Great Ideas Collection

In the fourth of our series exploring the books of Penguin’s Great Ideas Collection, Sophie Kingham reviews the groundbreaking ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ by the author, philosopher and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. 

Since the 18th century, particularly in Western society, the fight for women’s liberation has created a great change to many aspects of life – yet still there is inequality.

Recent news represents this: women are gang-raped in India, the U.S has only just lifted the ban on women in front-line battle, and the devastating story of Malala – a young, women’s rights and education activist, brutally shot in the head by the Taliban. Indeed, tales of female inequality remain rife, making Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as pertinent today as when first published in 1792.

Wollstonecraft’s essay was originally written in direct response to the educational and political theorists of the time who did not believe women should have the right to an education. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s 1791 report to the French National Assembly stated ‘women should only be given a domestic education’, and Wollstonecraft specifically used this to craft the basis of her essay, and her much wider discussion of women’s inequality and the sexual double standards of the day.

However, her writing sometimes runs the risk of becoming verbose (as with Arthur Schopenhauer’s), and is clumsily scattered with half-sentences, incomplete thoughts and unfinished arguments. Wollstonecraft also has a tendency to reference writers and thinkers without sufficient depth, “all writers who have written on the subject of female education and manners, from Rousseau to Dr Gregory, have contributed to render women more artificial, weak characters, than they would otherwise have been; and consequently, more useless members of society”. 

Without knowing the basics of these texts by the likes of Rousseau, it is harder to understand Wollstonecraft’s counter-argument, or even the argument she is specifically opposing.

These issues aside, Wollstonecraft successfully makes numerous good points about women, society, and their role within it. Stating from the start that women are thought of as “weak and wretched”, she points out, “In the government… it is observable the female in point of strength is, in general, inferior to the male… But not content with this natural pre-eminence, men endeavour to sink us still lower, merely to render us alluring objects for a moment.”

She wants women to rise above this designated social positioning,

“to persuade women to endeavour to acquire strength, both of mind and body… anxious to render my sex more respectable members of society.”

In effect, Wollstonecraft is not simply making a commentary on females and the unequal ills of their position within society, but is additionally trying to ‘affect a revolution’. She does not “wish them to have power over men; but over themselves”. The difference is crucial.

Indeed, she is aware men are – by nature – more powerful, and to try to compare the two genders is unproductive. She simply wants the female sex to be held in higher regard than they are, to be given the same education and the right to it as men. Indeed, education is the way to “make women rational creatures and free citizens”, benefiting their husbands, their children and, perhaps most importantly, themselves.

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