‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ (1792)

By Mary Wollstonecraft

The “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft is a central text in the history of feminist theory, which till date continues to be an important reference for any understanding of feminist thought and activism at the end of the eighteenth century. It essay also functioned as a remarkable intervention in a field of intellectual debate dominated at the time almost entirely by men.

A Vindication of the Rights of Women is in a large part structured as a response to several works on women education and female conduct written by men during the latter half of the 18th century. Of these the best-known and most influential was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile or On Education. In A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Wollstonecraft writes against a conception of women and femininity as defined primarily by the ability to arouse male sexual desire – “deprive us of souls and insinuate that we are beings only designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the sense of man…..” Her vision of women’s emancipation “from the slavery to which the pride and sensuality of man and their short-sighted desire… has subjected them” hinges on a notion of “natural freedom”. From Wollstonecraft’s perspective, women were to be “governed by reasonable laws” rather than the “despotism” that has characterized men’s treatment of them; they might accede to that state of liberty and moral dignity which is so often denied to them – “the most perfect education, in my opinion, is such an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form of the heart….to enable the individual to achieve such habits of virtue as will render it independent”. Thus, she is harshly critical of the intense sexualization of femininity that she sees Rousseau – among others – as undertaking, for it is this association of women with bodily dependence that prevents them, according to Wollstonecraft, from acquiring “vigour of intellect” and rational thought.

Wollstonecraft’s analysis of gender relations is based on a critique of the way in which women’s roles are culturally constructed to hinder their ability to become fully rational and autonomous moral individuals. A Vindication of the Rights of Women takes a historicist perspective on female education and what might be termed a Universalist approach to social theory. Finally, Wollstonecraft demands that men grant women the possibility to prove themselves as individuals blessed with the qualities of reason and independent thought. As she puts it, “It is time to effect a revolution of female manners – time to restore to them their lost dignity – make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world.”

A keen and vital concern with education, especially of girls and women, runs throughout Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing and remains a dominant theme to the abrupt end of her career. A Vindication of the Rights of Women begins as a plea for the equal education of women and includes an ambitious and far-sighted proposal for a national schools system. Education was critically important to Wollstonecraft both as a liberal reformer and as a radical theorist and proponent of women’s rights. A broad spectrum of reformist writers and activists – from conservatives wishing to shore up the status quo to “Jacobins” wishing to overturn it – saw education as a, if not the, key locus for promoting social stability or engineering social revolution.  According to associationist psychology, influentially applied to schooling and pedagogy in Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) and subscribed to by nearly every important writer on education in Wollstonecraft’s time, childhood was the crucial period for the formation of individuals and hence of social groups. As Wollstonecraft herself writes, upon later character and the associations built over the course of childhood can “seldom be disentangled by reason” in later life. Not simply the consciously held ideals but the unconscious habits, prejudices, and character traits of men and women are established during childhood.

The efforts of parents and teachers cannot do everything, following associationistic logic, since dominant social manners and institutions have a large formative effect in themselves. Yet education could at least do something to form rational and virtuous moral subjects who could then, in turn, help set a better social tone and establish more progressive social institutions. In contrast to skeptics like Anna Barbauld, who noted the contingencies and uncontrollable aspects of child’s early environment, most liberal and radical intellectuals of the time viewed education as the cornerstone of any social reform. This was especially true for Dissenting intellectuals, “non-conformist” Protestants excluded from the educational institutions (including English Universities) under official Anglican control. Left to build their own network of schools and academicians, with considerable success, Dissenters has a practical stake as well as a theoretical and political interest in education. Although Wollstonecraft came from an Anglican family, her intellectual career brought her into sustained contact with Dissenting culture, from Richard Price’s circle at Newington Green to Joseph Johnson’s celebrated group in London, and her though on education and childhood shows a great deal of coherence with leading non-conformist ideals.

