A Vindication of the Rights of  Woman, Three Guineas and The Feminine Mystique are a response to the political turmoils that Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf anf Betty Friedan, respectively, were living.

Her works are a complaint about society which could be considered basically a men’s territory. Here is precisely where these works come in and where it derives its importance from:

MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT (1759-1797)►18th C

Mary Wollstonecraft’s ideas emerged basically from the  American and French revolutions where there were debates on the nature of freedom, of rationality, of human rights, etc. Two declarations resulted from these:

-The American Declaration of Independence (1776).

’We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.’

But certainly they excluded women when saying “all men are created equal” because women had to wait until 1920 to vote.


-The French Declaration of Man and Citizen (1789).

1.  Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.

2.  The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

3.  The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation.

4.  Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law.

5.  Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law.

6.  Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents.

7.  No person shall be accused, arrested, or imprisoned except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by law. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished. But any citizen summoned or arrested in virtue of the law shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.

8.  The law shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted in virtue of a law passed and promulgated before the commission of the offense.

9.  As all persons are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if arrest shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner’s person shall be severely repressed by law.

10.  No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, including his religious views, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.

11.  The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.

12.  The security of the rights of man and of the citizen requires public military forces. These forces are, therefore, established for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be intrusted.

13.  A common contribution is essential for the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration. This should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means.

14.  All the citizens have a right to decide, either personally or by their representatives, as to the necessity of the public contribution; to grant this freely; to know to what uses it is put; and to fix the proportion, the mode of assessment and of collection and the duration of the taxes.

15.  Society has the right to require of every public agent an account of his administration.

16.  A society in which the observance of the law is not assured, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.

17.  Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the owner shall have been previously and equitably indemnified.


A common element in both was a general belief in human progress through human reason and education ; but, as far as women’s rights were concerned, both Declarations probably fall short of expectations.

Anyway, women played a crucial role in the 1789 French Revolution and it was seen as an opportunity for women’s improvement. So Wollstonecraft knew the ideal of ‘Republican Motherhood’ and the proliferation of feminist pamphlets. An example of it could be the Declaration of the Rights of Woman (1790) written by Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) in response to the french Declaration of Man and Citizen (1789):

‘Woman is born free and her rights are the same as those of man…if women have the right to go to the scaffold, they must also have the right to go to Parliament.[…] All citizens, be they men or women, being equal in its eyes, must be equally eligible for all public offices, positions and jobs, according to their capacity and without any other criteria than those of their virtues and talents.’

Moreover, French women formed political clubs and associations to defend their rights. But the male leaders of the Revolution were profoundly hostile to them and in 1793 outlawed all women’s associations, such as Les Amies de la vérité or Les Citoyennes republicaines revolutionaries. There was an agreement that the principles of rational individualism should not be applied to women, as it was believed that by their very nature women were incapable of full rationality. In the 18th century philosophical tradition (Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu and especially Rousseau), we find the idea that women are essentially creatures of emotion and passion, with no appertaining political rights.

Here there are the basic ideas from Enlightenment’s philosophers:

-The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) thought that all individuals were born with natural rights, but fear of each other’s violence led them to surrender their rights and submit to the absolute authority of the king. To escape the ‘state of nature’ to find better living circumstances, a social contract is necessary, a contract which is based on the rational of people governed. Hobbes’s notion of sovereignty involves, at the time of the social contract, women’s inferior position and men’s role as masters and representatives of families. In Leviathan (1651), Leviathan acts as a protector, a father figure that should rule over the whole family (being the central authority in the state and in the family).


John Locke, builds upon Hobbe’s empiricism, though with some significant differences. Locke defended the ideal of a ‘state of nature’ and men are by nature free. Locke gives women the right to own property but by 17th century standards this meant very little because upon marriage the wife became a possession of the husband. He was not a feminist but he believed in individual rights and his society also included women as essential in his project of political society. Nevertheless, there is a foundation in nature for women’s subordinate place: males are ‘abler and stronger’ (a traditional argument going back to the Bible: women’s subordinate position is a punishment upon Eve). So, for Locke, the right place for women is the family, the private sphere.


Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) , probably the most influential philosopher across Europe, contributed to the Encyclopédie (1751-1772) movement and to the French Revolution. He reflected on the idea of nature as a guide and teacher for reformed society, and on the association of nature with women’s emotions and domesticity. Rousseau’s argument to justify the 18th century notion of women’s subordination is that it is ‘natural’, and for him, nature never lies.

Women were socially defined as passive, dependent and politically inferior to men. This subordination is not imposed on her by social, economic, cultural institutions, but as a reflection of the characteristics  (passivity, chastity, dependency, etc.) nature has bestowed on women.

In the ‘state of nature’ Rousseau envisages that there is a rough equality of the sexes. The real change in the relationship between women and men is brought about by the introduction of property. There is then a complete division of labour: women attend to the home and children become sedentary; men are hunters and gatherers.  According to Rousseau, women have these qualities: shame, modesty, love of embellishment, desire to please and to be polite to others.ant

But the most important innovative contribution from him is in education, or at least as far as I am concerned in this paper; because he ascribes differences between women and men in his theories about education. It can be seen in his influential Émile (1762) where he expresses his belief in a fundamental difference between women and men:

‘In the union of the sexes, each alike contributes to the common end but not in the same way. From this diversity springs the first difference which may be observed in the moral relations between the one and the other. The one should be active and strong, the other passive and weak. It is necessary that the one have the power and the will; it is enough that the other should offer little resistance.

