Wollstonecraft did not employ the formal argumentation or logical prose style common to 18th-century philosophical writing when composing her own works. The Rights of Woman is a long essay that introduces all of its major topics in the opening chapters and then repeatedly returns to them, each time from a different point of view. It also adopts a hybrid tone that combines rational argument with the fervent rhetoric of sensibility.
In the 18th century, sensibility was a physical phenomenon that came to be attached to a specific set of moral beliefs. Physicians and anatomists believed that the more sensitive people's nerves, the more emotionally affected they would be by their surroundings. Since women were thought to have keener nerves than men, it was also believed that women were more emotional than men. The emotional excess associated with sensibility also theoretically produced an ethic of compassion: those with sensibility could easily sympathise with people in pain. Thus historians have credited the discourse of sensibility and those who promoted it with the increased humanitarian efforts, such as the movement to abolish the slave trade. But sensibility also paralysed those who had too much of it; as scholar G. J. Barker-Benfield explains, "an innate refinement of nerves was also identifiable with greater suffering, with weakness, and a susceptibility to disorder".
By the time Wollstonecraft was writing the Rights of Woman, sensibility had already been under sustained attack for a number of years. Sensibility, which had initially promised to draw individuals together through sympathy, was now viewed as "profoundly separatist"; novels, plays, and poems that employed the language of sensibility asserted individual rights, sexual freedom, and unconventional familial relationships based only upon feeling. Furthermore, as Janet Todd, another scholar of sensibility, argues, "to many in Britain the cult of sensibility seemed to have feminized the nation, given women undue prominence, and emasculated men."
One of Wollstonecraft's central arguments in the Rights of Woman is that women should be educated rationally to give them the opportunity to contribute to society. In the 18th century, it was often assumed by both educational philosophers and conduct book writers, who wrote what one might think of as early self-help books, that women were incapable of rational or abstract thought. Women, it was believed, were too susceptible to sensibility and too fragile to be able to think clearly. Wollstonecraft, along with other female reformers such as Catharine Macaulay and Hester Chapone, maintained that women were indeed capable of rational thought and deserved to be educated. She argued this point in her own conduct book, Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787), in her children's book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), as well as in the Rights of Woman.
Stating in her preface that "my main argument is built on this simple principle, that if [woman] be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all", Wollstonecraft contends that society will degenerate without educated women, particularly because mothers are the primary educators of young children. She attributes the problem of uneducated women to men and "a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who [consider] females rather as women than human creatures". Women are capable of rationality; it only appears that they are not, because men have refused to educate them and encouraged them to be frivolous (Wollstonecraft describes silly women as "spaniels" and "toys"). While stressing it is of the same kind, she entertains the notion that women might not be able to attain the same degree of knowledge that men do.
Wollstonecraft attacks conduct book writers such as James Fordyce and John Gregory as well as educational philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau who argue that a woman does not need a rational education. (Rousseau famously argues in Emile (1762) that women should be educated for the pleasure of men; Wollstonecraft, infuriated by this argument, attacks not only it but also Rousseau himself.) Intent on illustrating the limitations that contemporary educational theory placed upon women, Wollstonecraft writes, "taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison", implying that without this damaging ideology, which encourages young women to focus their attention on beauty and outward accomplishments, they could achieve much more. Wives could be the rational "companions" of their husbands and even pursue careers should they so choose: "women might certainly study the art of healing, and be physicians as well as nurses. And midwifery, decency seems to allot to them . . . they might, also, study politics . . . Business of various kinds, they might likewise pursue."
For Wollstonecraft, "the most perfect education" is "an exercise of the understanding as is best calculated to strengthen the body and form the heart. Or, in other words, to enable the individual to attach such habits of virtue as will render it independent." In addition to her broad philosophical arguments, Wollstonecraft lays out a specific plan for national education to counter Talleyrand's. In Chapter 12, "On National Education", she proposes that children be sent to day schools as well as given some education at home "to inspire a love of home and domestic pleasures", and that such schools be free for children "five to nine years of age". She also maintains that schooling should be co-educational, contending that men and women, whose marriages are "the cement of society", should be "educated after the same model".
