GradeSaver (TM) ClassicNotes: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Themes

by Mary Wollstonecraft

Major Themes

Marriage as friendship

Wollstonecraft envisioned an ideal marriage as one that was underpinned by the traits of a good friendship: mutual esteem, respect, generosity, and compromise. A husband and wife should be companions and partners and have things in common. The passion of their courtship will soon give way to the deep harmony of friendship, and they must learn to embrace that change. Women should want to marry a man who is more than a gallant protector or a charming rake; men should want to marry a woman who has more to offer than her evanescent beauty. Were marriage more like a partnership, both man and woman would be better parents to their children. Women would not manifest their repression in tyrannizing over their husband and children. There would be no petty jealousies and no desire to look for love affairs. This state of affairs would also result in a more virtuous citizenry at the national level. In terms of sexuality, a husband and wife should not be immoderately swayed by sexual passions but should endeavor to form those deeper ties away from sex. Overall, marriage-as-friendship embodies many of the preeminent ideas inherent in classical liberalism: equality, freedom, choice, respect, and virtue.

The need for a "revolution in female manners"

This phrase is used several times in the Vindication. In chapter three, Wollstonecraft writes, "It is time to effect a revolution in female manners -time to restore to them their lost dignity - and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable morals from local manners" (45). In chapter thirteen she uses the phrase again, writing, "That women at present are by ignorance rendered foolish or vicious, is, I think, not to be disputed; and, that the most salutary effects tending to improve mankind, might be expected from a REVOLUTION in female manners, appears at least, with a face of probability, to rise out of the observation" (192). She desires that women throw off the bonds men place upon them in terms of rendering them only beautiful, foolish, and useless; she wants them to attain a rational education, develop their reason, perfect their virtue, and embody true modesty that arises from purity of mind and rationality. They should not be a second-class species or mere playthings of men. They should endeavor to attain education, financial independence, some political participation, and autonomy. In contrast, the gendered social system of her day is dangerous and ultimately unfulfilling for women, men, and society as a whole.

The problems of sensibility

Wollstonecraft is quite vociferous in her criticism of sensibility. She was disgusted with the silliness of women. This silliness included cultivating a weakness and delicacy of body; delighting in transient pleasures; reading stupid novels and poetry; visiting fortunetellers and mediums; caring only about one's person and attracting a man; trying to gratify one's vanity; indulging one's emotions and sentiments; preferring rakes and lotharios to men of character; and gossiping. Through such choices, women's minds are rendered pliant and weak, and they become nearly incapable of exercising reason. Women in her time are socialized to be enslaved to their bodies and sexuality. Yet, women's bodies are not primarily for men to act upon, and a woman's mind should not become a soft, underdeveloped mass.

Reason and rationality

Reason is of utmost importance in Wollstonecraft's writing. Like John Locke before her, who wrote of reason being fundamental to governance for a man emerging from a state of nature, Wollstonecraft argues that women should stop focusing on their emotions and try to use their rational faculties. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, "Wollstonecraft wanted women to aspire to full citizenship, to be worthy of it,and this necessitated the development of reason. Rational women would perceive their real duties. They would forgo the world of mere appearances, the world of insatiable needs on which eighteenth-century society was based, as Adam Smith had explained more lucidly than anyone, and of which France was the embodiment, in Wollstonecraft's conception." God created men and women and endowed them both with immortal souls; thus, both sexes are capable of reason. It is not "natural" for women not to exercise reason. Women must develop reason so as to be effective and fair parents and to develop virtue, which will suppress tyrannical impulses and free women from their shackles.


Although some scholars have identified socialist or radical elements within Wollstonecraft's work, she was clearly working in the tradition of liberalism. Liberalism rests on a distinction between the public and private spheres, maintaining that the state guarantees rights and leaves families to make their own choices. In her time, this meant that liberalism tended to prop up male household heads, who were the usual property owners. Since the family and the household economy are private and self-regulating, the classical liberal's path to social change is persuasion, not the imposition of new morals and social structures by the state. Wollstonecraft did not challenge the idea that women were primarily supposed to be in the home, although she did advocate for more financial independence. She also excoriated the rich, but she did not go so far as to say that property was undesirable.

Education reform

Wollstonecraft was a passionate advocate for education reform, and this was one of her best-received ideas. Indeed, many critics focused on the Vindication as primarily significant for its writing on education. Wollstonecraft saw the need for co-education; boys and girls would be improved by attending school together. She believed they needed to attend school together from the earliest age, despite gender or class, and have time to develop their bodily and mental strengths. She did advocate a later stratification based upon social class, however. Education reform was particularly important for women since their lack of continuous and substantive education was the most salient reason for what Wollstonecraft identified as their ignorance, indolence, and subordination. Instead, women should be able to study serious subjects and even enter into some professions. Education would allow women to learn how to exercise reason and perfect their virtue. It would result in their becoming better wives and mothers, which would redound to the benefit of society.

Enriching middle-class women's lives

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is perceived primarily as a text addressed to middle-class women. Lower-class women do not have as much leisure time to try to attract a man; they are not as concerned with their looks and manners; they have barely any education, work from a young age, and do not have the time to engage in frivolity, ephemeral trivialities, and irrelevant rivalries. Wollstonecraft's ideas for education reform include separating youth by social class at a certain point so they can pursue occupations appropriate for their station. Similarly, this is not a work for rich women. Wollstonecraft vilifies the rich, referring to them as useless and full of artifice. The problems and solutions that Wollstonecraft identifies are for middle-class women, who can attain more education and benefit from it, utilizing the precepts they learn in their households. Financial independence and a degree of political participation are also somewhat possible for these women. Thus, although Wollstonecraft does identify some problems common for all women, her work mainly addresses the middle class.

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