A Brief Review of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Writing in the wake of the French Revolution, Mary Wollstonecraft composed A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in response to suggestions that girls and young women should receive a purely domestic education. In his report to the newly-established French National Assembly, diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord proposed that boys and young men should receive a comprehensive education within a nationally standardized system while their feminine counterparts learn the finer points of the domestic arts (Wollstonecraft 1792). This proposal held with some of the ideas held by other Enlightenment figures, such as Rousseau, who put forth that girls and women do not need a rational education because they themselves are not rational creatures. Wollstonecraft countered that, in order to serve as knowledgeable marriage companions and able educators to young children, women should have educational opportunities equal to those afforded to men (Wollstonecraft 1792). She qualifies her main theme with the suggestion that women’s education should be commensurate with her socio-economic status. Further, throughout the text, Wollstonecraft never explicitly states women should be educated as matter of equality between men and women (Wollstonecraft 1792).

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Wollstonecraft’s Vindication is clearly a product of the Enlightenment era and the essay reveals the influence of other philosophers of the period. Western thinkers of the eighteenth century were contending with the ways in which concepts like rationality, natural rights, and citizenship related to one another. As mentioned Wollstonecraft (along with figures like Olympe de Gouges) combatted the suggestion of women’s rational and emotional inferiority championed by people like Rousseau and Fordyce. Those who supported educational equality relied upon ideas regarding inherent rights afforded to all humans put forth by those such as John Locke. These same ideas were used by integral philosophical figures to justify both the French and the American Revolution. Thomas Paine’s essays composed in support of both revolutions, for example, speak to the changing nature of society so that the inalienable rights of the populace will be respected and protected. Both Paine and Wollstonecraft presented their cases in an intelligible yet accessible manner and underpinned their arguments with solid philosophical concepts which are applicable to all people. Those approaches make both writers’ works deeply effective and impactful compared to writers who attempted to apply philosophical concepts of society to only one part of society.

  • Wollstonecraft, M. (1792). A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. New York: Bartleby.com. Retrieved from http://www.bartleby.com/144/.