A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Questions and Answers
2. The Significance of the Title
[Q. How does Mary Wollstonecraft apply the term “vindication” in the title of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman?
Or, Q. Justify the significance of the title of the political treatise.]
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is one of the trailblazing works of feminism. Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft’s work argued that the educational system of her time deliberately trained women to be frivolous and incapable. She posited that an Luan educational system that allowed girls the same advantages as boys would result in women who would be not only exceptional wives and mothers but also capable workers in many professions. Other early feminists had made similar pleas for improved education for women, but Wollstonecraft’s work was unique in suggesting that the betterment of women’s status be effected through such political change as the radical reform of national educational systems. Such change, she concluded, would benefit all society.
Wollstonecraft’s primary concern is the education of women. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is, in large part, a rebuttal to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas, expressed primarily in his book Émile: Ou, De l’éducation (1762; Emilius and Sophia: Or, A New System of Education, 1762-1763; better known as Émile: Or, Education, 1911) concerning the proper education of men and women. Rousseau contends that civilization has debased humanity, which would be better off in what he calls the state of nature. He argues that women should be educated to be the solace and companions of men when men wish to turn from serious pursuits and be entertained and refreshed. Accordingly, the guiding principles of a woman’s education should be to teach her to obey and to please.
The title of Wollstonecraft’s collection also reflects that of another work, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke (1790), which Wollstonecraft wrote in response to English conservative philosopher Edmund Burke’s criticisms of the French Revolution, which he expressed in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Burke rejects not only the revolution’s violence, but also the premise that all men could and should govern themselves. Wollstonecraft’s critique points out the flagrant problems among the working classes in England, effectively disputing buting Burke’s claims. is among antoises Wollstonecraft bases much of her argument in favor of women’s education on the fact, which had only recently been agreed on, that women do have souls. She asserts that because women are immortal beings who have a relationship to their creator, they must be educated in the proper use of reason. She believes that the quality that sets humans apart from animals is reason, and the quality that sets one human apart from another is virtue. Rousseau argues that emotion is the preeminent human quality; Wollstonecraft contends that humans have passions so they can struggle against them and thereby gain self-knowledge.
From God’s perspective, the present evil of the passions leads to a future good from the struggle to overcome them. The purpose of life for all humans, not just men, is to perfect one’s nature through the exercise of reason. This leads to knowledge and virtue, the qualities God wishes each person to gain. It is, therefore, immoral to leave women in ignorance or to be formed merely by the prejudices of society. An education that develops the mind is essential for any mortal creature.
The essay argues that both wealth and gender roles create major problems in society, because both tend to create unequal relationships among humans. Inequality leads either to slavery or to despotism, both of which warp the human character. Wollstonecraft contends that all humans have a will to exert themselves, and that they will do so.
The title gives away the main theme of this essay: in it, Mary Wollstonecraft focuses on women’s rights, arguing that women should be allowed to have the same educational opportunities as men and that denying them this opportunity inhibits their “usefulness” to society as well as making them unhappy. The strength of her essay is that she chooses to present women as human beings first, only considering their gender as a secondary issue.
Thus the main theme of this essay is that women should have the same access to education as to men so as to help all of humanity improve itself. Note her comments on the current state of affairs:
One cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers.
Note the alliteration and imagery in the “barren blooming” of women that the author sees. Denying women a “proper” education has meant that women are only “anxious to inspire love” when they should be focusing their minds and talents on nobler and more fitting aspirations.
3. The Structure
[Q. Comment on the structure of the essay.
Q. In “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” how does the work fit into the category of satire?]
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), written by the 18th-century British proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft responds to those educational and political theorists of the 18th century who did not believe women should have an education. She argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be companions” to their husbands, rather than mere wives. Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.
Wollstonecraft was prompted to write the Rights of Woman after reading Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s 1791 report to the French National Assembly, which stated that women should only receive a domestic education; she used her commentary on this specific event to launch a broad attack against sexual double standards and to indict men for encouraging women to indulge in excessive emotion. Wollstonecraft wrote the Rights of Woman hurriedly to respond directly to ongoing events; she intended to write a more thoughtful second volume but died before completing it.
