“A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” Mary Wollstonecraft

“A Vindication of the Rights of Women”

 

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792), written by the 18th-century British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, is one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. In it, Wollstonecraft responds to those educational and political theorists of the 18th century who did not believe women should have an education. She argues that women ought to have an education commensurate with their position in society, claiming that women are essential to the nation because they educate its children and because they could be “companions” to their husbands, rather than mere wives. Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.

Wollstonecraft was prompted to write the Rights of Woman after reading Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s 1791 report to the French National Assembly, which stated that women should only receive a domestic education; she used her commentary on this specific event to launch a broad attack against sexual double standards and to indict men for encouraging women to indulge in excessive emotion. Wollstonecraft wrote the Rights of Woman hurriedly in order to respond directly to ongoing events; she intended to write a more thoughtful second volume but died before completing it.

While Wollstonecraft does call for equality between the sexes in particular areas of life, such as morality, she does not explicitly state that men and women are equal. Her ambiguous statements regarding the equality of the sexes have since made it difficult to classify Wollstonecraft as a modern feminist, particularly since the word and the concept were unavailable to her. Although it is commonly assumed now that the Rights of Woman was unfavourably received, this is a modern misconception based on the belief that Wollstonecraft was as reviled during her lifetime as she became after the publication of William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798). The Rights of Woman was actually well received when it was first published in 1792. One biographer has called it “perhaps the most original book of [Wollstonecraft’s] century”.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written against the tumultuous background of the French Revolution and the debates that it spawned in Britain. In a lively and sometimes vicious pamphlet war, now referred to as the Revolution Controversy, British political commentators addressed topics ranging from representative government to human rights to the separation of church and state, many of these issues having been raised in France first. Wollstonecraft first entered this fray in 1790 with A Vindication of the Rights of Men, a response to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). In his Reflections, Burke criticized the view of many British thinkers and writers who had welcomed the early stages of the French revolution. While they saw the revolution as analogous to Britain’s own Glorious Revolution in 1688, which had restricted the powers of the monarchy, Burke argued that the appropriate historical analogy was the English Civil War (1642–1651) in which Charles I had been executed in 1649. He viewed the French revolution as the violent overthrow of a legitimate government. In Reflections he argues that citizens do not have the right to revolt against their government because civilization is the result of social and political consensus; its traditions cannot be continually challenged—the result would be anarchy. One of the key arguments of Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Men, published just six weeks after Burke’s Reflections, is that rights cannot be based on tradition; rights, she argues, should be conferred because they are reasonable and just, regardless of their basis in tradition.

When Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord presented his Rapport sur l’instruction publique (1791) to the National Assembly in France, Wollstonecraft was galvanized to respond. In his recommendations for a national system of education, Talleyrand had written: Let us bring up women, not to aspire to advantages which the Constitution denies them, but to know and appreciate those which it guarantees them . . . Men are destined to live on the stage of the world. A public education suits them: it early places before their eyes all the scenes of life: only the proportions are different. The paternal home is better for the education of women; they have less need to learn to deal with the interests of others, than to accustom themselves to a calm and secluded life.

Olympe de Gouges

Wollstonecraft dedicated the Rights of Woman to Talleyrand: “Having read with great pleasure a pamphlet which you have lately published, I dedicate this volume to you; to induce you to reconsider the subject, and maturely weigh what I have advanced respecting the rights of woman and national education.”

At the end of 1791, French feminist Olympe de Gouges had published her Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, and the question of women’s rights became central to political debates in both France and Britain.

The Rights of Woman is an extension of Wollstonecraft’s arguments in the Rights of Men. In the Rights of Men, as the title suggests, she is concerned with the rights of particular men (18th-century British men) while in the Rights of Woman, she is concerned with the rights afforded to “woman”, an abstract category. She does not isolate her argument to 18th-century women or British women. The first chapter of the Rights of Woman addresses the issue of natural rights and asks who has those inalienable rights and on what grounds. She answers that since natural rights are given by God, for one segment of society to deny them to another segment is a sin. The Rights of Woman thus engages not only specific events in France and in Britain but also larger questions being raised by contemporary political philosophers such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

About this title:
Wollstonecraft first defended the rights of men in response to Burke’s pamphlet on the French Revolution, then turned to the rights of woman a couple of years later. It is one of the foundation texts of modern feminist thought.

Contents:

Introduction
Chapter 1: The Rights And Involved Duties Of Mankind Considered.
Chapter 2. The Prevailing Opinion Of A Sexual Character Discussed.
Chapter 3. The Same Subject Continued.
Chapter 4. Observations On The State Of Degradation To Which Woman Is Reduced By Various Causes.
Chapter 5. Animadversions On Some Of The Writers Who Have Rendered Women Objects Of Pity, Bordering On Contempt.
Chapter 6. The Effect Which An Early Association Of Ideas Has Upon The Character.
Chapter 7. Modesty Comprehensively Considered And Not As A Sexual Virtue.
Chapter 8. Morality Undermined By Sexual Notions Of The Importance Of A Good Reputation.
Chapter 9. Of The Pernicious Effects Which Arise From The Unnatural Distinctions Established In Society.
Chapter 10. Parental Affection.
Chapter 11. Duty To Parents.
Chapter 12. National Education.
Chapter 13. Some Instances Of The Folly Which The Ignorance Of Women Generates; With Concluding Reflections On The Moral Improvement That A Revolution In Female Manners Might Naturally Be Expected To Produce.

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