It is debatable to what extent the Rights of Woman is a feminist text; because the definitions of feminist vary, different scholars have come to different conclusions. Wollstonecraft would never have referred to her text as feminist because the words feminist and feminism were not coined until the 1890s. Moreover, there was no feminist movement to speak of during Wollstonecraft's lifetime. In the introduction to her seminal work on Wollstonecraft's thought, Barbara Taylor writes:
Describing [Wollstonecraft's philosophy] as feminist is problematic, and I do it only after much consideration. The label is of course anachronistic . . . Treating Wollstonecraft's thought as an anticipation of nineteenth and twentieth-century feminist argument has meant sacrificing or distorting some of its key elements. Leading examples of this . . . have been the widespread neglect of her religious beliefs, and the misrepresentation of her as a bourgeois liberal, which together have resulted in the displacement of a religiously inspired utopian radicalism by a secular, class-partisan reformism as alien to Wollstonecraft's political project as her dream of a divinely promised age of universal happiness is to our own. Even more important however has been the imposition on Wollstonecraft of a heroic-individualist brand of politics utterly at odds with her own ethically driven case for women's emancipation. Wollstonecraft's leading ambition for women was that they should attain virtue, and it was to this end that she sought their liberation.
In the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft does not make the claim for gender equality using the same arguments or the same language that late 19th- and 20th century feminists later would. For instance, rather than unequivocally stating that men and women are equal, Wollstonecraft contends that men and women are equal in the eyes of God, which means that they are both subject to the same moral law. For Wollstonecraft, men and women are equal in the most important areas of life. While such an idea may not seem revolutionary to 21st-century readers, its implications were revolutionary during the 18th century. For example, it implied that both men and women—not just women—should be modest and respect the sanctity of marriage. Wollstonecraft's argument exposed the sexual double standard of the late 18th century and demanded that men adhere to the same virtues demanded of women.
However, Wollstonecraft's arguments for equality stand in contrast to her statements respecting the superiority of masculine strength and valour. Wollstonecraft famously and ambiguously states:
Let it not be concluded, that I wish to invert the order of things; I have already granted, that, from the constitution of their bodies, men seem to be designed by Providence to attain a greater degree of virtue. I speak collectively of the whole sex; but I see not the shadow of a reason to conclude that their virtues should differ in respect to their nature. In fact, how can they, if virtue has only one eternal standard? I must therefore, if I reason consequentially, as strenuously maintain that they have the same simple direction, as that there is a God.
Moreover, Wollstonecraft calls on men, rather than women, to initiate the social and political changes she outlines in the Rights of Woman. Because women are uneducated, they cannot alter their own situation—men must come to their aid. Wollstonecraft writes at the end of her chapter "Of the Pernicious Effects Which Arise from the Unnatural Distinctions Established in Society":
I then would fain convince reasonable men of the importance of some of my remarks; and prevail on them to weigh dispassionately the whole tenor of my observations. – I appeal to their understandings; and, as a fellow-creature, claim, in the name of my sex, some interest in their hearts. I entreat them to assist to emancipate their companion, to make her a help meet for them! Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens.
It is Wollstonecraft's last novel, Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman (1798), the fictionalised sequel to the Rights of Woman, that is usually considered her most radical feminist work.
One of Wollstonecraft's most scathing criticisms in the Rights of Woman is against false and excessive sensibility, particularly in women. She argues that women who succumb to sensibility are "blown about by every momentary gust of feeling"; because these women are "the prey of their senses", they cannot think rationally. In fact, not only do they do harm to themselves but they also do harm to all of civilisation: these are not women who can refine civilisation – these are women who will destroy it. But reason and feeling are not independent for Wollstonecraft; rather, she believes that they should inform each other. For Wollstonecraft, as for the important 18th-century philosopher David Hume, the passions underpin all reason. This was a theme that she would return to throughout her career, but particularly in her novels Mary: A Fiction (1788) and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman.
