Final Essay Exam Mary Wollstonecraft Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Final Essay Exam
Mary Wollstonecraft
Vindication of the Rights of Woman

In an open-book test, answer ONE (1) question in a 1-2 page essay. If you wish, you may consult the full text to better answer your chosen question.

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1. Which of Wollstonecraft’s arguments for women’s rights do you find the most convincing? Why?

2. Do you find that Wollstonecraft has any prejudices of her own? If so, what are they?

3. What is the core of Wollstonecraft’s argument for equality between men and women? What power do men and women both possess that makes them equals?

4. What is Wollstonecraft’s biggest issue with women in this book? What are some of the major flaws she wants to correct in women through better education?

Wollstonecraft – Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Unusual Life

Wollstonecraft’s life – thirty-eight intense years – mirrors the condition of
English women in her age. Born in 1759 in the East End (London), second of six
children, she got used to move from place to place since the very first months
due to the unstable financial fortune of her family. In her youth, she tried
out most of the jobs available at the time for a woman. She left her house in
1778, to be a lady’s companion to a widow in Bath. That lasted for two years.
After a short time, she opened up a school with her sisters and her best friend
Fanny Blood, in Newington Green. The school closed in 1785, upon the
deteriorating health conditions of Fanny. She then moved to Ireland, to homeschooling
the daughters of an Anglo-Irish family. Soon enough, she grew tired of the
meager horizons of her position. It was at this point that she decided to move
back to London and start an unusual life for a woman: working in publishing.
That was 1787. In the next ten years, she pledged a first-rate contribution to
the intellectual life of her times.

Wollstonecraft was convinced that the good reputation supposed to frame family
relationships of her time was responsible for much of the immorality found in
civil society. Virtuous behaviors are what matters, and in specific occasions
these may call for actions apparently detrimental to reputation. Thus, when
Eliza – Mary’s sister – found herself in postpartum depression, Mary arranged
for her to separate from her husband and child. Mary herself did not hesitate
to challenge social norms on several occasions. Her choice to write about
philosophical and socio-political issues probably stands as the chief challenge
to contemporary norms. Other key episodes of her private life bear no less
witness. In theearly 90s, she fell in love
with the American diplomat and author Gilbert Imlay; without ever marrying him,
they had a daughter, Fanny, in May 1794. (A year after Fanny’s birth, Wollstonecraft twice attempted
suicide.)The following May, fleeing from a lover who did
not reciprocate, she took once more quarters in London.

When she was 15,
Wollstonecraft announced that she would never marry, but marry she did, to
William Godwin, the father of the child she was expecting. She died just a few days after giving birth to
her second daughter whose name was Mary Godwin, later known as Mary Shelley.Ironically
Godwin refused to see his daughter Mary and her live-in boyfriend Percy Bysshe
Shelley until the couple married, despite the fact that he himself had been an outspoken
opponent of marriage.

writing before A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Mary Wollstonecraft’s first major work, The
Vindication of the Rights of Man

(1790), was a response to Reflections on the Revolution in France
(1790) by Edmund
. (It was first published anonymously, and one
reviewer of Wollstonecraft’s efforts apologized for his harsh review once he
discovered a woman had written the book.)
Burke was one of many
British writers and polemicists who entered the impassioned dialogue on the
French Revolution, whose work was particularly galvanizing to people like
Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine for its espousal of the view that citizens
should not rebel against their government in order to revolutionize its
traditions. Wollstonecraft averred that rights cannot be based on tradition,
only reason and rationality. Her Vindication of the Rights of Woman
continued these themes and applied them to women.

Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792, is often referred
to as the founding text or manifesto of Western feminism. Nineteenth-century
American feminists revered its author as their founding mother and read and
spoke about her works ubiquitously. A Vindication of the Rights of
, is nowadays considered as the
first manifesto of women’s rights and her most representative legacy.
Wollstonecraft’s work includes also a number of reviews, translations (from
French and German), and letters.

