Classics : A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Philosophy Now|December 2021 / January 2022
“Moralists have unanimously agreed, that unless virtue be nursed by liberty, it will never attain due strength and what they say of man I extend to mankind, insisting, that in all cases morals must be fixed on immutable principles; and that the being cannot be termed rational or virtuous, who obeys any authority but that of reason.” – Mary Wollstonecraft
SARA BIZARRO

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759-1797) IS perhaps best known for having written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, published in 1792. In this book Wollstonecraft delivers a pioneering and convincing argument for equality between men and women. The Vindication is typically classified as a feminist classic; however, her theories can be applied well beyond the issue of women in the eighteenth century. But, although she was possibly one of the most original thinkers of the Enlightenment, she is rarely taught in ‘Introduction to Philosophy’ or ‘History of Philosophy’ classes. In what follows, I will quickly sketch the main ideas and arguments in the book, in the hope that this will encourage you to learn more about the genius of Mary Wollstonecraft.

Education & Gender Construction

In Wollstonecraft’s time and society women were considered ‘by nature’ not able to think or reason as well as men, while at the same time they were mostly barred the opportunity of getting an education. Wollstonecraft starts her book by pointing out the questionbegging nature of this position. How can anyone say that women lack intellectual capacity if they are not given any opportunity to develop it? To anyone who really believes that women are intellectually inferior, she proposes this challenge: educate women, then see if they indeed have inferior capacity for any subject.

What possible reason could society have to not try this out? Were its leaders afraid that women were not in fact inferior? Indeed, the entire book is an extremely convincing appeal to educate women, and I think her arguments on this topic are flawless.

In general, Wollstonecraft argues that people are not ‘by nature’ one way or the other – rather, that women were ‘socialized’ to be a certain way because of their station in society. In this she is an early thinker in the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate. She falls without a doubt on the side of ‘nurture’. Women behave in specific ways because they’re raised to behave in those ways, not because there is some sort of ‘feminine nature’ that gives women certain ‘weak’ characteristics. They were encouraged to keep their constitutions feeble, for instance, by being barred from exercise as children. They were valued when obedient and unassuming, so reinforcing those characteristics, and their acquiescence was valued firstly because it was in the interest of their fathers – their ‘male owners’ in all but name. She concludes that it would be folly to assume that these traits are natural when women are so obviously raised to behave in this way.

Subjugation Perverts Both Sides

Wollstonecraft also argues that without freedom there is no possibility of virtue. Although this position is not developed in one single section of the book, it appears here and there from beginning to end.

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