As part of her argument that women should not be overly influenced by their feelings, Wollstonecraft emphasises that they should not be constrained by or made slaves to their bodies or their sexual feelings. This particular argument has led many modern feminists to suggest that Wollstonecraft intentionally avoids granting women any sexual desire. Cora Kaplan argues that the "negative and prescriptive assault on female sexuality" is a "leitmotif" of the Rights of Woman. For example, Wollstonecraft advises her readers to "calmly let passion subside into friendship" in the ideal companionate marriage (that is, in the ideal of a love-based marriage that was developing at the time). It would be better, she writes, when "two virtuous young people marry . . . if some circumstances checked their passion". According to Wollstonecraft, "love and friendship cannot subsist in the same bosom". As Mary Poovey explains, "Wollstonecraft betrays her fear that female desire might in fact court man's lascivious and degrading attentions, that the subordinate position women have been given might even be deserved. Until women can transcend their fleshly desires and fleshly forms, they will be hostage to the body." If women are not interested in sexuality, they cannot be dominated by men. Wollstonecraft worries that women are consumed with "romantic wavering", that is, they are interested only in satisfying their lusts. Because the Rights of Woman eliminates sexuality from a woman's life, Kaplan contends, it "expresses a violent antagonism to the sexual" while at the same time "exaggerat[ing] the importance of the sensual in the everyday life of women". Wollstonecraft was so determined to wipe sexuality from her picture of the ideal woman that she ended up foregrounding it by insisting upon its absence. But as Kaplan and others have remarked, Wollstonecraft may have been forced to make this sacrifice: "it is important to remember that the notion of woman as politically enabled and independent [was] fatally linked [during the eighteenth century] to the unrestrained and vicious exercise of her sexuality."
Claudia Johnson, a prominent Wollstonecraft scholar, has called the Rights of Woman "a republican manifesto". Johnson contends that Wollstonecraft is hearkening back to the Commonwealth tradition of the 17th century and attempting to reestablish a republican ethos. In Wollstonecraft's version, there would be strong, but separate, masculine and feminine roles for citizens. According to Johnson, Wollstonecraft "denounces the collapse of proper sexual distinction as the leading feature of her age, and as the grievous consequence of sentimentality itself. The problem undermining society in her view is feminized men". If men feel free to adopt both the masculine position and the sentimental feminine position, she argues, women have no position open to them in society. Johnson therefore sees Wollstonecraft as a critic, in both the Rights of Men and the Rights of Woman, of the "masculinization of sensitivity" in such works as Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.
In the Rights of Woman Wollstonecraft adheres to a version of republicanism that includes a belief in the eventual overthrow of all titles, including the monarchy. She also briefly suggests that all men and women should be represented in government. But the bulk of her "political criticism," as Chris Jones, a Wollstonecraft scholar, explains, "is couched predominantly in terms of morality". Her definition of virtue focuses on the individual's happiness rather than, for example, the good of the entire society. This is reflected in her explanation of natural rights. Because rights ultimately proceed from God, Wollstonecraft maintains that there are duties, tied to those rights, incumbent upon each and every person. For Wollstonecraft, the individual is taught republicanism and benevolence within the family; domestic relations and familial ties are crucial to her understanding of social cohesion and patriotism.
In many ways the Rights of Woman is inflected by a bourgeois view of the world, as is its direct predecessor the Rights of Men. Wollstonecraft addresses her text to the middle class, which she calls the "most natural state". She also frequently praises modesty and industry, virtues which, at the time, were associated with the middle class. From her position as a middle-class writer arguing for a middle-class ethos, Wollstonecraft also attacks the wealthy, criticising them using the same arguments she employs against women. She points out the "false-refinement, immorality, and vanity" of the rich, calling them "weak, artificial beings, raised above the common wants and affections of their race, in a premature unnatural manner [who] undermine the very foundation of virtue, and spread corruption through the whole mass of society".
But Wollstonecraft's criticisms of the wealthy do not necessarily reflect a concomitant sympathy for the poor. For her, the poor are fortunate because they will never be trapped by the snares of wealth: "Happy is it when people have the cares of life to struggle with; for these struggles prevent their becoming a prey to enervating vices, merely from idleness!" Moreover, she contends that charity has only negative consequences because, as Jones puts it, she "sees it as sustaining an unequal society while giving the appearance of virtue to the rich".
In her national plan for education, she retains class distinctions (with an exception for the intelligent), suggesting that: "After the age of nine, girls and boys, intended for domestic employments, or mechanical trades, ought to be removed to other schools, and receive instruction, in some measure appropriated to the destination of each individual . . . The young people of superior abilities, or fortune, might now be taught, in another school, the dead and living languages, the elements of science, and continue the study of history and politics, on a more extensive scale, which would not exclude polite literature."