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Contexts and Comparisons Chapter 6 - 17th & 18th Century Works 


Mary Wollstonecraft's
Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Few writers so fully embody the tensions between the claims of reason and the pull of feeling as Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), the first "modern" feminist and a revolutionary in an age of revolutions. The eldest daughter of middle-class parents who inherited and then lost wealth, she was forced to earn her own living. Trying virtually all the occupations available to respectable women in the late eighteenth century -- seamstress, paid companion, governess, school teacher and administrator -- Wollstonecraft found herself unfulfilled. As a result, she ultimately carved out a career open to very few women in her time as a translator, editor, and writer. Living on her own in London, she became an intimate of the painter Henry Fuseli and his wife, and dined with radicals like the American Tom Paine.

Having seen both her mother and her sister abused by their husbands, Wollstonecraft herself suffered through a series of difficult relationships with men. In 1793, she fell in love with an ambitious American in Paris, Gilbert Imlay, and briefly lived with him in France where she gave birth to his daughter. After he deserted her, she twice attempted suicide. She later became pregnant by one of the leading radical democrats in England, William Godwin, and married him shortly before she gave birth to her second daughter on August 30, 1797. Ten days later, Mary Wollstonecraft died of an infection brought on by the unhygienic practices typical of physicians attending women during childbirth before the discovery of bacteria.

Godwin was a distracted parent, and Mary Wollstonecraft's two daughters keenly felt the loss of their mother. The first of them, Fanny Imlay, took her own life at the age of 22; the second grew up to marry the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. At the age of 19, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, one of the landmarks of nineteenth-century fiction.

Wollstonecraft, like her surviving daughter, wrote many books but is best remembered for a single work. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published in 1792. To appreciate the significance of that title, one needs to know that in 1790 she had written a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Men,(1) in defense of the French Revolution. Wollstonecraft expected her readers to understand that the word "men" meant "human beings." A Vindication of the Rights of Woman marks her recognition that even liberal-minded men believed that political rights belonged exclusively to their sex.

Wollstonecraft's second Vindication opens with a dedication to the French diplomat Talleyrand, whose report on public education in 1791 omitted females from the system. (French women, it is worth noting, did not receive the right to vote until 1944.) She devotes a good deal of the book to disputing Émile, a treatise about the education of the young written by Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas about freedom and society inspired the French and American revolutions, but who nevertheless insisted on differentiating between what boys and girls ought to learn.

In the excerpts below, Wollstonecraft draws on her experience as a teacher of girls and as a self-educated woman. Knowing that gender did not disable women intellectually, she describes the consequences of depriving them of the opportunity to train their minds.

From A Vindication Of The Rights Of Woman

From Chapter II

Youth is the season for love in both sexes, but in those days of thoughtless enjoyment provision should be made for the more important years of life, when reflection takes place of sensation. But Rousseau, and most of the male writers who have followed his steps, have warmly inculcated that the whole tendency of female education ought to be directed to one point: -- to render them pleasing.

Let me reason with the supporters of this opinion who have any knowledge of human nature, do they imagine that marriage can eradicate the habitude of life? The woman who has only been taught to please will soon find that her charms are oblique sunbeams, and that they cannot have much effect on her husband's heart when they are seen every day, when the summer is passed and gone. Will she then have sufficient native energy to look into herself for comfort, and cultivate her dormant faculties? or, is it not more rational to expect that she will try to please other men; and, in the emotions raised by the expectation of new conquests, endeavour to forget the mortification her love or pride has received? When the husband ceases to be a lover -- and the time will inevitably come, her desire of pleasing will then grow languid, or become a spring of bitterness; and love, perhaps, the most evanescent of all passions, gives place to jealousy or vanity.

From Chapter V

Sophia, says Rousseau, should be as perfect a woman as Emilius is a man, and to render her so, it is necessary to examine the character which nature has given to the sex.

He then proceeds to prove that woman ought to be weak and passive, because she has less bodily strength than man; and hence infers, that she was formed to please and to be subject to him; and that it is her duty to render herself agreeable to her master -- this being the grand end of her existence. . . .

"Whatever is, is right," he then proceeds triumphantly to infer. Granted; -- yet, perhaps, no aphorism ever contained a more paradoxical assertion. It is a solemn truth with respect to God. He, reverentially I speak, sees the whole at once, and saw its just proportions in the womb of time; but man, who can only inspect disjointed parts, finds many things wrong; and it is a part of the system, and therefore right, that he should endeavour to alter what appears to him to be so, even while he bows to the Wisdom of his Creator, and respects the darkness he labours to disperse.

From Chapter IX

It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are, in some degree, independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers. Whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean, and selfish, and the men who can be gratified by the fawning fondness of spaniel-like affection, have not much delicacy, for love is not to be bought . . . . But, to render [a wife] really virtuous and useful, she must not, if she discharges her civil duties, want, individually, the protection of civil laws; she must not be dependent on her husband's bounty for her subsistence during his life or support after his death -- for how can a being be generous who has nothing of its own? or virtuous, who is not free? The wife, in the present state of things, who is faithful to her husband, and neither suckles nor educates her children, scarcely deserves the name of a wife, and has not right to that of a citizen. But take away natural rights, and duties become null.

Women then must be considered as only the wanton solace of men when they become so weak in mind and body that they cannot exert themselves, unless to pursue some frothy pleasure or to invent some frivolous fashion. What can be a more melancholy sight to a thinking mind than to look into the numerous carriages that drive helter-skelter about this metropolis in a morning full of pale-faced creatures who are flying from themselves. . . .

How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads . . . .

Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers -- in a word, better citizens. We should then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect ourselves; and the peace of mind of a worthy man would not be interrupted by the idle vanity of his wife, nor the babes sent to nestle in a strange bosom, having never found a home in their mother's.

Questions for Discussion

  1. What apparent inconsistency in the thought of Rousseau, the apostle of freedom, does Wollstonecraft seize upon here?
  2. In quoting and then responding to "Whatever is, is right," the conclusion of the first Epistle of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, Wollstonecraft shows what a good reader she is. To what degree is her critique of the human condition consistent with Pope's? Where does she depart from the philosophy that Pope celebrates in his poem?
  3. In her private life, Wollstonecraft was prone to depressive and hysterical behavior. Does she argue in a hysterical tone here?
  4. Wollstonecraft is as critical of women as she is of men. What is the social class of the women she particularly attacks? Can you think of any contemporary counterparts to these women?
  5. When Wollstonecraft uses the phrase "snap our chains," she draws an analogy frequently developed in the full Vindication between pampered European women and slaves. Feminists were among the strongest abolitionists in pre-Civil War America. Do you think a comparison between the sufferings of women and of slaves is legitimate? Why or why not?


(1) Tom Paine contributed more famously to the literature of the rights of man in his book of that title, which was published a year after Wollstonecraft's first Vindication. Like hers, Paine's Rights of Man is a response to the conservative Edmund Burke's critical Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).