The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

Mary Wollstonecraft, "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman"

Civilization versus Nature

The first sentence of Wollstonecraft's pamphlet introduces two key words: "nature" and "civilization." The tension between these two forces figures prominently in the thought of many Romantic writers. Which human characteristics result from our genetic structure? Which have been produced by social conditioning? (Remember Blake's "mind-forged manacles.")

Note that Wollstonecraft's title refer to "woman" not "women." She is asking whether there are attributes that are essential to the female body, to "womankind" as opposed to "humankind." And she is arguing that, if the attributes of "women" during her time are not essential to "woman," then these attributes are not fixed and immutable. They can be scrutinized, challenged, and changed.


Once our focus becomes the question of what has been socially-conditioned (and therefore what can be socially changed), education clearly emerges as a key issue. (See Wollstonecraft's second sentence.) Through this work, the argument revolves around the issue of education but we see education defined in a variety of ways.

How do we learn how society expects us to behave? Sometimes Wollstonecraft considers one of the most fundamental means of education: our reading. Most obviously, there are the conduct books, such as Dr. Gregory's A Father's Legacy to His Daughters. Less obviously, but possibly more powerfully, women are influenced by reading the works that their society considers to be its great literature. In Chapter 2, Wollstonecraft discusses the ideas about "woman" that "women" will encounter in reading Paradise Lost. Then, too, Wollstonecraft considers the way we are "educated" into society's expectations by such subtle persuasions as praise (what we today might call positive reinforcement.)

What Wollstonescraft speaks less about--and this is perhaps a telling repression--is the negative reinforcement given to the woman who attempts to be more than the docile amiable beautiful creature. Read the introductory material on Wollstonecraft's life; are there more insights into the "education" of women that might be gained by examining the way that Wollstonecraft herself was treated?

As you read, make notes on the various kinds of social education that Wollstonecraft identifies. What specific ideas about desirable female behaviour emerge?

Physical versus Intellectual

In attempting to separate generic woman from individual women, Wollstonecraft follows the dominant convention of linking the physical with the natural and the intellectual with what has been trained. This separation allows her, or perhaps leads her, to leave certain assumptions unchallenged: the assumption that women as a category are weaker than men in physical strength, and the assumption that this aspect of "inferiority" means that women will necessarily be, in some ways, dependent on men.

One of Wollstonecraft's main objections, however, is that the "fact" of woman's physical inferiority has led to false assumptions about their intellectual inferiority.

The Elevation of "Woman" for the Wrong Reasons

Wollstonecraft sees that in her society, women are not always treated as inferior. Right from her first paragraph, she acknowledges the "homage" that men pay to women, the adoration given to women as love objects. But if anything, Wollstonecraft considers the notions about women's superiority in matters of "beauty" and "charm" to be even more damaging that the ideas that concerning their intellectual inferiority.

What arguments does Wollstonecraft make concerning the detrimental effects of the ideology of female beauty?

Treatment of Women and Treatment of Children

Another crucial idea introduced in the first paragraph concerns the way her society equates "man" with human being or "human creature" but approaches "woman" as a different species, with different potentials and correspondingly different rights. She connects the way that women are treated with the way that children are treated, but with an important difference. Whereas children are treated as dependent on the adult for moral and intellectual guidance, they are, or should be, treated as if they are gradually learning how to be self-responsible (presumably this approach is only taken in her society to male children). Wollstonecraft's point is that women are placed lower in the scale than children, since women's education is not approached with the goal of inculcating eventual self-responsibility.

The Emancipation of Women

What are the arguments that Wollstonecraft makes on behalf of the intellectual emancipation of women? What does she argue would be the benefits for women? for children? for men? How does her project expand to become a vision of reform affecting the whole of society? How would you relate her vision of reform to the radical visions of other Romantic writers?

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