A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

While reading “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman” I kept going back and forth over whether it was primarily an Enlightenment or Romantic argument. Even now I could not say for sure whether it was one or the other but believe that there are elements of both. Throughout the introduction and first two chapters Wollstonecraft uses the argument of reason which is primarily an Enlightenment idea. She refers several times to woman’s lack of education and the view that they are animals instead of rational human beings. She says, “the neglected education of my fellow-creatures is the grand source of misery I deplore; and that women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched,” (290) conveying that she believes education to be a source of power and if women had it they would be seen with more equality. They would “cherish a nobler ambition, and by their abilities and virtues exact respect” (291). Wollstonecraft also points out how men don’t see women as “human creatures” but view them as “in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (292). Furthermore Wollstonecraft ends her introduction saying that, “intellect will always govern,” which once again is an Enlightenment idea.  In contrast to reason she often brings up the concept of morals and love and also uses flowery language even though she claimed she wouldn’t. For example she says, “to gratify the senses of man when he can no longer soar on the wing of contemplation” (296). She appeals to nature and love in chapter 2, “the course of nature.-Friendship or indifference inevitable succeeds love,”(300). Wollstonecraft uses manly arguments like this which tend to be of Romantic sentimentality.  Also the opening line of the introduction Wollstonecraft wonders whether the inequality seen in her time comes from nature or civilization which I think foreshadows the use of both in her arguments. Therefore I can only conclude that Enlightenment and Romantic arguments are used equally.

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2 thoughts on “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

  1. I do agree that “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” uses ideals from both Enlightenment and Romantic periods. The argument of reason, an enlightenment thought, is clear throughout. I found it interesting how careful she was to separate the two genders along with the enlightenment and romantic tones. She obviously blames education as the divide between man and women, as you have quoted from the introduction, but furthermore seems to reveal that education, or lack there of, divides enlightenment from romanticism. She separates her own kind into the upper class “Ladies” and the middle class when she says “I pay particular attention to those in the middle class, because they appear to be in the most natural state.” (page 291-292) It is first and foremost education that divides these groups and because of the lack of education the middle class women are stuck in the past. She preaches that women must pull themselves up with no fear of banishment for being improper. “Elegance is inferior to virtue,” she says,”That the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex”(page 292). Do not weakly put your thoughts into the busy society where the “masculine” man may knock it down but furthermore do not think it necessary to be strong. “Artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize, and gives birth to cunning, the natural opponent of strength.” (page 293) She understands that men create unrealistic decorums to subdue their enemies therefore women must be simple. “They,” meaning men, “dwell on effects, and modifications, without tracing them back to causes; and complicated rules to adjust behavior are a weak substitute for simple principles.” (page 297) This divide of men and women along with educated and uneducated shows that this is both enlightenment and romantic.

  2. Good discussion from both of you. I would add that it’s not a disparity between education and lack of education, but the *kind* of education she’s talking about. Women of means were brought up to have personal, ornamental accomplishments, rather than intellectual and moral ones like the men. She’s saying that this very disparity is what leads to a broader diminishing of *both* sexes.

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