A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Summary and Analysis of Chapter XII: On National Education

Wollstonecraft argues that education must become a grand national concern. Children should be encouraged to expand their faculties and think for themselves, and this can only be done by putting children together and educating them on the same subjects.

When youth are educated alone, they never acquire that frankness and ingenuity of thought that come from speaking their minds; this can only be done in society, not simply with their parents alone. Private boarding schools are "hot-beds of vice and folly" because boys who go there become slovenly and gluttonous and cunning. Yet when they are brought up alone at home, they can become imperious and spoiled, as well as vain and effeminate.

Thus, there must be some way to combine public and private education to avoid the disadvantages of each. The country day school is the most excellent example of this; boys who attended these apparently learned to respect and revere their school as well as their home. In contrast, boys rarely ever recollect with fondness their time confined in boarding schools. Their behavior suffers; "the relaxation of junior boys is mischief; and of the senior, vice." There is an established tyranny amongst the boys as well as an entrenched laziness and avoidance of duty. Boys try to evade the worship services and grow contemptuous of them.

These schools pretend they are the champions of religion but instead hamper it with "irksome ceremonies and unreasonable restraints." Another problem lies in the teachers, whom Wollstonecraft sees as dogmatic, tyrannical, and luxurious. It is no surprise that with leaders like these, boys grow up to be "selfish and vicious."

Public education should be available for every denomination and aimed at forming citizens. This cannot be done unless a degree of affection is cherished in the breasts of youth for their parents and siblings, for "this is the only way to expand he heart; for public affections, as well as public virtues, must ever grow out of the private character." No one can have affection for mankind unless he has affection for his mother, father, brother, sister, and servants.

The day schools Wollstonecraft advocates must be national establishments; they must get away from the schoolmasters who "are dependent on the caprices of parents." This leads to bad education for the young boys, who are merely paraded in front of their parents bloated with things that they memorized and forced to recite these facts to impress them. There is no real understanding occurring whilst they are taught to memorize things they do not understand. This situation cannot be remedied while teachers are dependent on parents for their income and schools compete with other schools on the basis of pleasing the parents.

Young girls trapped in schools are privy to much more restraint than boys are. Their "animal spirits" are diminished as they sit inside all day. Their minds also stagnate, or eventually tend toward cunning. They are to be paragons of chastity whereas young men think very little of that virtue. While off at school boys infallibly lose that decent "bashfulness" and begin to joke improperly and slough off modesty.

Wollstonecraft's plan to resolve such problems is as follows: first, the school for younger children, ages five to nine, will be attended by all children regardless of rank. Masters are chosen from the community. Rich and poor, they should all be dressed alike and adhere to the same rules. There should be large grounds surrounding the schoolhouse where they can exercise their bodies for a substantial amount of the day. They should also learn botany, mechanics, astronomy, reading, writing, arithmetic, natural history, natural philosophy, religion, history, and politics.

After age nine the boys and girls destined for domestic or mechanical trades should attend other schools and receive instruction in those areas of employ. They will be together in the morning and then separate. For those young people of superior ability or fortune, they will attend another school and be taught the dead languages, advanced politics, history, and so on. Girls and boys will still be together. If early marriages result that is all the better, for such marriages have the best physical and moral effects. Students should live at home, not at boarding schools, but go away to their studies during the day.

This type of school would not create boys who are debauched and then men who are selfish, or girls who are weak and vain and frivolous. If women were taught to respect themselves they would properly attend their domestic duties and their active minds could embrace everything. Attempting to attain masculine virtues, pursuing literature or science, or looking into politics is not what leads women away from their duty—it is "indolence and vanity."

Wollstonecraft hopes to see true dignity and grace from this education for women. One other sign of success is mercy and humanity toward animals. Cruelty to animals is present among the poor and rich, she adds. For women, one point of this education is to make them better mothers.


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.