A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

Recently I started reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. It’s not my first foray into feminist writing, but with it I am starting a more concerted effort in this area. The name Mary Wollstonecraft may or may not be familiar to you. She is in fact the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.

I just started reading this book, written in 1790 and published in 1792. It is one of the earliest works of feminist philosphy and is Wollstonecraft’s reaction to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who had stated that women should only receive a domestic education. Wollstonecraft, of course, was of the mind that the same education should be made available to both men and women on the grounds that, “If she be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice.”

Imagine being a feminist in the 18th century!

This is truly an incredible work. Feminism, in the eyes of Wollstonecraft, really does seem to mean equality. Right off the bat, she writes,

“It is, then, an affection for the whole human race that makes my pen dart rapidly along to support what I believe to be the cause of virtue: and the same motive leads me earnestly to wish to see woman placed in a station in which she would advance, instead of retarding, the progress of those glorious principles that give a substance to morality.”

It’s wonderfully refreshing to read a work that overflows with respect for both sexes. Unfortunate as a lack of access to education for women is and was in Wollstonecraft’s time, the tone of her writing conveys neither anger nor resentment, but rather a call to reason and progress (even if perhaps she was angry and resentful). In her introduction to Talleyrand-Périgord, she writes,

“I am confident that you will not throw my work aside, and hastily conclude that I am in the wrong because you did not view the subject in the same light yourself.”

Her request was simple: At least give me a chance.

Wollstonecraft goes on to state her main thesis, or rather, what she thinks would be the result if women were educated:

“Let there then be no coercion established in society, and the common law of gravity prevailing, the sexes will fall into their proper places. And, now that more equitable laws are forming your citizens, marriage may become more sacred; your young men may choose wives from motives of affection, and your maidens allow love to root out vanity.

“The father of the family will not then weaken his constitution and debase his sentiments, by visiting the harlot, nor forget, in obeying the call of appetite, the purpose for which it was implanted; and the mother will not neglect her children to practice the arts of coquetry, when sense and modesty secure her the friendship of her husband.”

Wollstonecraft’s view here is clear. If men and women are provided equal opportunity, we will actually end up with an equilibrium. Don’t let her term “into their proper places” fool you. It’s not a negative thing she’s referring to here, but rather a balance that takes advantage of the natural differences between men and women to create harmony. If we’re all educated and fully actualized, then we can bring our best selves to our society and our partnerships, and any differences will serve to strengthen the bond rather than weaken it.

Certainly it’s clear that Wollstonecraft believes in the family unit and thinks that if men and women have equal education then that unit will actually become stronger by virtue of a stronger parental couple. The above is not actually the first time she refers to friendship between the sexes.

And in one last bid to get Talleyrand-Périgord to read her essay, she addresses the common worry (which I suspect still is a worry) that women would become too masculine if granted equal access to education.

“Indeed the word masculine is only a bugbear: there is little reason to fear that women will acquire too much courage or fortitude; for their apparent inferiority with respect to bodily strength, must render them, in some degree, dependent on men in the various relations of life; but why should it be increased by prejudices that give a sex to virtue, and confound simple truths with sensual reveries.”

Here what she’s saying is that though there are physical differences between men and women, the presence of such differences should not have value judgements attached to them. For example, that because men are generally physically stronger then they are also mentally stronger and better people.

So that’s the first little bit of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a completely fascinating work. I’m excited to keep reading it!

And I leave you with one last quote:

“Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?”