Wollstonecraft addresses M. Talleyrand-Périgord, a French diplomat and former bishop. She read his pamphlet on education in France and now dedicates her own volume to him. 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.
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 upbringing.
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."
It is both intriguing and significant that Mary Wollstonecraft chose to dedicate her work on the rights of women to Charles Maurice Talleyrand-Périgord, a rather infamous man who worked successfully as a diplomat through the French Revolution, the Napoleonic years, and the restoration of the monarchy. Once the bishop of Autun, Talleyrand (as he is most commonly referred) gave up the post because of his political activities and was officially excommunicated by the Catholic Church in 1791. Some historians view him as a traitor to all of the regimes/personages he worked for, although his enterprising, adaptable, and intuitive nature can easily be lauded.
The work to which Wollstonecraft refers to was the Rapport sur L'instruction Publique, fait au nom du Comité de Constitution (1791), a report to the French National Assembly. Wollstonecraft had met Talleyrand when he journeyed to London in February of 1792 as part of the Constituent Assembly attempting to stave off war between Britain and France; she dedicated the second edition of Vindication to him. As her letter explains, she read his treatise on education that suggested women should only receive a domestic education and stay out of political affairs, and had choice words to say on the subject of French women and the flaws in the French constitution regarding the inequality between men and women. In response, Wollstonecraft has much to say.
In the Advertisement Wollstonecraft explains that she initially expected to write three parts, but as she was writing the first part she was frequently inspired to write more on the principles expressed there and eventually just published it alone. Although she states that a second volume will be forthcoming, her papers suggest that she never started a second part.
Wollstonecraft's introduction is a succinct summary of her goals and intent in writing this Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She excoriates the current state of education which, for women, is concerned primarily with finding primary value in their beauty and marriageable characteristics. This does favors for neither men nor women, as ill-educated women may seek illicit outlets for their repression or, perhaps more importantly, become badly equipped to raise their children to be moral, patriotic, and virtuous. Thus, both men and women would profit from female education. There is no benefit to convincing women that their meekness, delicacy of sentiment, softness, and reliance upon physical beauty are anything other than forms of subjugation.
Wollstonecraft addresses a few points that readers might bring against her, demonstrating her keen intellect and awareness of the progressive contents of her treatise. First, she explains that there is no reason to believe that "masculine women" are threatening when the term "masculine" only suggests the highest talents and virtues of mankind. She acknowledges that men are larger and stronger by nature, giving them certain natural advantages, yet the virtues of the mind do not seem to rely on physical prowess or other concerns with the body. Indeed, there is no reason to fear that women will attain so much courage and fortitude that they will not need to depend on men at all; "their apparent inferiority with respect to bodily strength, must render them, in some degree, dependent on men in the various relations of life" (11). Finally, she makes it clear that her text will not be cluttered with superficialities or given an artificial gloss of style. She does not plan to "waste [her] time in rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings" (10). The argumentative reason in this treatise will showcase the intellectual heights she believes women can reach without having to rely on their beauty and charms. In this way, the style of the book mirrors its substance.
In general, Wollstonecraft seeks to prove to her readers that women, like she has done, can become thoughtful and educated. Readers should start tracking the quality of her arguments and should recognize how Wollstonecraft demonstrates knowledge of current events and close familiarity with the arguments of the great writers of her time and of earlier ages. Is Wollstonecraft an unusual example of what a woman might achieve, or is she pointing the way for most women to achieve a similar level of educational achievement? Her arguments suggest the latter.