As she rushed while writing theVindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft worried that she did not do the
subject justice when she presented the work to her publisher, and indeed,
planned on writing a second volume but never did so; she wrote to her friend
William Roscoe, “I am dissatisfied with myself for not having done justice to
the subject. – Do not suspect me of false modesty – I mean to say that had I
allowed myself more time I could have written a better book, in every sense of
the word … I intend to finish the next volume before I begin to print, for it
is not pleasant to have the Devil coming for the conclusion of a sheet fore it
is written.”

In terms of the reception of the work, all early
views were largely positive. Many reviewers focused on Vindication as an
educational tract and remarked upon it approvingly. Political concerns were
ignored by liberals and conservatives alike. Not all of it was
positive, however; some reactions to the essay had less to do with
Wollstonecraft’s ideas, and more to do with whether the reader felt a woman
should be writing at all.

Wollstonecraft does not lay any claim to equal
opportunity for women, but rather allows for the sort of variation in the roles
of the sexes which her successors might now call ‘difference feminism’Today,
we call the writer Mary Wollstonecraft a feminist. Since that word was not in
use during 18th century England, she was called many other things – an
“able advocate” for her gender, a “hyena in petticoats,” by
Horace Walpole (English art historian, man of letters,
antiquarian and Whig politician), and the bearer of a “rigid, and
somewhat Amazonian temper” by her husband.

The later hostility that the work garnered was
related to the demise of Wollstonecraft’s reputation in the unflattering light
of her husband’s memoirs published about her life and her frequent disregard
for traditional 18th-century morality. Her reputation was still problematic
throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries but has since been demonstrably
less necessary to the analysis of her theories and ideas. Indeed, Vindication
of the Rights of Woman
stands on its own as a mainstay in university
courses on women’s history and feminism, political science, and the history of
the 18th century and the Age of Reason. This text has become one of the most
influential points of departure in the Western canon.

Rhetoric and style

In attempting to navigate the cultural expectations of female writers
and the generic conventions of political and philosophical discourse,
Wollstonecraft, as she does throughout heroeuvre,
constructs a unique blend of masculine and feminine styles in theVindication of the Rights of Woman.
She utilizes the language of philosophy, referring to her work as a
“treatise” with “arguments” and “principles.” But
Wollstonecraft also uses a very personal tone, employing “I” and
“you”, dashes and exclamation marks, and “autobiographical
references” to create a distinctly feminine voice in the text. TheRights of Womanfurther hybridizes its genre by
weaving together elements of the conduct book, the short essay and the novel,
genres often associated with women, while at the same time claiming that these
genres could be used to discuss philosophical topics such as rights.

Although Wollstonecraft argues against excessivesensibility, the rhetoric of theRights of Womanis at times heated and attempts to
provoke the reader. Wollstonecraft herself even comments on this effect. While
she claims to write in a plain style so that her ideas will reach the broadest
possible audience, she actually combines the plain, rational language of the
political treatise with the poetic, passionate language of sensibility in order
to demonstrate that one can combine rationality and sensibility in the same
self. Wollstonecraft defends her positions not only with reasoned argument but
also with ardent rhetoric.

In her efforts to vividly describe the condition of
women within society, Wollstonecraft employs several different analogies. She
often compares women to slaves, arguing that their ignorance and powerlessness
place them in that position. But at the same time, she also compares them to
“capricious tyrants” who use cunning and deceit to manipulate the men
around them. At one point, she reasons that a woman can become either a slave
or tyrant, which she describes as two sides of the same coin. Wollstonecraft
also compares women to soldiers; like military men, they are valued only for
their appearance. And like the rich, women’s “softness” has
“debased mankind.”

