A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary

Mary Wollstonecraft

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary

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Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects in one of the earliest works dealing with feminist issues, although the actual term “feminist” did not come into use until some time after the book’s publication in 1792.  Wollstonecraft did not necessarily affiliate her views with one political slant exclusively, but overall her positions on equal rights for men and women on a fundamental basis and in particular her call for an increase in the educational opportunities for women, place her largely in the Libertarian camp.  Eighteenth Century views on education were narrow, with a report to the French National Assembly for example calling for only domestic educations for women.  Wollstonecraft contended that women serve as educators for their children and have the potential be more than just wives to their husbands.  In the Libertarian tradition she called for men and women to have the same individual rights and opportunities.

In the introduction to the text Wollstonecraft suggests that the condition in society in which adult women find themselves is due to the way in which young girls are educated with attention given to physical appearance and to being subservient to the men in their lives.  They grow up unaware of the oppressive nature of society upon them and lacking the wherewithal to do anything about it.  The opening chapters call for rational thinking and sound reasoning to be able to understand and deal with the problems of governmental power and the effects of wealth and family status.  Women become unhappy because they are taught to be guided by modesty, appearance, and chastity and are confined to a domestic setting and excluded from public activities.  She believes that since both sexes are God’s creations with individual souls, women have the same ability to think rationally and to cultivate virtue.

In the fourth chapter she criticizes the concept that the main objective of a woman’s life is pleasure with emotion being the guiding force at the expense of common sense.  She believes that spouses should be companions to each other and marriage more like a friendship.  The next chapters go on the take to task writers who have supported and made pervasive the concepts she opposes.  She is concerned with the type of early connections that girls make without the requisite knowledge that would lead them to prefer and choose men of good character.

In the seventh and eighth chapters Wollstonecraft is concerned with modesty which she sees as a virtue that both sexes should strive for.  She does not view modesty as an act to be used by women to display innocence or femininity, or as something that comes from avoiding sex.  Modesty to Wollstonecraft is a showing of respect.  It keeps one from developing a more elevated opinion of self than is warranted while at the same time not debasing oneself.  Subsequent chapters have the author calling for women to achieve more financial independence and to have the opportunities to be not only good mothers but good citizens as well.  They need to become aware of the roles that they could embrace in society at large.  Advice is given with respect to parenting duties with the focus being moderation where the goal is to neither spoil nor oppress children.  The penultimate chapter deals with education reform calling for a system which encourages a democratic participatory format.

The thirteenth and final chapter points out the weak character of women stemming from weakness and sin.  Wollstonecraft adds however that the faults of women are due to the actions of men to control them.  She cites among ways that women lower themselves: visiting fortune tellers, reading novels of no intellectual value, petty disagreements with other women, and spoiling their children. Again she stresses that it is society that points women in the wrong direction, not a natural inclination.

The content of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman covers a wide range of topics. Taken as a whole, the text places Wollstonecraft ahead of her time, most basically by essentially being a feminist before feminism.  Her calls for a coeducational system of education as part of expanding the intellectual pursuits of women beyond the household was revolutionary. This, along with her desire to increase the ability, and moreover the right, of a woman to earn her own living straddled the line between liberal and reactionary. Upon its initial release the book was admired within Wollstonecraft’s intellectual circles but did not meet with widespread admiration or acceptance.  Contributing to the book’s fading from sight was a memoir that Wollstonecraft’s husband published about his wife’s private life after she died in 1797. It made public, events that portrayed an immoral side of her.  It took nearly a century for her work to return to favor and to gain the respect of suffragists able to separate the writer from her writings.