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 December 11, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Vindication-of-the-Rights-of-Woman/.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman | Symbols


Chains and Cages

Wollstonecraft repeatedly uses the images of chains and cages to express how society limits women by tightly restricting their lives and refusing them a quality education. She explicitly compares women to "African slaves" and often compares them to slaves under the control of their "tyrant" husbands. She uses the word "chains" metaphorically, but it is a vivid representation of how she views the limitations placed on women. In a similar way she describes women as birds in a "gilt cage"—given luxurious surroundings but unable to fly as God intended them to do. Women's elegant clothes are like the bird's feathers—someone might keep a beautiful bird in his home to show off its plumage, even if the bird is unhappy. A man might marry a beautiful woman and keep her, like a bird in a cage, without considering what she might want.


Enlightenment thinkers frequently contrasted modern, civilized society with the "state of nature," or the more primitive state of humans before the rise of agricultural societies. Some felt society improved humanity, while others thought it diminished the natural power and goodness of humanity. She contrasts her thinking to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an Enlightenment philosopher who elevated the status of primitive communitarian tribal groups to emphasize the natural goodness of humanity. Wollstonecraft criticizes society, but she is quite clear to her that life in a civilized society is better than the primitive state of pre-civilized humans. She uses savages or barbarians to represent out-of-date beliefs that modern men should have outgrown. She implies the mistreatment of women falls into that category of barbaric beliefs that have no place in modern society.


Wollstonecraft repeatedly returns to the idea of motherhood. Being a mother is a woman's sacred duty, and a caring and tender mother represents the best of a woman in Wollstonecraft's mind. She uses the image of a mother nursing her baby to represent the natural and appropriate caregiving a woman should provide to her child and paints vivid picture of how a good mother can care for her husband and children and make her home a joyful place. These images are typical for Wollstonecraft's day, but her use of them is actually subversive. She argues that a woman with a good education will be better prepared to care for her family; that nursing mother is joyful because she has a good education and understands how she can help her child. This is very different from the typical representations of motherhood in Wollstonecraft's time. By taking a familiar image and using it in a slightly different way, Wollstonecraft may be able to persuade more readers. Her educated woman is not a masculine, aggressive, potentially frightening individual: she is doing all the "right" things but had the chance to study more in school. From a modern, feminist standpoint this is a limited view, but it is a radical argument in Wollstonecraft's time.

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