Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” was revolutionary in that it worked to change the ways in which her society valued women. Essentially, Wollstonecraft argued that women’s value extended far beyond being mere vessels for human reproduction—instead, women had the capacity to contribute to society through the value of their labor in the workforce and their instruction in the home. Wollstonecraft doubted whether women who have abandoned their own autonomy of body and mind to their husbands could ever have “sufficient character to manage a family or educate children” (302). Without proper instruction necessitated by a better status for women, children would grow up stunted, and the society they would inherit would be likewise stunted. In addition to rearing children, women had the capacity “to be able to pursue with vigor… various employments” (301), working inside and outside the home just as men could.
Yet Wollstonecraft’s argument begged the question: If women had such potential, why did they have such a low position in society? Wollstonecraft’s answer to this question is likewise revolutionary: Wollstonecraft charged that women’s lowly position was not a natural result of the female gender’s inherent mental and emotional weakness, but a societal construct—by refusing women the opportunities to sufficient education, society had refused to tap into their potential to contribute. This is seen in the very first paragraph of the introduction, in which Wollstonecraft argues that “the civilization which has hitherto taken place in the world has been very partial” (290). Here, she speaks nothing of the different gifts nature might have bestowed on men and women. Instead, it is our constructed society that has been so partial—and partial so overwhelmingly in favor of men. More to the point, she claims that “the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of the misery I deplore” (209), and not a natural state of femininity.
Not only does Wollstonecraft argue for the equality of men and women in Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she also revolutionarily claims that the relationship between the sexes is interdependent. Wollstonecraft argues that concept of equality reaches further than politically giving women a “voice” (pg. 289), but that withholding education from women “will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue” (pg. 288). The concept of their being a societal impact of leaving women uneducated is revolutionary. The bases of sexism relies on the fact that men our superior, thus giving women the power to render education powerless because of their lack of it is ground breaking. She furthers this concept of interdependence when she relates women to “convenient slaves”, but that this slavery will “degrade the master”. Using the concept of slavery implies that man uses women for some type of gain, that they are a needed commodity. This metaphor expands when she says this toxic relationship will “degrade the master”, saying that leaving women as commodities will ultimately destroy the “master”. This interesting comparison leaves the “slaves” with the ultimate power in the relationship instead of the “master”. Furthering this Wollstonecraft engages the argument that “faithless husbands will make faithless wives” (pg. 289). This places man and woman on equal ground, even in sin. Women were places on a pedestal of purity, thus matching sin for sin destroys this pedestal and actually elevates woman to the level of man by showing their connection within morality. Showing that both impact each other, that actions equate to equal actions showcases that men and women have equal interdependent power.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s argument about the “Vindication of the Rights of Women” utilizes many different methods of persuasion; the most revolutionary of her points is her understanding of gender norms as learned behaviors utilized to keep women as the inferior party. Her audience is the middle class, or “ladies,” because she believes that the middle class is more separated or uncorrupted by the bourgeoisie enforced gender norms (292). Wollstonecraft’s argument is largely sociological, drawing in the different ways in which women are treated as second class. She argues that this not because it is simply a “law of nature” or because of religious doctrines on superiority i.e. Eve being created from one of Adam’s ribs. Extensively, Wollstonecraft debunks as an unattractive picture of mankind creating his “companion” for his own selfish pleasure, but rather by relying on how much of the differences used to distinguish men from women stems from learned behaviors (291, 300).
Wollstonecraft brings up the important example of marriage dynamics and the role of mistresses and harlots in the gender structure. First off, women are understood as separate from men, and furthermore different than “human creatures.” She states that “from the books written on this subject by men,” that being the marriage and gender norms for men and women, men make women “alluring mistresses” rather than “affectionate wives and rational mothers” (291). Wollstonecraft deduces from this that this leads women to only aspire to be the one thing they have been told to be: wives and mothers. Even more compelling, she next describes how the entirety of a woman’s identity is placed on her marriage and children, but the father of the family is never held up as a father in the same regard. There is no same “duty” for a father, as their reputation is not debased by their “visiting a harlot” for simply “obeying the call of appetite.” Perhaps one of her most convincing arguments is that women cannot be blamed for accepting their position in society, this is the fault of male suppressors (294). Wollstonecraft states that contrary to the idea of men as superior beings, it is rather “unphilosophical” to always “keep women in a state of childhood” (296). Moreover, men in positions where they are taught to appease act in similar ways, proving that men and women aren’t so different. Extensively, “officers are also particularly attentive to their persons” and dabble in frivolous things such as “dancing, crowded rooms, and adventures” and, of course, “ridicule.” These are characteristics looked down upon by society, but they are simultaneously held but men in this profession as well as women are taught of feminine values (298).
