A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Mary Wollstonecraft lived a short and a courageous life. She was born in 1759 and died giving birth to her second child in 1797. She was only 38 years old. She is still famous today and remembered with respect as an early feminist; one of the women who set the foundation that feminism was built on.
Her major work is titled A Vindication of the Rights of Women. The book was published in 1792; Schneir (1972) tells us that from 1792 to 1892 the book was published for four editions and in England for six editions. She had written a book that touched the feelings of many women and men too. Her main motivation was her passionate argument that women should no longer be slaves to men. Her proposal that men and women were equal touched a passionate chord in the populations of England, France, the U.S. and other parts of Europe. Even now it is her most read work and new editions are still being published.
Her life was not that of a pampered woman with a lot of time on her hands to spend theorizing and publishing books and stories. She grew up in a home where her father abused her mother. Her father was an alcoholic and very mean to his family. The family never had enough money because he spent all the money on himself. She helped her sister out of an abusive similar marriage (Schneir, 1972).
Huxman (1996) writes that although Wollenstonecraft was highly intelligent and curious “she was not allowed to get an education” because she was female. This made her extremely resentful. She even experienced “repeated suicide attempts” (p. 16).
“All the world is a stage, thought I; and few there in it who do not play the part they have learnt by rote; and those who do not, seem marks setup to be pelted at by fortune; or rather as signposts, which point out the road to others, whilst forced to stand still themselves amidst the mud and dust” (Wollenstonecraft, 1797 as quoted in Todd, 1977).
This quote seems to me to speak of her frustration and sadness at being a “signpost” pointing the way to others while she was not allowed to go with them.
In her first romantic relationship, Wollenstonecraft was also unfortunate. Her lover left her when she became pregnant. During her life until this time she had worked at many kinds of jobs to be able to survive and help her family. She took jobs which were considered appropriate for young women, so she was a governess, a seamstress and a teacher.
At some point she met William Godwin, an anarchist-philosopher. They fell in love. They were both very modern in their thinking. They did not plan to get married until she became pregnant and they decided it would be best to be married. They both still had their own homes though.
Wollenstonecraft persevered with her writing and finally was able to make a living as an author. She wrote many kinds of projects including both fiction and non-fiction books. She worked as a translator in the languages of German, Dutch and French. She also published a children’s book, an anthology and ‘collected letters.’
Feminism was in the air in Europe and the United States at that time because in the late 1800s several countries published the work of female authors (and some male) on the subject of women’s equality.
“Liberty is the mother of virtue, and if women be, by their very constitution, slave, and not allowed to breathe the sharp invigorating air of freedom, they must ever languish like exotics, and be reckoned beautiful flaws in nature” (Wollstonecraft, 1792).
Even with all the conditions in her life situation working against her being able to find success; she did succeed. She was in France in1972 to record the political chaos surrounding the French Revolution. Wollenstonecraft was thrilled to have a chance to meet people in the Enlightenment movement but what she found was that ‘no women were allowed’ even in a group of enlightened men. She did become a respected part of the movement though.
Huxman (1996) discusses how she was able to become an accepted member of the Enlightenment movement by using rhetorical methods matching those used by the men in the movement. This meant she had to take on male personae, because without taking on the outer shell of maleness she would not have been accepted in the group. In the Enlightenment movement arguments were made in the manner of a lawyer presenting a case in court. The steps for this type of rhetorical presentation are 1) to introduce the argument as a legislator would, 2) argue as if presenting a legal brief, and then 3) make a summation like a lawyer does to convince a jury.
Huxman (2009) gives an example of how Wollenstonecraft would have presented her arguments. The example here is based on her argument for “the individual’s freedom from institutional strictures” (p. 23)
1) “I address you as a legislator.”
2) “This discussion naturally divides the subject. I shall first consider women in the grand light of human creatures . . . and afterwards I shall more particularly point out their peculiar designation.”
3) “I have repeatedly asserted, and produced what appeared to me irrefragable arguments drawn from matters of fact to prove my assertion that women cannot by force be confined to domestic concerns.”
This is a very interesting example because in the summation she is talking about women being ‘imprisoned in their homes’ due to their domestic duties. It’s astonishing how cleverly she was able to bring a subject of such high interest to women into the public forum of mostly men.