In attempting to navigate the cultural expectations of female writers and the generic conventions of political and philosophical discourse, Wollstonecraft, as she does throughout her oeuvre, constructs a unique blend of masculine and feminine styles in the Rights of Woman. She uses the language of philosophy, referring to her work as a “treatise” with “arguments” and “principles”. However, Wollstonecraft also uses a personal tone, employing “I” and “you”, dashes and exclamation marks, and autobiographical references to create a distinctly feminine voice in the text. The Rights of Woman further hybridizes its genre by weaving together elements of the conduct book, the short essay, and the novel, genres often associated with women, while at the same time claiming that these genres could be used to discuss philosophical topics such as rights.
Although Wollstonecraft argues against excessive sensibility, the rhetoric of the Rights of Woman is at times heated and attempts to provoke the reader. Many of the most emotional comments in the book are directed at Rousseau. For example, after excerpting a long passage from Emile (1762), Wollstonecraft pithily states, “I shall make no other comments on this ingenious passage, than just to observe, that it is the philosophy of lasciviousness.” A mere page later, after indicting Rousseau’s plan for female education, she writes “I must relieve myself by drawing another picture.” These terse exclamations are meant to draw the reader to her side of the argument (it is assumed that the reader will agree with them).
While she claims to write in a plain style so that her ideas will reach the broadest possible audience, she actually combines the plain, rational language of the political treatise with the poetic, passionate language of sensibility to demonstrate that one can combine rationality and sensibility in the same self. Wollstonecraft defends her positions not only with reasoned argument but also with ardent rhetoric. In her efforts to vividly describe the condition of women within society, Wollstonecraft employs several different analogies. She often compares women to slaves, arguing that their ignorance and powerlessness places them in that position. But at the same time, she also compares them to “capricious tyrants” who use cunning and deceit to manipulate the men around them. At one point, she reasons that a woman can become either a slave or tyrant, which she describes as two sides
of the same coin. Wollstonecraft also compares women to soldiers; like military men, they are valued only for their appearance and obedience. And like the rich, women’s softness” has “debased mankind”.
A Vindication of the Rights of Women is a book-length feminist essay by British writer Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Women called for female equality, particularly in the area of education. Wollstonecraft dismissed the cultivation of traditional female virtues of submission and service and argued that women could not be good mothers, good wives and good household managers if they were not well-educated. She claimed that women were expected to spend too much time on maintaining their delicate appearance and gentle demeanor, sacrificing intelligence for beauty and becoming flower-like playthings for men.
The book is divided into thirteen chapters, in which Wollstonecraft addressed topics such as the importance of educating women equally, treating women with dignity and providing women with the proper training to be good wives and mothers and intelligent companions for their husbands:
Women spend many of the first years of their lives acquiring a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty… Can they govern a family with judgment, or take care of the poor babies whom they bring into the world?
How, Wollstonecraft argued, could women teach and raise children and run a household if they focused only on their own appearance and on minor accomplishments like speaking French prettily, playing the piano and drawing? Such accomplishments made a woman desirable to a man as an amusement, but not as an equal companion. Wollstonecraft recognized that for many women of her time, raising a family would be their primary responsibility, but she insisted that a husband and wife whose relationship was founded on reason and equality would parent happier and more well-rounded children than in families governed by strict discipline and inequality between parents. To that end, she proposed a system of national education in which boys and girls would be educated together, and education would be open to all classes. Though written during the period of Romanticism, a movement known for celebrating sensibility/feeling over sense/rational thinking, Wollstonecraft warned against false sensibility, a tendency of women to become too overtaken by emotional sensitivity. The French Revolution greatly inspired Wollstonecraft’s writing on female equality. Following the revolution, France proposed to replace church-controlled education with a system of free education – the basis for Wollstonecraft’s call for a gender-equal national education system in England. Yet Wollstonecraft noted that despite the democratic ideals of French revolutionaries, they made no mention of education for girls. In an effort to bring this to France’s attention, as well as to encourage the English not to make the same mistake, she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women.