I think that Wollstonecraft’s discussion of obedience is revolutionary. Women weren’t seen to have valuable opinions or ideas throughout the 1790’s. To have someone challenge this idea of obedience and being complacent with the way things are for women, is revolutionary in itself. At the time at which this book was published(1792), women weren’t seen to have valuable opinions and were looked to be obedient and live their lives as companions to their partners. In the first paragraph of here work, she sums up a woman’s duties in one sentence. ‘Obedience’ was expected behavior, sanctioned by religion, law and custom; a rebellious daughter…could be disowned…” This idea of an obedient wife, one who will not contest with one’s spouse is not a new one. However, Wollstonecraft does elaborate, using another writer as a backbone for her argument. Catharine Macaulay is a prime example of how pivotal it was for women to speak out. Macaulay, who was born to a wealthy family, and left pretty comfortable after the passing of her husband, says that she was attacked viciously and “…..her politics produced enemies and vicious misogynist attacks on her private life….” The most revolutionary part of Wollstonecraft’s argument here is the fact that she is tearing down a barrier that has written off women as simply obedient companions. Women had be subjected to such unfair treatment, so this work seems like a victory for all and one that many people(especially during this time period) can empathize with.
Written during a period of revolution and uncertainty in Europe, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft argues for drastic change in British society to end the suppression of women. The most revolutionary component of Wollstonecraft’s writing was her objection to the sentiment that people should follow the orders of others without thought. She argues that “every profession, in which great subordination of rank constitutes its power, is highly injurious to morality” (Wollstonecraft 294). Correlating to the previous argument, she creates the example, along with others, that “a standing army … is incompatible with freedom; because subordination and rigour are the very sinews of military discipline” (Wollstonecraft 294). In the conclusion of her argument, she states “that the character of every man is … formed by his profession” (Wollstonecraft 295). Additionally, because of this “society … should be very careful not to establish bodies of men who must necessarily be made foolish or vicious by the very constitution of their profession” (Wollstonecraft 295). Through being molded by their profession to take orders without thought, men of those types of professions would never question why their society was oriented in its state; in a state that suppresses women and many others. A non-violent revolution for women’s rights could not succeed with the majority of the populous accepting society for how it was and viewing change as a danger to their way of life; with them never wondering if or how: society could change to become more inclusive for women, and what benefits may come of such a shift. If people refuse to change their worldview, no significant changes can be made in any society.
The sentiment of following orders was more detrimental to women during Wollstonecraft’s time than it was to men. Referencing her previously mentioned example regarding the military: “Like the fair sex. The business of [officers’] lives is gallantry.—They were taught to please, and only live to please. Yet … they are still reckoned superior to women” (Wollstonecraft 298). Wollstonecraft views the actions of military personal and women in English society as similar in that both are meant to satisfy their superiors; however, she opines men are not seen as lesser for following orders while women are. Wollstonecraft’s piece is revolutionary in that it urges people to consider why their society is in its current state, and to understand there is no fundamental difference between men and women that would prevent women from making a significant contribution to English society.
What is a significant way that Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the Rights of Woman is revolutionary?
I think one of the ways that Wollstonecraft’s vindication of the Rights of woman is significant is how she advocates for a reform of women’s education. Wollstonecraft claims that women’s education has prepared women to be dutiful, docile wives and mothers, and that while men’s education prepares men for life in the real world, women’s education only prepares them for what men think women should aspire to be. Wollstonecraft states, “I attribute these problems to a false system of education….who considering females rather as women than human creatures have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers.” What I interpreted this quote to mean is that men’s skills determine their value, and in turn earn them respect. Whereas qualities such as beauty and love determine a women’s value, and those qualities is what earns her respect, because a woman is not viewed as an equal ”human creature”, but as an object of man’s affection. Wollstonecraft is saying that women’s virtue should also be determined by their skills and nobility instead of trivial qualities like beauty and love.
Wollstonecraft also states that “for the sake of woman’s dignity she should be allowed to earn a living and support herself.” This is a refute of society’s view of women during this time, which was that the sole purpose of the creation of women was to fall in love with a man, and that the man’s assumed job is to take of the woman. While this may seem like a golden system, in reality this isn’t as great a system as it seems, because it puts unnecessary pressure and expectations on men by creating a toxic masculinity of men, and women should be able to have their own identities and be able to support themselves, that should be a women’s right. This view of women is also revolutionary because during this time men were the only gender that were seen as worthy to have a job, by asserting that women had the right as well to make their own living and support themselves is placing women on the same accord as men which was revolutionary during the 19th century.
Wollstonecraft in “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” confronts the omnipresent notions of her time that suggest female inferiority to men, especially in contexts of morality, and that women actually lack the capacity to gain their own moral standing in comparison to men who naturally possess virtue. She understands that these beliefs are a result of the physical differences between the two sexes, stating that male physical superiority is “the law of nature,” but argues that any other established beliefs of female inferiority are a result of lesser education for women during this time. Though there are many revolutionary aspects of her argument, one which is most significant is her demand for education that promotes an unexplored, individualistic way of thinking for women.
Presenting the idea that women retain shallow thoughts and desires because they have not been given the chance to express anything else, she states that women, “are not allowed to have sufficient strength of mind to acquire [virtue].” She encourages women (and men) to reconstruct the beliefs regarding their place in society, asserting that with equal education, are capable of equal reasoning and virtue. Her argument is desperate in its plea for the changing of these notions, and seemingly looks to warn her female readers of the reality in their supposed inferiority. She expresses, “those beings who are only the objects of pity… will soon become objects of contempt.” It is the responsibility of each gender to change this mindset, with men creating these ideas but both genders perpetuating them.