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Mary Wollstonecraft - What Rights?

Arguments of Mary Wollstonecraft in "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman"

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Mary Wollstonecraft - painting by John Odie

Mary Wollstonecraft - painting by John Odie, about 1797

Wikimedia Commons

In her 1791-92 A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, now considered a classic of feminist history, Mary Wollstonecraft argued primarily for the rights of woman to be educated. Through education would come emancipation.

In defending this right, Mary Wollstonecraft accepts the definition of her time that women's sphere is the home, but she does not isolate the home from public life as many others did and as many still do. For Mary Wollstonecraft, the public life and domestic life are not separate, but connected. The home is important to Wollstonecraft because it forms a foundation for the social life, the public life. The state, the public life, enhances and serves both individuals and the family. Men have duties in the family, too, and women have duties to the state.

Mary Wollstonecraft also argues for the right of woman to be educated, because she is primarily responsible for the education of the young. Before 1789 and her Vindication of the Rights of Man, she was known primarily as a writer about education of children, and she still accepts this role as a primary role for woman as distinct from man.

Mary Wollstonecraft goes on to argue that educating women will strengthen the marriage relationship. Her concept of marriage underlies this argument. A stable marriage, she believes, is a partnership between a husband and a wife -- a marriage is a social contract between two individuals. A woman thus needs to have equal knowledge and sense, to maintain the partnership. A stable marriage also provides for the proper education of children.

Mary Wollstonecraft also acknowledges that women are sexual beings -- but so are men. Thus female chastity and fidelity, necessary for a stable marriage, require male chastity and fidelity too. Men are required, as much as women, to put duty over sexual pleasure. (Perhaps her experience with Gilbert Imlay, father of her elder daughter, made this point more clear to her, as he was not able to live up to this standard.) Control over family size, for instance, serves the individuals in the family, strengthens the family, and thus serves the public interest through raising better citizens.

But putting duty above pleasure did not mean that feelings are not important. The goal, for Wollstonecraft's ethics, is to bring feeling and thought into harmony. The harmony of feeling and thought she calls reason. Reason was of primary importance to the Enlightenment philosophers, a company to which Mary Wollstonecraft belongs. But her celebration of nature, of feelings, of "sympathy," also make her a bridge to the Romantic philosophy and literary movements which follow. (Her younger daughter much later married one of the best-known Romantic poets, Percy Shelley.)

Mary Wollstonecraft sees women's absorption in such purely sensing and feeling activities as fashion and beauty denigrates their reason, makes them less able to maintain their part in the marriage partnership and reduces their effectiveness as educators of children -- and thus makes them less dutiful as citizens.

In bringing together feeling and thought, rather than separating them and dividing one for woman and one for man, Mary Wollstonecraft was also providing a critique of Rousseau, another defender of personal rights but one who did not believe that such individual liberty was for women. Woman, for Rousseau, was incapable of reason, and only man could be trusted to exercise thought and reason. Thus, for Rousseau, women could not be citizens, only men could.

But Mary Wollstonecraft, in her Vindication, makes clear her position: only when woman and man are equally free, and woman and man are equally dutiful in exercise of their responsibilities to family and state, can there be true freedom. The essential reform necessary for such equality, Mary Wollstonecraft is convinced, is equal and quality education for woman -- an education which recognizes her duty to educate her own children, to be an equal partner with her husband in the family, and which recognizes that woman, like man, is a creature of both thought and feeling: a creature of reason.

Today, it may be naïve to imagine that simply equalizing educational opportunity will ensure true equality for women. But the century after Wollstonecraft was a progression of newly opened doors for women's education, and that education significantly changed the lives and opportunities for women in all aspects of their lives. Without equal and quality education for women, women would be doomed to Rousseau's vision of a separate and always inferior sphere.

Reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman today, most readers are struck with how relevant some parts are, yet how archaic are others. This reflects the enormous changes in the value society places on women's reason today, as contrasted to the late 18th century; but it also reflects the many ways in which issues of equality of rights and duties are still with us today.

Continued: About Mary Wollstonecraft

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