Historical context

A Vindication of
the Rights of Woman
was written against the tumultuous background of theFrench Revolutionand the debate that it spawned in Britain. In a lively
and sometimes vicious pamphlet war, now referred to as the “Revolution
Controversy,” British political commentators addressed topics ranging from
representative government to human rights to the separation of church and
state. Wollstonecraft first entered this fray in 1790 withA Vindication of the Rights of Men,
a response toEdmund Burke’sReflections on the Revolution in France(1790), the text which initially sparked this
heated six-year printed exchange.In
hisReflections, Burke
criticizes the view of many British thinkers and writers who had welcomed the
early stages of the French Revolution. While they saw the revolution as
analogous to Britain’s ownGlorious
in 1688, which had
restricted the powers of the monarchy, Burke argued that the appropriate
historical analogy was theEnglish civil
war (1642-1651)
in whichCharles Ihad been executed in 1649, because he viewed the
French Revolution as the violent overthrow of a legitimate government. InReflectionshe argues that citizens do not have
the right to overthrow their government; because civilization, including
governments, is the result of social and political consensus, its traditions
cannot be challenged—the result would be endless anarchy. One of the key
arguments of Wollstonecraft’sRights
of Men
, published just six weeks after Burke’s Reflections, is that
traditions, specifically political traditions, have no authority to confer or
deny rights; rights, she argues, should be conferred because they are
reasonable and just, regardless of their basis in tradition.

A Vindication of
the Rights of Woman
is an extension of Wollstonecraft’s arguments in theRights of Men. In theRights of Men, as the title
suggests, she is concerned with the rights of particular men
(eighteenth-century British men) while in theRights
of Woman
, she is concerned with the rights afforded to “woman,” a
more abstract category. She does not isolate her argument to eighteenth-century
women or British women. The first chapter of theRights of Womanaddresses the issue ofnatural rightsand asks who has those inalienable rights and on
what grounds. She answers that since natural rights are given by God, for one
segment of society to deny them to another segment is a sin. The Rights of
thus engages not only
specific events in France and in Britain but also larger questions raised bypolitical
of the time.

Vindication of the Rights of Woman

At the heart of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication
of the Rights of Woman
, are the twin virtues of freedom of thought and
devotion to family. Few people have so well combined the two as Mary herself,
the presiding matriarch of one of the most remarkable families of free-thinkers
the West has ever seen.

A self-taught London teacher, Mary and her sister Eliza became convinced that
the girls they attempted to enlighten were already enslaved by a social
training that subordinated them to men. In an age when revolutionary fervour
and a new belief in the idea of inalienable rights for all men was beginning to
cause turmoil across the West, Mary, after a period as a governess in Ireland,
spent several years observing political and social developments in France. She
wrote History and Moral View of the Origins and Progress of the French
and A Vindication of the Rights of Men as a defense of
the ideals of the Revolution against the conservative objections of Burke. Returning to
England, she joined a radical group whose membership included Blake, Paine,
Fuseli, and Wordsworth. Her first child, Fanny, was born in 1795, the daughter
of the American Gilbert Imlay. After his desertion, she began a relationship
with the academic philosopher William Godwin, though their shared opposition to
the inequalities of marriage meant that they only wed before the birth of their
daughter, Mary (who was to scandalously elope with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and to
write the novel Frankenstein.) Wollstonecraft died within two weeks of the
birth of “childbed fever” or septicemia.

Front Matter and Introduction

In her introduction, Wollstonecraft addressesCharles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a French diplomat and former bishop. She read
his pamphlet,Rapport sur l’instruction
(1791), on education in Francein which he recommended a national system of education, Talleyrand

Let us bring up women, not to aspire to advantages
which the Constitution denies them, but to know and appreciate those which it
guarantees them . . . Men are destined to live on the stage of
the world. A public education suits them: it early places before their eyes all
the scenes of life: only the proportions are different. The paternal home is
better for the education of women; they have less need to learn to deal with
the interests of others, than to accustom themselves to a calm and secluded

In response, Wollstonecraft dedicatedRights of Womanto Talleyrand: “Having read with
great pleasure a pamphlet which you have lately published, I dedicate this
volume to you; to induce you to reconsider the subject, and maturely weigh what
I have advanced respecting the rights of woman and national education.”Her regard for the human race has induced her to
write about women’s rights and duties and how their station should advance, not
retard, the progress of the principles that give morality its substance.

