rejection of "hereditary honors, riches, and monarchy." She claims the differences between women and men are because of the poor methods of teaching that girls receive. While acknowledging the physical superiority of men, she complains the supervision of girls' physical activities are so restrictive that their bodies are even weaker than necessary. She refutes the idea girls naturally prefer dolls and quiet activities.

Wollstonecraft argues women are "degraded" by society through poor education, lack of respect, and limited choices as adults. She objects that English society encourages women to dwell solely on "sensation," emotion, or sentiment rather than logic and abstract reasoning. Responding to other writers who have written about women, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Scottish minister Dr. Fordyce, physician Dr. Gregory, and many others, Wollstonecraft describes what she perceives as the "great advantages" of a good education and decries many supposedly feminine behaviors that she believes are actually the result of the limited education provided for women. A better-educated woman, she argues, would be a better wife and mother.

Chapters 7–11

Wollstonecraft writes about "modesty," which she defines both as sexual modesty and also a personal modesty in which the mental image of one's self is not inflated, but realistic. She insists men and women need both types of modesty.

Discussing women and politics, Wollstonecraft argues women need voices that speak for them in government. While calling on society to treat all working women better, she also suggests that society open a wide variety of careers to women, including medicine, business, and more.

Obsessively strict or tyrannical parents receive special criticism. She argues women would be more reasoned and patient mothers if they received a better education. Wollstonecraft believes children owe some respect and duty to their parents, but that they should not be expected to demonstrate "blind obedience."

Chapters 12–13

Many readers may recognize standards of today's education systems in Wollstonecraft's detailed outline of a reform plan for national education in late 18th century England. She proposes coeducational day schools where all children under nine years old can study together, followed by different educational options for those planning on various careers or those who will pursue higher education.

In the final chapter she criticizes women for foolish choices but reiterates her belief these are the result of ignorance and poor education rather than a fundamental weakness of women. She asks men to either help women obtain a better education or be more tolerant of such weaknesses as visiting con-artists who portray themselves as doctors or being influenced by romance novels.

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