If education was preeminent in forming individual subjects, it was equally powerful, Wollstonecraft eventually argues, to deform the subjective lives of women. She came to see the history of female education as a virtual conspiracy of male educators and writers seeing to render women weaker and less rational than they would otherwise have become – “women are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire what really deserves the name of virtue”; “Men indeed appear to me to act in a very unphilosophical manner, when they try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood”. For the amelioration of women’s abject social condition, then, and for the rise of a revolutionary generation of rational, free-thinking, independent women, educational reform was crucial. Moreover, women could argue from their traditional role as nurturers and early educators of children for a sounder and more rational education. If women were to be wholly or largely consigned to the domestic sphere, that is, they could make this domestic form of subjection the very ground for educational reform, since only a thoughtful, well-informed strong mother could be expected to provide for her children a truly adequate rearing and education – “How then can the great art of pleasing be said to be a necessary study?” Such arguments, made by Wollstonecraft in company with a wide range of female reformers from conservatives like Hannah Moore to radicals like Macaulay and Mary Hays, were inevitable double-edged. They challenged a key aspect of patriarchal domination – the sub ordination of women through an invidious education meant to confine them to the domestic sphere – through urging a revised conception of that very domestic role.

Wollstonecraft argues for a reasoned assent to reigning social values, urging the development of a sound moral understanding over mindless cultivation of “exterior” accomplishments like drawing and music. Unfortunately, rote accomplishments, empty “manners”, and “vicious” examples are what can be expected from most girls’ boarding. Wollstonecraft relentlessly attacks Rousseau for limiting a ‘rational’ and sound education to boys, consigning girls to a subservient “education for the body” alone. Even in their traditional roles as mothers and nurturers, however, women require a much more substantial education.

Wollstonecraft’s radical re-conceptualization of the maternal role overlaps with the reformist agendas of most of the period’s writers on education for women, but goes much further in demanding a complete overhaul of the “false system” recommended by “all” writers on “female education and manners” from Rousseau to Gregory. In place of incremental reforms, she calls for “civil” equality and economic independence, as well as an “independence of mind” scarcely to be expected from women “taught to depend entirely on their husband.” Moreover, the entire slate of “negative” virtues recommended throughout the conduct book manuals must be repudiated for their morally as well as physically debilitating effects, including the cardinal virtue of female modesty. Her uncompromising dismissal of uniquely “feminine” virtues – which would facilitate her demonization in the reactionary period soon to follow – allowed Wollstonecraft to revise the existing system of female socialization, from the cradle up.

Wollstonecraft also extends her arguments to assert that women should exercise equal rights with men the public sphere and develops a critique of the structural inequalities of marriage. Marriage is based on an unequal contract, where the woman has the sole responsibility of appeasing her husband not with her morals or intellect, but with her “charms” only. When a women has “only been taught to please”, marriage which is supposed to “eradicate the habitude of life” can only serve to bring about monotony and bitterness or extra-marital affairs since the women’s “pleasing” beauty “cannot have much effect on  the husband’s heart, when they are seen everyday, when the summer is past and gone”.  However, although Wollstonecraft is a stem critic of “actually existing” marriages, she does not reject marriage as an institution altogether. Instead, she envisages a form of marriage that incorporates the major features of the classical notion of higher friendship such as equality, free choice, reason, mutual esteem and pro- found concern for one another’s moral character – “Fondness is a poor substitute for friendship.” The classical ideal of higher friendship provides a suitable model for her liberal approach to marriage be- because it represents the paradigmatic rational, equal, and free relationship. In such relationships, individuals exchange some of their independence for interdependence and are united by bonds of deep and lasting affection, as well as respect for and appreciation of one another’s character and individuality. Wollstonecraft uses the idea that marriage should emulate many of the features of higher friendship to criticize the practices and values of romance and family life in eighteenth-century English society and to suggest a way in which marriage might be reconfigured to realize central liberal values. To recast marriage in this way means that Wollstonecraft is applying liberal values to the world of romantic love and family life. That she thinks about marriage in political, and specifically liberal, terms and recommends a model of marriage that emulates many of friendship’s salient features is an important feature of her work.

Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay thus needs to be situated in a society in which liberal individualism was becoming the dominant ideological formation of (male) personhood and social organization, what she uncovered was the systemic inequality of women in all areas of life – the family, work, culture, economics, the law, education as well as inconsistency of the ideological positions that held this inequality in place. A Vindication of the Rights of Women was a response to that inequality. She examines the ‘naturalness’ of women’s inequality and discovers that it s not in fact natural at all – natural indeed was a highly ideologically loaded word. Women’s inequality, Wollstonecraft argued is socially constructed to shore up the position of the privileged liberal-individualist male. She argues that ‘women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched, by a variety of concurring causes’, amongst which are inadequate parenting, bad education, the lack of property rights and the exclusion from the political sphere, as well as the negative effects of literary-cultural traditions – the ideology of romantic love which makes women mere creatures of sentiment, and bad novels which reproduce a false picture of reality rather than an intelligent analysis of it.

