79 pages 2 hours read

Mary Wollstonecraft

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1792

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A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects was written in 1792 by Mary Wollstonecraft. It is often referred to as one of the earliest feminist texts, and Wollstonecraft herself described it as proto-feminist. In it, Wollstonecraft explores the oppression of women by men, and argues that no society can be either virtuous or moral while half of the population are being subjugated by the other half. Ultimately, Wollstonecraft argues that women should be given the same education as men—that these are their “rights”—and that this would enable them to break free of their dependency on men.

Wollstonecraft opens by addressing a pamphlet recently published in France, in which French politician Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord argues for equal education for all, and yet omits women. Wollstonecraft suggests that to deny women what is being given to everyone else renders men nothing more than “tyrants” (4). In the Introduction, Wollstonecraft examines why it is that society doesn’t treat women as man’s equal. She concludes that it is because men—and most women—believe that women are different beings entirely, and that they are inherently “the weaker vessel” (8).

In Chapter 1, Wollstonecraft moves back from her principal argument to examine the wider issue of hierarchies and tyrannical power. She argues that the inequalities that derive from the wielding of power will always degrade man by demanding “blind submission” (16) from many towards a few. In Chapter 2, she applies this argument specifically to women, stating that women are raised to practice “blind obedience” (24) and so often perpetuate their own oppression. In the third chapter, she begins to mount her argument against the misconception that women are inherently “weaker” (8) than men. She does so in Chapter 4 by suggesting the physical inferiority of women is exacerbated by the sedentary lifestyle imposed upon women, just as their weakness and frailty of mind is enforced by social expectations.

In Chapter 5, Wollstonecraft examines the writings and viewpoints of her contemporaries. She illustrates how thinkers such as Rousseau impose a debasing stereotype upon women by suggesting that their sole purpose is “to please the man” (51). She also criticizes the concept of women having rules of “decorum” (86) to follow, which wouldn’t teach them to intelligently decide between right and wrong, but simply to blindly obey.

In Chapters, 6, 7, and 8, Wollstonecraft examines the feminine ideals of modesty, chastity and virtue. She argues that women are only expected to appear modest and chaste, in order to preserve their “good reputation” (137), and that true modesty can only be attained by acquiring an intelligent mind. Similarly, she suggests that as a woman’s only means to elevate her standing is via marriage, women become principally concerned with acquiring only pleasing and vain attributes—those which can attract a man—rather than more substantive qualities.

In Chapters 9, 10, and 11, Wollstonecraft explores how parents perpetuate the debasement of women by demanding “unconditional obedience” (159) in much the same way as a tyrannical ruler. This has the most pernicious effect upon women because they are already expected to comply with the rules and demands of men. Similarly, she argues that so long as women are not given a proper education, they will be unable to fulfill their domestic duties properly, either neglecting their children for vain pursuits or perpetuating this “despotic” (159) system in their own parenting.

Wollstonecraft pulls her argument to a close by providing what she believes to be the solution to all of society’s problems: reforming the education system and replacing it with free, public education where girls and boys are educated alongside one another. She suggests that this change would enable women to acquire independence from men, expand their minds, and change the relationship between the sexes from one of subordination to one of companionship. In the final chapter, Wollstonecraft outlines some of the main “follies”—or defaults—of women, all of which she argues would be solved by giving women a proper education.

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