Wollstonecraft dedicates her work to M. Talleyrand-Périgord, having read his recently published pamphlet. She hopes to “induce [him] to reconsider the subject” of women’s rights and national education. She explains that she considers independence to be “the basis of every virtue.”
Talleyrand-Périgord was a French politician who published a pamphlet titled Rapport sur l'instruction publique in 1791. In the pamphlet, he had recommended public education for men, since they live on the world stage, but private education for women, since they live more secluded lives. Wollstonecraft was quickly moved to respond. She grounds her rebuttal on the claim that only free people can be virtuous citizens, and freedom is achieved by means of education.
Wollstonecraft explains that she’s inspired to write out of “affection for the whole human race,” because she wants to see women in a position to advance humanity’s progress in virtue, not to slow it down. Her main argument is built on the principle “that if [woman] be not prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue; for truth must be common to all, or it will be inefficacious with respect to its influence on general practice.”
Talleyrand-Périgord had submitted his report on education to France’s National Assembly as part of the process of revising the French constitution. Wollstonecraft is motivated to respond to the report because she believes that its recommendations on female education will be damaging to society as a whole—if women aren’t educated enough to function as equals of men, then men cannot become more knowledgeable or virtuous, either.