Once this principle is established it follows that woman is specially made to please man. If man ought to please her in turn, the necessity is less urgent. His merit is in his power; he pleases because he is strong. This is not the law of love, I admit, but it is the law of nature, which is older than love itself.

If woman is made to please and to be subjected, she ought to make herself pleasing to man instead of provoking him. Her strength is in her charms; by their means she should compel him to discover his strength and to use it. The surest way of arousing this strength is to make it necessary by resistance. Then amour-propre joins with desire, and the one triumphs from a victory that the other made him win. This is the origin of attack and defense, of the boldness of one sex and the timidity of the other, and even of the shame and modesty with which  nature has armed the weak for the conquest of the strong.

 Émile, ou l’éducation (1762)

According to Rousseau, education for men is a way for them to reach their full potentialities as human beings; for women, education is dictated by their natural and subservient functions:

‘The entire education of women must be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them, to be loved, and honored by them, or read them when they are young, to care for them when they are grown up, to counsel and console, to make their lives pleasant and charming, these are the duties of women at all times, and they should be taught them in their childhood. To the extent that we refuse to go back to this principle, we will stray from our goal, and all the precepts women are given will not result in their happiness or our own.’

Émile, ou l’éducation (1762)

So, as we can see, Rousseau’s message is a clear expression of women’s subordinated position. Their place is at home, and domestic life is their destiny. The revolutionary values of freedom and equality are only relevant for men, because women can not act as citizens in society. Men are public, while women are private.

VIRGINIA WOOLF(1882-1941) ►end 19th C. & beginning 20th C., Pre-WWII

At the end of the 19th century, education for girls and women had expanded at all levels but it did not challenge their traditional role in society. Although the world of learning was not longer a male territory, education was seen a requisite for responsible motherhood. Anyway, women in both Britain and America had won a significant degree of legal independence: a married woman could now own her own property, keep her own earnings, had new rights concerning custody and welfare of children, divorce laws were making progress,etc. These formal and legal changes were accompanied by changes in social behaviours and expectations and the term ‘New Woman’ was coined (the first one was Sarah Grand in 1893 in The Heavenly Twins to define a sense of contemporary discontent with the traditional ideals of marriage and motherhood middle-class women should aspire to. This ‘New Woman’ broke a number of the stereotypes associated with the old Victorian model of femininity: she was intellectual (as opposed to emotional), public (as opposed to private or domestic), active (as opposed to passive), and non-reproductive (as opposed to maternal). So all of these issues are treated in Three Guineas.

Moreover, I consider important to mention that Virginia Woolf lived the whole women’s suffrage movement with activists so important as they are Millicent Garrett Fawcet who in 1894 founded the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies  and Emmeline Pankhurst who created the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 and organised the first women’s march to lobby Parliament in 1906. On the other hand, Karl Max and Friedrich Engels saw women’s liberation as part of the socialist revolution (although secondary). In 1918, the first Women’s Conference was held in Moscow. Under Lenin, in the 1920, equal rights for women and men were promoted in the Soviet Union but all of this ended with Stalin (divorce was made difficult, abortion banned and contraception restricted).

BETTY FRIEDAN (1921-2006) ►20th C, Post-WWII

With the outbreak of World War II, women were required to take over jobs to do with the war (manufacturing ammunition, parachutes, rifles and other products). But they also had to maintain a home for their children. This was the first time that traditionally male jobs were occupied massively by women but after WWII there was a period of women’s silence again due to ‘baby boom’, unemployment and the threat of fascism (reflected in The Feminine Mystique as well as the under-representation women had in political life and in professional positions).

An important event after the WWII which Betty Friedan had present in her writing was the publication of Simone de Beauvoir Le deuxième sex (1949). This book proposed the idea that liberation for women was liberation for men as well and this is crucial in the three books we are dealing with here. In these books, women do not ask superiority over men, they only fight for equality, for freedom achieved by women as well as by men.

Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique during what is called the ‘Second-Wave Feminism’ in the 1960s in Britain, US and France. The slogan which summarises the second-wave feminism can also summarise, from my point of view, The Feminine Mystique: ‘THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL’. Moreover, some extracts from this book deal with the importance which was given to women’s beauty at that time and feminists rejected this because obviously it was pejorative, women were treated uncapable of reason, only worried about their bodies and it developed a protest against the Miss America beauty contest five years later this book was published (1968).

I have to mention Friedan was a person very politically committed. She and other feminists founded the National Organization for Women in the United States to fight against laws and practices reinforcing the inferior status of women and discrimination in matters such as work and employment, sex and childbearing, etc.

An extract which I love the most because it represents this spirit is:

To take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.’



So during the 1960s it is clear that feminism bursts into life again, especially in the United States, as part of a radical movement which included civil rights (the ‘Civil Rights Movement’) and sexual liberation.


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