What are Wollstonecraft's views on education?
Wollstonecraft does not favor private boarding schools or complete home-schooling but a mixed system. Children need to be around their peers to develop social skills but should not be sheltered in a residential school because they will grow slovenly, lazy, and cunning. The country day-school is a good model (children live at home but attend school for most of the day). Boys and girls should be educated together, which will improve both sexes and lead to happier marriages and, most of all, bring women’s socialization out of the state of learned oppression. When children are very young, they should all be together, rich and poor. They should be dressed alike and have plenty of time to exercise outside. They should learn traditional subjects. When they reach about age nine, they should be separated by social class, with the lower classes studying trades, but boys and girls should remain together. More democratic schools would include parental involvement and children judging their peers for misbehavior.
How is this work a response to the writings of Edmund Burke?
Burke and Wollstonecraft are similar insofar as they are both classical liberals. Burke wrote one of the most famous intellectual attacks on the French Revolution, attacking it as an illegitimate revolt against a legitimate government (unlike in America, where the revolution was a legitimate revolt against an illegitimate government). Burke’s writings argued that rights are based on traditions rather than made up out of theories. Wollstonecraft disagreed on this point, responding with A Vindication of the Rights of Man and then A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She criticized what she saw as the arbitrary, traditional foundation of male power over women and called for greater fairness based on reason and a theory of gender equality.
How does Wollstonecraft subvert traditional gender norms in the style of her writing?
Wollstonecraft adopts a masculine voice in her writing; simply taking on male philosophers as an equal was daring. Her rhetorical style is modeled after other writers she was familiar with, arguing that she would appeal to reason rather than appeal directly to emotion through flowery writing. Scholar Christine M. Skolnik writes that when she critiques female manners she distances herself from her "feminine identity and audience and presents herself chiefly as a man speaking to men," which makes it easier to understand how she can be so vicious in her critiques of women's foibles and flaws.
How are men responsible for women's low social and moral status, according to Wollstonecraft?
Men do not allow women access to education, thus depriving them of the ability to acquire knowledge, exercise their reason, learn the proper form of modesty and chastity, and perfect their virtue. Since their education is fragmentary and limited, they do not study much of substance, and when they do, it is hardly necessary because they will not be able to utilize it later except to pass it along to their children. Men want women to be silly, meek, beautiful, elegant, charming, and coquettish, and women learn to take on those characteristics. This is problematic because once they marry, women are supposed to be wives and mothers and no longer engage in passionate courtship. Women are not allowed to participate in politics at all. Men expect women to be chaste but then act improperly toward them, placing the burden of morality upon a woman's weaker shoulders. Men force women into this subordinate position and keep them inferior, but then exercise contempt for them.
How are women are responsible for their own denigrated status in Wollstonecraft’s time?
The entire social structure conspires to keep women subordinate, but women do themselves no favors. They indulge in silliness, such as visiting fortunetellers, mediums, and healers who pretend to be able to cure ailments. They read insipid, absurd novelists and mimic their styles and sentiments. They treat their children like demigods or ignore them and leave their care to servants, or else turn into mini-tyrants over their households. They turn toward rakes and libertines in the desire to inflame their emotions. They do not like when their relationships with their husbands lack the passion they were used to in courtship; sometimes they will enter into love affairs or ignore their husbands. They engage in rivalries with their companions. They tyrannize over their family members and servants. They dissimulate and lie and tend toward cunning. They are immodest with other women and do not cultivate the modesty that is necessary. They perhaps can be excused for believing that their weaknesses are preferred in society, but they remain human and responsible for their own decisions.
What are Wollstonecraft's views on motherhood?
Wollstonecraft has been called the "first feminist," but some of her ideas reinforced traditional motherhood of a sort that later feminists sometimes reject. She did not challenge the assumption that a woman's most important duty was to be a mother; there is not much room in her theories for single women or women who refuse to marry. It is clear that the middle-class women she addresses are supposed to be married and be responsible mothers. The subordination of women resulted in their being poor mothers, she argued and observed, so education reform and a disavowal of the "natural" inferiority of women were crucial for their improvement as mothers. A bad mother will spoil her children because she wants their love and affection, will neglect them entirely while she is devoted to her own frivolous pursuits, or will tyrannize over them out of a desire to regain some control over her own life. By contrast, an educated woman will be a good mother for several reasons: she will inculcate civic virtue and duty; ably instruct them in the areas of study that matter; encourage her daughters and sons to be self-actualized; discipline them effectively and fairly; and demonstrate the type of respectful and harmonious marriage they should desire to emulate.
What are Wollstonecraft's views on social class?
Middle-class women are the main targets of this work. Even so, Wollstonecraft excoriates the rich for their indolence and complete lack of reason or contribution to society. Their power is based on arbitrary foundations (parallel to men’s power over women), and rich women in particular are useless. Working-class women are mentioned occasionally, but their problems occur more on the level of subsistence. It is unlikely that working-class women have time to indulge their silliness and sentiments when they are toiling for long hours, nor do they have the time and resources to devote to their looks and trying to be pleasing to men. Middle-class women who incorrectly seek pleasure or passion are the ones whom this book can reach.
What are the issues regarding modesty and chastity addressed in the text?
Modesty is exalted as a chastity that springs from purity of mind, not a heightened feeling of vanity or presumption concerning one's character. Purity of mind is a moderate state of great refinement and honest discernment of one’s abilities; it is nobler than innocence and false pride. In order to be modest and chaste a woman must get away from "sensibility," that silliness and frivolity that women cultivate. Men should also learn modesty and not expect women to bear the brunt of it on their weaker shoulders. Passions should be checked by reason and rationality in order for modesty to prevail. Girls should not develop immodest habits with other girls, such as dressing in front of others. They should be more private so their relationships with men will be equally modest. Finally, women should not try to be chaste only in order to preserve their reputation, for it is unlikely that true modesty can result from an inordinate obsession with trying to appear proper on that score alone.
Does Wollstonecraft identify an ideal situation for a woman?
In the ideal situation she would be happily married with children in a friendly partnership with her husband, not completely financially dependent, thoroughly educated, and generally virtuous. Women in their girlhood would be educated with both sexes in a public school and learn to strengthen their minds and their bodies. They would learn the same things boys are learning, although they would also learn some of the feminine arts. They may decide to enter a profession and begin to achieve a degree of financial independence. Through their continued association, both sexes would improve each other and happier early marriages may result. She would be an intelligent and fair mother, and her children would model their behavior after hers. She would be involved in the public sphere to an extent and would have representation, but would not need to become fully versed in politics and have the vote. Thus, the ideal situation for a woman is rational education, an equal marriage and reasonable child-rearing, and greater participation in the public sphere. This seems most likely among middle-class women, since life is too easy for the upper class and too difficult for the lower class.
What does this book say about sexuality?
Wollstonecraft challenges the prevailing assumption that women are essentially sexual rather than rational beings; she claims instead that it is men who are more often ruled by their passions and appetites. She attacks Rousseau in particular for sneering that women are ruled by "voluptuous reveries," countering with the fact that men cover up their own immoral desires and behavior by asserting that women are deviant sexual beings. Male desire is a large contributor to the oppression women face. Yet, since women seek male attraction, they perpetuate this problem. Women do, of course, have sexual appetites of their own, and they must be properly moderated in the light of reason, modesty, and chastity. These appetites might be even more voracious than men's; Wollstonecraft is quite vitriolic about the immodesty of girls in boarding schools.