(That same
year, 1791, French feministOlympe de Gougepublished her Rights of Woman,
and the question of women’s rights became a live one in both France and

In France the presence of salons made social
intercourse between the sexes more frequent and knowledge more diffused.
However, the French character has perpetrated a “hunting of sincerity out
of society” and has heavily insulted modesty and decency. Instead, women
should seek to improve the morals of their fellow citizens by teaching men that
modesty is valuable, demonstrating it through their own appropriate conduct.

Wollstonecraft avers that her main argument is
based on the simple principle that if woman is not educated to be the equal of
man, the progress of knowledge and truth will be thwarted. Women must know why
they are to be virtuous, and they must know the value of patriotism in order to
instill such values in their children. Chastity ought to prevail, and women
must move beyond merely being the objects of idolatry and desire.

Furthermore, if women possess reason just as men
do, why are men the exclusive judges of freedom and happiness? Just as tyrants
characteristically attempt to crush reason, men who would keep women ignorant
are acting tyrannically. Tyranny will “undermine morality.”

Wollstonecraft’s idea is to “let there be no
coercion established in society, and the common law of gravity
prevailing, the sexes will fall into their proper places.” Fathers will
not visit brothels, and mothers will not neglect their children. Yet, when such
legitimate rights are prohibited to women, will they grasp, perhaps illicitly,
at any small power they might discover.

In the Advertisement, Wollstonecraft explains that
she had initially divided the volume into three parts but now presents the
first part to the public and hopes the second will be published later.

In the Introduction, Wollstonecraft muses that she
is pessimistic about the effects of a neglected education upon women, her
fellow creatures, seeing how that neglect is responsible for woman’s great
misery because women are made “weak and wretched” by it. Most of the
women she observes do not have healthy minds, for they are falsely taught to
cultivate and rely upon their beauty alone and above all “inspire love,
when they ought to cherish a nobler ambition and by their abilities and virtues
exact respect.”

Instructional books written by men have propagated
this false refinement and treat women as a subordinate species, not part of the
human species. Wollstonecraft concedes that she knows men are physically more
powerful and superior according to the law of nature, but men are not content
with this; they “endeavor to sink us lower, merely to render us alluring
objects for a moment,” a situation to which women fall prey and believe is
their life’s ambition. Society inveighs against “masculine women,”
but what does that mean? If it only entails “the attainment of those
talents and virtues, the exercise of which ennobles the human character,”
and not silly things like hunting and gambling, then all should endeavor to
attain such masculinity.

Wollstonecraft asserts that she wants to avoid
addressing her work to ladies in particular but instead desires to appeal to
the middle class because they are the most educable. Rich women, for example,
are too weak, enfeebled, and artificial as a result of the strictures of their

She hopes that her own sex will forgive her for
addressing them as rational beings, not flattering their beauty and charm. Her
goal is to “persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind
and body, and to convince them that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart,
delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with
epithets of weakness.” Her perspective is that “elegance is inferior
to virtue” and that regardless of one’s sex, he or she should above all
seek to increase in character as a human being. Wollstonecraft warns that she
will not use flowery language; she will adhere to the truth.

It seems to her that women’s education is fitful and oriented toward
perfecting their beauty and trying to get married, which produces silly women
unfit for their family. She again admits that women, due to their smaller
bodily stature, will never fully lose their dependence on men. Yet, some women
who are viewed as infantile actually turn to cunning and tyranny in their
households, so perhaps men ought to grow more chaste and modest. Overall,
whether it comes from men or women, “intellect will always govern.”

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary

The first chapter of theRights of Womanaddresses the issue ofnatural rightsand asks who has those inalienable rights and on what
grounds.Wollstonecraft promotes reason and rationality and discusses
the deleterious effects of absolute, arbitrary political power and the vices
associated with riches and hereditary honors. She
states that since natural rights are given by God, for one segment of society
to deny them to another segment is a sin.