The success that came with being a published author demonstrated that she was a professional. By using the rhetorical methods of those in the Enlightenment movement she demonstrated her skill as an intellectual and her ability to reason. When Wollstonecraft became part of the group she was able to prove that women are rational creatures and they can do as well as men in society; therefore it is not nature that inhibits a woman to progress but the society (Huxman, 1996).
She was friends with Rousseau who wrote the book Emile. The feelings she had when reading this book motivated her to write her treatise The Vindication of Women’s Rights. In his book Rousseau modelled the character of Sophie after his wife. It seemed like that to Wollstonecraft because the female character of Sophie in the book was quiet and obliging and in Rousseau’s mind; perfection, the perfect model of womanhood.
A Vindication of Women’s Rights can be read on two different levels. One level is as a feminist argument in support of women and their abilities. The second level is as an argument targeted at Rousseau for his opinions about the perfect woman. She even mentions him by name in the book.
In fact Wallace (2005) has written “Her disappointment in Rousseau was a main influence on Wollstonecraft’s best know work, A Vindication of Women’s Rights.” Here is an argument from the book which addresses the attitude of Rousseau’s opinion on appropriate behavior for women in society.
“Women are, therefore, to be considered either as moral beings, or so weak that they must be entirely subjected to the superior faculties of men.
“Let us examine this question. Rousseau declares that a woman should never, for a moment, feel herself independent, that she should be governed by fear to exercise her natural cunning, and made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire, a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chooses to relax himself. He carries the arguments, which he pretends to draw from the indications of nature, still further, and insinuates that truth and fortitude, the cornerstones of all human virtue, should be cultivated with certain restrictions, because, with respect to the female character, obedience is the grand lesson which out to be impressed with unrelenting rigor” (Wollstonecraft, 1792, p. 112-3).
I have chosen a long quote from the book because it demonstrates the passion she was so famous for at the time and which can still be felt reading it today. Her argument sounds angry to me as well as patient. And there is some sarcasm when she italicizes words and also when she says things like “to render her a more alluring object of desire.”
Wollenstonecraft’s writing has strength and confidence. She does not try to hide her feelings about how she feels about Rousseau’s attitude towards women when she uses phrases like “which he pretends . . . to draw from nature,” ‘with respect to the female character obedience is the grand lesson.”
It is because she had been accepted into the Enlightenment movement that she was able to voice her opinions and arguments about women. Only with this type of acceptable membership in a group could she have a forum in which to share her ideas (Huxman, 1996).
Morgan (1998) makes a comparison between the interpretation of Wollstonecraft in the 1960s and 1970s to her universal, enduring appeal. She reminds us that many of the reasons Wollenstonecraft was considered a radical forty or fifty years ago don’t seem so radical anymore. That is because now there is more shared family care between spouses, there has been progress made in job equity and women are representatives and even cabinet members in the national political arena. (p. 335)
Morgan (1998) also makes a unique observation about where the real revolutionary thought lay in Wollstonecraft’s writings.
“. . . each individual must become, to be free, a moral and a virtuous creature. If (perhaps) her morality and virtue as Wollstonecraft defines them incline in their certain aspects toward the repressive, yet her plea for the freedom to effect a self-definition is radical in the extreme. It is in the service of this plea that she put herself and her writings. For freedom to be gained the balance of power in society must be altered. Such alteration required a broadening of vision on the part of those who wielded power as well as those who were powerless. Wollstonecraft’s work can be seen as a concerted and courageous attempt to broaden this vision. It is in the courage and resilience of the attempt that she is at her most radical.” (Wollstonecraft, 1792, Edition of1998, p. 340) (my italics)
This is not an interpretation of Wollenstonecraft’s work that I found in any of the other sources. I like this interpretation because it definitely explains the universal appeal of her work. After almost 300 years people are still reading her arguments for women’s rights. She did not only talk about women as individuals who needed education; she analyzed the problem on a global scale.
Much of her argument can be taken as a metaphor of what is still needed to make the world a more equitable place. In her Vindication of Women’s Rights she uses the word ‘power’ abut 53 times and the word ‘education’ about 75 times (by my count). These are two subjects she often talked and wrote about. She was right, in order to argue for a better world these are two main subjects that need to be analyzed and discussed. Even today her passion and feeling for justice is clear. Although some of the book is very old-fashioned and judgmental against women those contradictions can be overlooked because of the strength of the rest of the book.
