A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Discuss Mary Wollstonecraft as a pioneer of female education/feminism

in relation to chapters 2,5 and 12 of A Vindication of the rights of the women

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Chapter 2

Wollstonecraft's ideas were complex and did not fully espouse the idea that marriage could embody the hegemonic social contract and "rights discourse" whereby women should voluntarily give up their liberty by getting married. Wollstonecraft was against the notion that marriage was the only way for a woman to rise in life; this notion is especially frustrating because of the ways in which women are taught from childhood to render themselves appealing to the male sex. Female education is sporadic and misleading and tends to result in girls who want to be alluring. This is also dangerous for men because women only want the "rakes" and "gallants" who can flatter and tease, not the men of substance. Similarly, Wollstonecraft argues, education in its limited and sexist capacity leads to bad mothers and a cycle of bad education over the following generations.



Chapter 5

As Wollstonecraft explains, quoting Rousseau, he writes that the education of women should be relative to men’s and that “to please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us to render our lives easy and agreeable: these are the duties of women all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.” Girls are quite incapable of understanding what is told to them, and they care only about their behavior. They must be taught their roles early. To be thought beautiful, they are under constant and severe restraint in their persons and their minds. Rousseau argues that they ought to have as little liberty as possible because they will indulge what is given to them. Daughters should be totally submissive.

Wollstonecraft completely disagrees with Rousseau; she writes that men have “superior strength of body; but were it not for mistaken notions of beauty, women would acquire sufficient to enable them to earn their subsistence, the true definition of independence; and to bear those bodily inconveniences and exertions that are requisite to strengthen the mind.”

Rousseau even advocates taking religion away from women in the sense that they do not need to engage in it on their own, but a man should explain it to them. Wollstonecraft does not understand why, even though a woman should be beautiful and innocent, her understanding should be sacrificed as well. She does not see a beneficial marriage state for an insipid, frivolous woman and a shallow man.



Chapter 12

Mary Wollstonecraft's views on education were some of her most well-received ideas. Most British progressives and reformers from the 18th century were embracing the idea that women's education must be improved; thus, Wollstonecraft's work was favorably regarded in this area. She wanted a greater conflation of the public and the private, for private boarding schools and home-schooling were equally detrimental to a child's academic and personal upbringing. Children should live at home but spend the day in school. They should attend with the opposite gender and learn the same things with the same expectations. As they grow older, depending upon their social class they will begin to pursue more advanced and specialized studies. Women are here at every step of the way; no longer should their education be rudimentary, fragmentary, and geared towards attaining a marriage.

This idea for education focuses on middle-class women, who can afford such a scheme, and working-class women, who are largely outside of these possibilities. Much of Vindication is concerned with the fact that women are considered playthings and mere objects of beauty for men, which is primarily a problem among the middle class. In a previous chapter, Wollstonecraft discussed the problems with shutting women up together and has now done so in a similar matter with men; therefore, her main idea is to suggest education for both sexes together. Women can never be truly free unless they learn not to be dependent upon men; thus, they should attend school with them. Women will learn to regard marriage as sacred when they are brought up alongside men and grow to be their companions, not mistresses. Both sexes would cultivate modesty "without those sexual distinctions that taint the mind."

In terms of education, its overall purpose is happiness; education allows a person to be independent, exercise their mind and reason, and take on higher duties, even if most women end up freely choosing to be wives and mothers. As feminist scholar Salma Maoulidi notes, "education is thus a fundamental right, a tool for human liberation; and until knowledge is democratized and women are rationally educated, the progress of human virtue and knowledge must receive continual checks." Education is necessary to develop character as well as knowledge, so if women were to receive an equal education they would no longer be blindly obedient, wrapped up in their looks and trivialities, marry poorly, and be bad mothers. The deleterious lessons women learn in boarding schools would no longer be widely taught.

Wollstonecraft's preferred education was "wholesome," in that both the body and mind would be enlivened and strengthened by study and attainment of knowledge. Education should be democratic, evinced in the participation of parents and a trial by peers for misbehaving children. Emma Rauschenbusch-Clough, a Wollstonecraft scholar, sees a socialistic tendency in the author's demands "that she expects equality in education not through individual effort, but as a right granted by broad national policy" and in her criticism of "the system of education prevalent in England at the time [with its] interference of property with pedagogical principles." This socialistic tendency is hard to identify today, when public schools are considered an automatic right (as suggested by Maoulidi) and an expected duty for middle-class parents.

Overall, Wollstonecraft's ideas on education were moderate by today’s standards, but she was definitely marking out some new ground.