Chapters two and three detail the various ways in
which women are rendered subordinate. They are taught that their looks are of
paramount concern, and they tend to cultivate weakness and artificiality to
appear pleasing to others. They are seldom independent and tend not to exercise
reason. Writers like Rousseau and Dr. Gregory
desire that women remain virtual slaves, enshrined in the home and concerned
only with their “natural” proclivities of being modest, chaste, and
beautiful. Women are taught to indulge their emotions and thus have unhappy
marriages because passion cannot be sustained. Virtue should not be relative to
gender; as both men and women were created by God and have souls, they have the
same kind of propensity to exercise reason and develop virtue. Female
dependence as seen in her day is not natural. Women’s confinement in the
home and inability to participate in the public sphere results in their
insipidness and pettiness. Wollstonecraft wants to inspire a “revolution
in female manners.”

In chapter four she excoriates the premise that pleasure is the
ultimate goal of a woman’s life. Reason and common sense are usually ignored in
favor of emotion and sentiment, and young girls are taught every early to
concern themselves only with their persons. Such trends are problematic for
mothers, who either spoil their children or ignore them. In addition, marriage
should resemble friendship because husband and wife should be companions. In
chapter 5,Wollstonecraft attacks
conduct-book writers such asJames FordyceandJohn Gregory
as well as educational
philosophers such asJean-Jacques
, who argue
that a woman does not need a rational education.In chapter six she explains the importance of early associations for
the development of character; for women, false notions and early impressions
are not tempered by knowledge or nuance. Girls begin to prefer rakes to decent

In chapters seven and eight Wollstonecraft
addresses the subject of modesty and explains that modesty is not the same as
humility. The women who exercise the most reason are the most modest. Women’s
modesty can only improve when their bodies are strengthened and their minds
enlarged by active exertions. Women’s morality is undermined, however, when
reputation is upheld as the most significant thing they should keep intact. Men
place the burden of upholding chastity on a woman’s shoulders, yet men also
must be chaste.

In chapter nine Wollstonecraft calls for more
financial independence for women, expresses the need for duty and activity in
the public sphere, argues for the need to be a good citizen as well as a good
mother, and describes the various pursuits women might take on in society.
Chapters ten and eleven concern parenting duties, repeating that there must be
reforms in education for women to be good mothers who neither tyrannize over
their children nor spoil them. Chapter twelve concerns Wollstonecraft’s ideas
for education reform. These include a conflation of public and private
education, co-education, and a more democratic, participatory educational

Chapter thirteen sums up her arguments. She
details the various ways in which women indulge their silliness. These include
visiting mediums, fortune tellers, and healers; reading stupid novels; engaging
in rivalries with other women; immoderately caring about dress and manners; and
indulging their children and treating them like idols. Women and men must have
things in common to have successful marriages. Overall, women’s faults do not
result of a natural deficiency but stem from their low status in society and
insufficient education.


Women or Woman?

The title of Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of
the Rights of Woman
is often misquoted as A Vindication of the Rights of
Several publishers have listed the title correctly on their book,
but in their publicity and in their own book catalog, list the incorrect title.
Because there are subtle
differences in the use of the terms Women and Woman
in the time of
Wollstonecraft, this mistake is more important than it might seem.

A Vindication of the
Rights of Woman

Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects

Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes © 2011




Having read with great pleasure a pamphlet, which you
have lately published, on National Education, I dedicate this volume to you,
the first dedication that I have ever written, to induce you to read it with
attention; and, because I think that you will understand me, which I do not
suppose many pert witlings will, who may ridicule the arguments they are unable
to answer. But, sir, I carry my respect for your understanding still farther:
so far, that I am confident you will not throw my work aside, and hastily
conclude that I am in the wrong because you did not view the subject in the
same light yourself. And pardon my frankness, but I must observe, that you
treated it in too cursory a manner, contented to consider it as it had been
considered formerly, when the rights of man, not to advert to woman, were
trampled on as chimerical. I call upon you, therefore, now to weigh what I have
advanced respecting the rights of woman, and national education; and I call
with the firm tone of humanity. For my arguments, sir, are dictated by a
disinterested spirit: I plead for my sex, not for myself. Independence I have
long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue; and
independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live
on a barren heath.