A small, but important example of her analysis is from her discussion of Dr. Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters (1774), a conduct manual which focused on ‘proper’ feminine behaviour.  To quote Wollstonecraft, “he advises them to cultivate a fondness of dress, he asserts is natural to them. I am unable to comprehend what either he or Rousseau meant, when they frequently use this indefinite term”.  She argues that if something is natural, then one will do it naturally, without the advice to cultivate the position advocated. If the ‘fondness of dress’ is not a natural attribute of women, why should they be encouraged to cultivate it? The answer – the ‘love of power’ – comes from the larger context of the book in which Wollstonecraft suggests that while women are denies other forms of power (political, educational legal) they will make use of whatever power left to them: in particular their sexual power to attract men because they are aught, and have learned their lesson well, that they can only draw power from sexual relationships rather than having any autonomous potency of their own. This sexualization of femininity, noted also by de Beauvoir’s comment that women are often designated ‘the sex’, supports male privilege in two distinct ways: firstly it shores up a position that emphasizes the attractiveness of masculinity and its potency; secondly, it keeps women actually weak, while pretending to offer them (very limited) power.

Dr. Gregory and similar male conservatives of the eighteenth century insist that women are unequal to men. On the one hand, their liking for clothes is labeled ‘natural’; and the word ‘natural’ is heavily invested with positive value. In culture, however, women are routinely disparaged for liking clothes too much, a trivial, unimportant preference. So when they are told to cultivate their ‘natural’ taste for clothes, they can be once more labeled as trivial unimportant people, incapable of serious thought. Ideology has a circular logic, and it is difficult to break the spell.

While Wollstonecraft herself could not have used the words ‘ideology’ and ‘liberal individualist’, her critique demonstrates the construcedness of social formations, and he inherent bias towards masculinity in those constructions. What she seeks is to improve the situation of women within the existing structures of society. Her work suggests that society is to blame for female oppression and for the general weakness of women. Women are not educated to do or know any better. Society has created women’s foolishness and has then proceeded to blame women for their weakness, indeed has come to regard weakness as natural.

For all her anger at the systemic oppression of women, however, Wollstonecraft is not quite a revolutionary writer, and her insights remain within the limits proposed by a liberal-individualist version of the world in the aftermath of the French Revolution. What she proposes is an extension of (male) individualist privilege to women. She does not propose to undo the very notion of privilege per se. The Vindication is basically a plea for bourgeois woman’s equality with the bourgeois man in the areas of educational, legal and political systems. It is all an attack on an ideal of femininity that constructs female inequality as ‘natural’. What is being demanded is therefore not so much a revolution towards an ideal of equality as a reapportioning of privilege to ensure that some (middle and upper class) women get some share of the spoils usually reserved to middle and upper class men. Her writings diagnose a social problem, but they articulate that problem within its own terms.

The class, race and ethnic neglect of Wollstonecraft’s writing have to be taken into consideration when thinking about the symptoms she uncovers and the diagnoses she produces in the Vindication, not least because of the significant space she apportions to literature in the formation of attenuated femininity she so deplores. In an age before widespread literacy, writing was necessarily addressed to the privileged few who could read. Her feminism is historically determined, depending on the ideological positions she deplores.

Despite her bourgeois feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft’s essay was instrumental in bringing in to the public sphere an initiation of intense debates on the question of emancipation of women. Her book was so popular that it had to be reprinted in the immediate next year.

References

  1. Women imagine change: a global anthology of women’s resistance from 600 B.C (1997) by Eugenia C. DeLamotte, Natania Meeker, Jean F. O’Bar
  2. Political and historical encyclopedia of women by Christine Fauré (2003)
  3. Women’s political & social thought: an anthology by Hilda L. Smith, Berenice A. Carroll (2000)
  4. A vindication of political virtue: the political theory of Mary Wollstonecraft by Virginia Sapiro (1992)
  5. Back to the Future: Marriage as Friendship in the Thought of Mary Wollstonecraft by Ruth Abbey (1999)

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2 Responses to “Vindication of the Rights of Women: Mary Wollstonecraft”

  1. Lisa Says:

    A very well written essay! Great help for the exam prep. Thanks!

  2. Tahir Faheem Says:

    My search ended after reading the essay, otherwise I would still have been moving from site to site. Thanks.

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