Wallace (2005) shares two pertinent quotes which point out the basic argument that was ongoing between Rousseau and Wollstonecraft.
“Give, without scruples, a woman’s education to women, see to it that thy love the cares of their sex, that they posses modesty, that they know how to grow old in their marriage and keep busy in their house.” Jean Jacques Rousseau, Emile. (as cited in Wallace, 2005).
“The neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore” (Wollstonecraft, 1792).
Wallace (2005) suggests that without the character of Sophie in Emile, Wollstonecraft would not have had an opportunity to express her views so often and to such large audiences. For instance if he had made Sophie a woman who had all the rights of a man there would have been no opportunity such as this one for Wollenstonecraft to argue for women’s education and women’s rights. Although Rousseau advocated the liberation of men (the French Revolution) he allowed Wollenstonecraft a perfect subject (education of women) to use in her arguments. Therefore he was, in a way, supporting women’s rights whether or not that was his intent. (p.4).
Mary Wollenstonecraft had a very short life yet the time she had she used well in supporting progress to meeting an ideal goal of education for women. Often she mentions education for women but she also talks about universal education. She felt with education individuals would make good citizens and political systems would only improve with literacy and critical thinking skills that come with education.
Her arguments are mostly strong and well reasoned. They still seem to be passionate. Part of the book seemed out of place though. This is when she discussed ‘a certain type of woman’ meaning a type of woman who was a ‘flirt or a floozy.’ Somehow that seemed to be a contradiction of the rest of her argument for the rights of women. Still she was a product of her time. Perhaps she included that type of discussion so the rest of the book would be more accessible or accepted by her audience. That portion of the book isn’t the part that has been studied and analyzed by women and scholars over almost 300 years.
She was writing and speaking in a time of blooming feminism. Others were writing on the subject, too, in Europe and in the U.S. Her life was so short though she didn’t get to confer with others who shared her beliefs and wanted to take action. It is very unfortunate and sad that she had such a short and dramatic life. But it seems that the challenges that she went through during her childhood and the first part of her adulthood informed her beliefs and proposals in later years.
Many people would have been embittered by the abuse and money difficulties but she seemed to be motivated even more strongly to make her voice heard. This was either in spite of her problems or because of them. Because she went through the poverty and hardships that many others were also experiencing; that must have had an influence on the universality of her message. She was inclusive not exclusive.
As mentioned earlier A Vindication of Women’s Rights was very popular when it was published and in the 100 years after her death. She had put into words the feeling of many women and also her words had an appeal to the labor movement. Susan B. Anthony in the US had a newspaper called The Revolution. She serialized the book in her newspaper.
The Internet Archives has some of her books that were originally published available to read online or to download. The language is very old-fashioned and many of the words are foreign (even though she was an Englishwoman). The vocabulary has changed a lot since then. But the desire for rights and respect hasn’t changed.
The 1998 edition read much more easily. There was a feeling of sarcasm or maybe humor in a lot of the writing especially concerning the argument with Rousseau. The book seems most enjoyable to read as if she is using humor in those parts of the book. When she is passionate in her call for women’s rights she is using ‘fighting words’ that are still empowering today. All over the world people are protesting in the streets for jobs and a respectable life; her arguments are still pertinent.
Huxman, S. S. Mary Wollstonecraft, Margaret Fuller and Angelina Grimke: Symbolic convergence and a nascent rhetorical vision. Communication Quarterly, 44: 1, 16-8. 1996.
Schneir, M. Feminism: The essential historical writings. NY: Random House. 1972.
Todd, J. M. A Wollenstonecraft Anthology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1977.
Wallace, H. E. Woman’s education according to Rousseau and Wollstonecraft.
Feminism and Women’s Studies. 20 Jan. 2005 Web. 11 Nov. 2011.
Wollstonecraft, M. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. 1988 Edition. Morgan, C. ed. Germany: Konemann. 1792.
Susan B. Anthony. Labor Activist.17 Madison St., Rochester, NY. 2009. Accessed on 1 Dec. 2011 from