It is, then, an affection for the whole human race that
makes my pen dart rapidly along to support what I believe to be the cause of
virtue: and the same motive leads me earnestly to wish to see woman placed in a
station in which she would advance, instead of retarding, the progress of those
glorious principles that give a substance to morality. My opinion, indeed,
respecting the rights and duties of woman, seems to flow so naturally from
these simple principles, that I think it scarcely possible, but that some of
the enlarged minds who formed your admirable constitution, will coincide with

In France, there is undoubtedly a more general diffusion
of knowledge than in any part of the European world, and I attribute it, in a
great measure, to the social intercourse which has long subsisted between the
sexes. It is true, I utter my sentiments with freedom, that in France the very
essence of sensuality has been extracted to regale the voluptuary, and a kind
of sentimental lust has prevailed, which, together with the system of duplicity
that the whole tenor of their political and civil government taught, have given
a sinister sort of sagacity to the French character, properly termed finesse;
and a polish of manners that injures the substance, by hunting sincerity out of
society. And, modesty, the fairest garb of virtue has been more grossly
insulted in France than even in England, till their women have treated as
PRUDISH that attention to decency which brutes instinctively observe.

Manners and morals are so nearly allied, that they have
often been confounded; but, though the former should only be the natural
reflection of the latter, yet, when various causes have produced factitious and
corrupt manners, which are very early caught, morality becomes an empty name.
The personal reserve, and sacred respect for cleanliness and delicacy in
domestic life, which French women almost despise, are the graceful pillars of
modesty; but, far from despising them, if the pure flame of patriotism have
reached their bosoms, they should labour to improve the morals of their
fellow-citizens, by teaching men, not only to respect modesty in women, but to
acquire it themselves, as the only way to merit their esteem.

Contending for the rights of women, my main argument is
built on this simple principle, that if she be not prepared by education to
become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge, for truth
must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its
influence on general practice. And how can woman be expected to co-operate,
unless she know why she ought to be virtuous? Unless freedom strengthen her
reason till she comprehend her duty, and see in what manner it is connected
with her real good? If children are to be educated to understand the true
principle of patriotism, their mother must be a patriot; and the love of
mankind, from which an orderly train of virtues spring, can only be produced by
considering the moral and civil interest of mankind; but the education and
situation of woman, at present, shuts her out from such investigations.

In this work I have produced many arguments, which to me
were conclusive, to prove, that the prevailing notion respecting a sexual
character was subversive of morality, and I have contended, that to render the
human body and mind more perfect, chastity must more universally prevail, and
that chastity will never be respected in the male world till the person of a
woman is not, as it were, idolized when little virtue or sense embellish it
with the grand traces of mental beauty, or the interesting simplicity of

Consider, Sir, dispassionately, these observations, for
a glimpse of this truth seemed to open before you when you observed, “that
to see one half of the human race excluded by the other from all participation
of government, was a political phenomenon that, according to abstract
principles, it was impossible to explain.” If so, on what does your
constitution rest? If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and
explanation, those of woman, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the
same test: though a different opinion prevails in this country, built on the
very arguments which you use to justify the oppression of woman, prescription.

Consider, I address you as a legislator, whether, when
men contend for their freedom, and to be allowed to judge for themselves,
respecting their own happiness, it be not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate
women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best
calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if
woman partake with him the gift of reason?

In this style, argue tyrants of every denomination from
the weak king to the weak father of a family; they are all eager to crush
reason; yet always assert that they usurp its throne only to be useful. Do you
not act a similar part, when you FORCE all wo

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