Message and Methodology: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Purpose in “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”

©2 July 2016 Mary Crockford

Mary Wollstonecraft espoused a “moral, regulated liberty” (Burke 12) for women as well as men in a time dominated by the view “that the female pollutes rational debate by allowing a heightened emotionality to get the better of good judgment” (Schulman 43). She did not, however, simply decry this prevailing view, but engaged in a strident “verbal rebellion” against the status quo (45) in her 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In Vindication, she called upon women “of the different ranks of society” (Wollstonecraft 103) to not only change their sources and thinking in regards to feminine character, but to seek to prove such beliefs wrong by maximizing their intellectual, moral and temperamental constitution through education. It was her assertion that only the adoption of more mature, refined thinking and behavior would elevate their esteem and choices among society through the “attainment of those talents and virtues” and “strength of body and mind” (103) that would render them truly fit to rise up and partake in “the government of the physical world” (104) alongside men in traditionally patriarchal society. Using a “web-like pattern” of interconnected themes or “strands,” Wollstonecraft used the language of relationship and religion to “symbiotically and in concert” advance a series of arguments for the cause of female liberty (Griffin 274), while holding captive an increasingly ubiquitous female and male audience in her call for the elevation of women in public and private life.

Through skillful employment of this multi-strand rhetorical method, as well as her growing “reputation as a radical” in the writing sphere (Griffin 274), Wollstonecraft chastised women of all social strata for helping to foster their own secondary status in society, calling first on “those in the middle class,” to eschew the “false-refinement, immorality, and vanity” which impugned their entire sex as “weak, artificial beings.” She addressed them much as a mother would coddled children living “only…to amuse themselves” and “in a state of perpetual childhood” before and after marriage (103). She further accused them of undermining their own interests and bolstering the view of men as superiorly and solely fit for leadership in public and private life. “Animated by this important subject,” Wollstonecraft with “energetic emotions” but also “force of…arguments” (104) challenged women to cast off the “sickly delicacy” and “false sentiments” of popular reading and entertainments, in favor of self-education and worthwhile pursuits regardless of matrimonial state:

The education of women has, of late, been more attended to than formerly;

yet they are still reckoned a frivolous sex, and ridiculed or pitied by the

writers who endeavour by satire or instruction to improve them. It is

acknowledged that they 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, to the desire of

establishing themselves—the only way women can rise in the world—by

marriage. (Wollstonecraft 104)

By connecting these “strands” of mental enlargement, the body, the marriage relationship, and the world, Wollstonecraft urged her female readers to forsake “much degraded…mistaken notions of female excellence” and “sensual reveries” acquired through romance novels and idle conversation, and awaken to the need to prepare for their rightful intellectual and dialogic position in “the constitution of civil society” (105).

Wollstonecraft did not spare male readers from the “simple unadorned truth” of their role in making of women “insignificant objects of desire” and fertile “propagators of fools” (104). She lamented “the tyranny of man” (104) which through toleration and encouragement of a “puerile kind of propriety” had lowered women to the level of “gentle domestic brutes,” “designed by sweet attractive grace, and docile blind obedience, to gratify the senses of man” (105). While she held women partly to blame for their own societal captivity, she indicts men much more fiercely as earthly tyrants who by virtue of their role as slavemasters, become outcasts of the kingdom of Heaven:

What childish expressions, and how insignificant is the being—can it

be an immortal one?—who will condescend to govern by such

sinister methods! “Certainly,” says Lord Bacon, “man is of kin to the

beast by his body; and if he be not of kin to God by his spirit, he is a

base and ignoble creature!” (Wollstonecraft 105)

By quoting literary masters of the past who exhorted men to protect women from the dangers of naivete and immorality, Wollstonecraft was not content to merely point out the “very unphilosophical manner” in which the first and following Adams indulged and encouraged women’s subservience in marriage (105); rather, she connected men, both rhetorically and symbolically, to the cause of the Fall itself, and for continuing to allow women to “attain a knowledge of evil” and fall into sin in an effort to secure a husband (106).

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in hopes that not only would “a great man arise with sufficient strength to puff away the fumes” of misogyny and female enslavement (109), but that rather than simply wait for him, women themselves would tire of the “overweening sensibility” they had for too long mistaken for virtue and seek their own enlightenment and edification. She urged post-Enlightenment Christians and secularists alike to assist in creating for themselves and their children a “world where sensation will give place to reason” and relationships characterized by “humble mutual love” (109) – a world where men and women were educated, thus joyfully equal. She called upon women “to purify their hearts” and mature beyond “the little vanities of the day,” and upon men to be “wiser than Solomon” and “be made clean” before their wives and families (113). She called upon both to engage in “the serious business” of self-improvement and enlargement of heart and mind so both could enjoy “the blessings of civil governments” (117) and “the sharp invigorating air” of freedom together (116). By weaving together her ideas and arguments with metaphorical connections of female virtue and freedom, and male spiritual and moral fitness, Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication has remained effective and relevant centuries later to her intended audience: the whole family of man.

Works Cited

Burke, Edmund. Reflections on the French Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard Classics, 1914.  Project Gutenberg. Gutenberg.org. Web. 8 June 2016.Griffin, Cindy L. “A Web of Reasons: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the Re‐weaving of Form.” Communication Studies 47.4 (1996): 272-88. ProQuest Central. Web. 8 June 2016.

Schulman, Alex. “Gothic Piles and Endless Forests: Wollstonecraft between Burke and Rousseau.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 41.1 (2007): 41-54. JSTOR. Web. 9 June 2016.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature: The Age of Romanticism. 2nd ed. Joseph Black, ed. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2009. 102-117. Print.

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