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This lesson covers Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous feminist treatise ”A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” We’ll discuss the essay’s historical context and major themes, its influence on female writers and feminism, and finish the lesson with a quick quiz.

‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women:’ Summary

A Vindication of the Rights of Women is a book-length feminist essay by British writer Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Women called for female equality, particularly in the area of education. Wollstonecraft dismissed the cultivation of traditional female virtues of submission and service and argued that women could not be good mothers, good wives and good household managers if they were not well-educated.

She claimed that women were expected to spend too much time on maintaining their delicate appearance and gentle demeanor, sacrificing intelligence for beauty and becoming flower-like playthings for men.The book is divided into thirteen chapters, in which Wollstonecraft addressed topics such as the importance of educating women equally, treating women with dignity and providing women with the proper training to be good wives and mothers and intelligent companions for their husbands:Women spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty. .

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. Can they govern a family with judgment, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?How, Wollstonecraft argued, could women teach and raise children and run a household if they focused only on their own appearance and on minor accomplishments like speaking French prettily, playing the piano and drawing? Such accomplishments made a woman desirable to a man as an amusement, but not as an equal companion.Wollstonecraft recognized that for many women of her time, raising a family would be their primary responsibility, but she insisted that a husband and wife whose relationship was founded on reason and equality would parent happier and more well-rounded children than in families governed by strict discipline and inequality between parents.

To that end, she proposed a system of national education in which boys and girls would be educated together, and education would be open to all classes. Though written during the period of Romanticism, a movement known for celebrating sensibility/feeling over sense/rational thinking, Wollstonecraft warned against false sensibility, a tendency of women to become too overtaken by emotional sensitivity.

Analysis: The Essay in Context

The French Revolution greatly inspired Wollstonecraft’s writing on female equality. Following the revolution, France proposed to replace church-controlled education with a system of free education – the basis for Wollstonecraft’s call for a gender-equal national education system in England. Yet Wollstonecraft noted that despite the democratic ideals of French revolutionaries, they made no mention of education for girls. In an effort to bring this to France’s attention, as well as to encourage the English not to make the same mistake, she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women.The book’s initial reviews in magazines like The General Magazine, The Literary Magazine and New York Magazine were positive, and it was published in America as well as translated into French.

However, there was also negative backlash associated with the work, especially after Wollstonecraft’s death in 1797. Her husband, William Godwin, published a memoir of her life in 1798, in which he revealed previously unknown facts about her, including her love affairs, her illegitimate child and her attempts at suicide. Though holding many of the same beliefs, female writers, like novelist Maria Edgeworth, hesitated to mention or reference her in their own work because her philosophies were becoming associated with her scandalous lifestyle. Nonetheless, A Vindication of the Rights of Women was, and remains, perhaps the foundational text of modern feminism.

Lesson Summary

A Vindication of the Rights of Women is a book by British writer Mary Wollstonecraft in which she argued that women should be treated with equal dignity and respect to men, especially regarding education. She argued that teaching women only to focus on minor accomplishments and making themselves pleasing to men was harmful and degrading, not only to themselves, but to society in general, because it harmed the health and well-being of the family. Women who could be the intellectual as well as romantic companions of their husbands, she insisted, had better marriages and set a better example for their children of the importance of basing a relationship on a balance of reason and emotion.Wollstonecraft’s views on the balance between reason and emotion were heavily influenced by Romanticism, particularly the emphasis on sensibility over sense, or feeling over reason. The events of the French Revolution also influenced Wollstonecraft’s feminist writing. The democratic mood of class equality in France seemed to overlook gender equality, inspiring Wollstonecraft to speak out for the equality of the sexes.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson aims to provide the facts you’ll need to:

  • Summarize the content of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women
  • Recognize Wollstonecraft’s views on Romanticism and womens’ tendency to sometimes be emotional
  • Acknowledge the impact Wollstonecraft’s essay had on feminism and the controversy associated with it after her death

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