Mary Wollstonecraft writes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in response to French politician Talleyrand-Périgord’s pamphlet on national education. Her argument is that if women are not “prepared by education to become the companion of man, she will stop the progress of knowledge and virtue.” Wollstonecraft believes that the neglect of women’s education has caused great misery. Women are taught that romance is the primary goal of their lives, and they are not encouraged to develop their reason or virtue.
In her critique of contemporary views of women’s education, Wollstonecraft looks primarily at middle-class women and considers them first as “human creatures … placed on this earth to unfold their faculties.” She bases her argument on the belief that reason is what makes people human, that virtue is what distinguishes people from one another, and that virtue is attained through knowledge.
Wollstonecraft rejects the common argument that men and women should aim to acquire different virtues. She believes that although men and women generally have different duties in life, they should strive for identical virtues. But because women tend to be given a haphazard education, they are not given adequate opportunity to develop their reason and attain virtue. More often, they’re taught to please men, preparing themselves for only a brief period of life—that is, courtship and early marriage. They aren’t even prepared to build sustainable marriages or to care for their children effectively.
Because women are taught that pleasure is the overriding goal of their lives, they are never given the opportunity to struggle with adversity and thereby develop knowledge and virtue. Instead of learning to rely on reason, they’re allowed to be driven by emotions and delicate sensibilities, which do not prepare women to be good wives and mothers. This neglectful education also leaves them especially vulnerable if widowed, or if seduced and “ruined” by a man—situations in which they are left without any means to support themselves financially.
Wollstonecraft specifically critiques several eighteenth-century writers on the subject of women’s education. Her most detailed critique is of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who argues that women only need to be educated inasmuch as it prepares them to serve men. She also dismisses Fordyce’s sentimental sermons and Gregory’s rules of decorum. She concludes that women have absorbed many of these oppressive standards because they haven’t been taught to distinguish between reason and prevailing prejudices. She also addresses the importance of childhood impressions, the necessity of modesty for both sexes, and the distinction between external reputation and virtue.
Wollstonecraft sees duty—especially, for most women, the duties of motherhood and domestic life—as a vital building-block for families and thus, ultimately, for society. Because society pressures women to care primarily about external beauty, they have no incentive to attend to the duties nature has given them, leading to unhappiness and malformed family bonds. Women deserve the protection of civil laws in order to support them in fulfilling their duties. They should also have the option of studying medicine, politics, and business in order to have more occupational doors open to them, allowing them to be of greater use to society at large.
Wollstonecraft concludes A Vindication with a proposal to establish free national schools for all children. Such schools—marked by strongly republican “jostlings of equality”—would focus on creating good citizens, nurturing the virtues that have taken root at home. She advocates coeducation at every stage, believing this will allow relations between the sexes to develop in more natural and healthy ways. Educating girls in such schools will not distract them from domestic duties; rather, it will awaken their minds and prepare them all the better to fulfill their duties, caring for their families based on reason and virtue rather than ill-informed prejudice and unruly feelings.
Finally, Wollstonecraft calls for a “revolution” for women, reiterating that their subordinate status is due to men’s prejudices and not to any inherent weakness. This will be proven once women are free to develop their understanding and affections. As women are released from ignorance, they will enjoy greater independence befitting rational creatures with human souls, and society as a whole will only benefit.