“A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”

After reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing, my initial thought was that it was clearly an Enlightenment argument. She relied heavily on reason and rationality, presenting a logical argument and multiple examples to support equality for the sexes. The language was, mostly, succinct and she even stated that she sought to avoid “flowery diction” and instead persuade by the “force of my arguments” (292). This emphasis on rationality, logic, and critical reflection suggests that Wollstonecraft’s argument was a product of the Enlightenment. She also emphasizes the importance of education for young women, an important idea in the Enlightenment, and expresses religious doubt characteristic to the Enlightenment as she criticizes the use of the Bible to define the role and value of women. However, as I reviewed the reading again, I also began to see the argument as a product of Romanticism.  In the same passage as my above examples, she writes, “Should I express my conviction with the energetic emotions that I feel whenever I think of the subject, the dictates of experience and reflection will be felt by some of my readers.” She goes on to say, “I shall not waste my time…in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart” (292). She values emotion and experience, as the Romantics did, and uses raw feeling to guide her. Wollstonecraft frequently refers to the human soul, a subject of interest to Romantics, as well. This Romantic interpretation is also supported by Wollstonecraft’s critique of the “rationality” that men use to subjugate women and she refers to their rationality often in a sarcastic way to point out contradictions, as in the second paragraph of page 293. In this way she avoids becoming dependent on the reason of the Enlightenment and highlights its flaws or limitations, looking to other ways of knowing and understanding, such as experience and emotion. Based on these observations, Wollstonecraft seems to be heavily influenced by both periods, although the alignment with the Enlightenment may be slightly stronger.


3 thoughts on ““A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”

  1. I really appreciated how you noticed the Romantic themes in the piece in addition to the Enlightenment themes. When I read it through, I saw it clearly as an Enlightenment piece. However, I started to notice the finer details where Wollstonecraft clearly has placed a value on using her feelings to guide her. She consistently mocks men for relying on this “reason” that has led them to believe that women have a soft, delicate place in society below that of men. In fact, she takes it a step further and mocks men when she says “I presume that rational men will excuse me for endeavoring to persuade them to become more masculine and respectable.” (293) I think it is in moments like this that Wollstonecraft is able to evoke some emotion by mocking the reason on man.

    • Oh, hello, there. It would seem that you have composed a reply to this post while I was writing my own. I hope you don’t mind if I respond briefly to yours, as well. *smiles*

      Your quotation is much appreciated, as it shows parallels with her previous apology to women for the way she “neglects” to treat them.

      That said, I would argue that her point regarding the mockery of the reason men use to justify women being subjugated (in the particular argument you are referencing) is in fact flawed, and fails to be something which could be properly called “reasonable” if it were inspected in the light of various other factors such as the fact that women being kept in that lower societal position directly effects the intellect, skills, and persona of them as they live and develop. Thus, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, and seems logical for its results, disregarding potential through a falsely diagnosed nature.

      The conclusion derived from that accusation of falsehood on the part of their logic is that if women were allowed a better education, and not confined by a rigid social structure as they then were, analysis of whether or not women or men have an advantage when it comes to rational thought might very well turn out differently. The same argument has been evoked when dealing with the question of (semi-modern) slavery: Since the peoples of Africa were treated as animals while they were in captivity, and they were often prevented from showing or gaining qualities or skills which are emblematic of civilized man (such as the capacity to read, for example), the suggestion that the African population were animals or closer to animals than those of Europe would seem to be a logical one to minds of many in those days past; yet, in our current day, it is obvious to anyone who contemplates the issue without letting prejudice overpower their reason that those of African descent are just as human as those whose ancestors hailed from any given part of the world.

      (Excuse me if I am a bit too verbose or my wording seems redundant: It is 2:26 AM as I am typing this.)


  2. I would strongly agree with your assertion that Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Women” has a stronger root in the Enlightenment than in Romance. Further, I would go as far to assert that her chain of arguments and rhetorical questions such as, “Who made man the exclusive judge, if woman partake with him the gift of reason?” and “But, if women are to be excluded… prove first, to ward off charges of injustice and inconsistency, that they want reason- else this flaw in your NEW CONSTITUTION [sic.] will ever shew that man must, in some shape, act like a tyrant, and tyranny… will ever undermine morality,” hearken back to the style of argument to be found in Greek Philosophy, which of course also greatly emphasized reason and its importance to humanity. (289)

    That said, I would quibble with you in one regard: Whilst it might rightly be argued that some of the drive Wollstonecraft felt to bring about improvement of the conditions women faced as they went about their lives in the world came from emotion and the movement of her heart, this passion should not be suggested to lie at the core of her book, nor anywhere close to it. It should in fact be argued that this particular Work was penned for the sake specifically of rejecting Romance, and in particular, the primacy of it on the hearts of women. You see, there was often in that day and age a stigma that rested in a man’s mind toward the intellectual capacity of a woman- and of women in general. They were viewed as creatures of emotion, perhaps incapable of higher thought, as is sarcastically commented on through her “apology”, here: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their [i]fascinating[/i] graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (292).

    To the end of showing she eschews the perceptions of men in that particular era’s culture, I believe, she wrote that which you have quoted from. It is, perhaps, more effective to show quotation from further along to express my point, rather than simply stating it as such, and so I offer you this: “I aim at being useful, and sincerity will render me unaffected; for, wishing rather to persuade by force of my arguments, than dazzle by the elegance of my language, I shall not waste my time by rounding periods, or in fabricating the turgid bombast of artificial feelings, which, coming from the head, never reach the heart… and, anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society, I shall try to avoid that flowery diction which has slided from essays into novels, and from novels into familiar letters and conversations.” (292) This is all to show that, though she may- as previously suggested through her statements that she does in fact feel somewhat emotional when contemplating issues of gender in-/equality -she specifically chooses to not let it seep into the fabric of her writings. If, instead of simply allowing those emotions to act as a subtle, driving force that might focus her toward aiding those ideals’ fruition, she gave herself over to them and let them act as an unbridled passion, she feared that it would corrupt her writing, opposing the cause which she wished to support through its antithesis to the very arguments she wishes to make (or so I interpret her words, some 220+ years later).

    With this in mind, and the fact that- having read through many chapters more of the “Vindication of the Rights of Women” than are required/suggested in this course -I know she spends much time and effort in developing the logic and consistency of her arguments throughout its pages, I cannot consider Wollstonecraft’s major proto-Feminist Opus to be in any positive way derived from the Romantic movement. Instead, as I believe it is a strong rejection of it, it would seem to me that the brief references to her emotional state were meant to highlight the perceptions of her world, and perhaps to humanize her or explain her goals. I ask that you please not consider this a scathing criticism of your opinion, but rather, my attempt to make my own known, and to have a sort of intellectual debate with you over the philosophy we now contemplate.

    Thank you, and may your reaction to my future post be able to show me whatever shortcomings my logic contains in the analysis of our future material, should you grace me with such words.


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