Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women is a text that aims to critique its contemporary political context, and to do so by demonstrating the manner in which this context actively retards the agency and development of women. In order to achieve this aim, Wollstonecraft attacks several key concepts and institutions, demonstrating that these are inadequate and incapable of recognizing or of developing meaningful female agency. In particularly important passages, Wollstonecraft attacks notions of tradition and inheritance, both of which are key terms through which Edmund Burke qualifies his relationship to the French Revolution and to the potential for the changes that it brought about to permeate European society. If one considers the precise nature of Wollstonecraft’s writing, one may argue that her critique works demonstrating the role that a naive support of tradition plays in perpetuating gender inequality, and in promulgating a fundamentally false view of human nature.
In his defense of the notion of tradition, Burke makes clear that he considers this notion to be essential for a fully functioning, orderly society. Importantly, for Burke, tradition is something that is linked to the notion of inheritance, and therefore to a certain idea of healthy family relationships and a healthy relationship with nature. At one point, Burke describes the English constitutional tradition as something through which “working after the pattern of Nature, we receive, we hold, we transmit our government and our privileges, in the same manner in which we enjoy and transmit our property and our lives” (2015, 104). Described in this way, tradition functions both as something that actively supports the security and political stability of English culture, and also as something that harmonizes directly with a universal human nature, both in terms of wider social organization and in terms of relations between individual people. Burke assumes that the family is a universal and natural form of life for people, and this assumption enables him to use this kind of relationship as a metaphor for the importance of tradition to human life. Provided that one understands that tradition relates essentially to the idea of the family, and that this idea itself is taken to be expression of a universal human essence, it is possible to argue that a political system based on tradition is on in which “is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world” (105). If one is to criticize Burke’s view on tradition, therefore, it is possible to attack both his assumptions regarding the “natural” state of a political structure and the notion that the nuclear family, as it existed at his time of writing, represents the most adept form for the development of human nature.
Wollstonecraft criticizes both of these notions. To begin, she argues that the contemporary family is not a situation in which women are encouraged to realize their nature and that, instead, it is a location in which their nature is stultified and retarded. Indeed, at one point she argues that inherited duties and property lead to women becoming “debased and cramped,” something that affects women more than men who, although they are still restricted by the roles they may perform, are nonetheless able to “unfold their faculties by becoming soldiers and statesmen” (2009, 52). In this, while it may be possible to agree with Burke that an emphasis on tradition enables one to maintain a clear view of social roles and responsibilities, it is by no means that case that such a responsibilities are those most suited to human nature.
Indeed, Wollstonecraft argues that a focus on tradition and on the inherited duties of the family is precisely contrary to the most important elements of human nature. After discussing the tendencies for inherited wealth to produce decadent, debilitating behavior, she argues that it is only through “the exercise of reason” that a person, either male of female, may attain “the dignity of their true nature” (53). For Wollstonecraft, women are actively discouraged from the use of their reason and are instead raised to place an emphasis on meaningless, servile tasks and a focus on the unreflective performance of traditional duties. Importantly, however, Wollstonecraft does not argue that all such duties should be abolished, however she does insist that it is only through actively choosing the duties in line with their actual desire and affection that a woman will be able to do justice to their true nature. As such, she writes, “nature has wisely attached affections to duties, to sweeten toil, and to give that vigour to the exertions of reason which only the heart can give” (48). This statement suggests that any inherited duty that is not also an expression of the “heart” of the woman who is bound to it must necessarily go against and constrain human nature.
In conclusion, therefore, Wollstonecraft criticizes Burke in, at least, two key ways. First of all, she denies the notion that adherence to tradition is “natural” and instead insists that it actively retards to the growth and intellectual development of women and of men. Secondly, she suggests that the familial metaphor used by Burke is inherently flawed. Indeed, rather than providing a way for individuals to realize their essential nature, inherited, familial duties and roles are as likely to lead to the stunting and underdevelopment of this nature. For Wollstonecraft, such development is only possible once a person is capable of bringing their duty into line with their actually functioning autonomous reason. Such a state of affairs is precluded by a non-reflective adherence to merely traditional politics and duties.
- Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings. Everyman’s Library: New York, 2015.
- Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Oxford Worlds Classics: Oxford, 2009.