A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792, was a highly influential book which favoured women’s liberation and the first feminist treatise to address middle-class women.

It challenged the idea that women are on earth only to please men and suggested that women should receive the same opportunities as men in education, work and politics.

Being Vindication mainly a continuation of the old debate about women’s nature and their capacity for reasoning, I have decided to talk about reason in a subsection called: “Reason: her starting point” because it is a strong bond with education, the subject which I am dealing with in this paper.

She is particularly concerned to refute the ideas of her contemporaries, so in the section: “A reaction to texts written by men”, an overview of Thomas Hobbes, John  Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau will be given to understand how women were considered in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft, as we are going to see,  is particularly concerned to refute the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in his Émile (1762), included a chapter on the education of ‘Sophy’, Émile’s future wife. For Rousseau, men’s and women’s biologically given differences defined their differing roles in society. While men become citizens, women’s biological destiny was to become wives and mothers. This justifies Émile’s training in rational citizenship and Sophy’s lessons in how to please a man and bring up his future husband’s children.

●Wollstonecraft’s response to Rousseau is based on these points:

-Following earlier feminists, she refused to accept that women were less capable of reason than men. She also rejected vanity, weakness or frivolity as the natural attributes of women.

-Like Mary Astell* (1666-1731) ( an English feminist who anticipated Mary Wollstonecraft and others indicating that if women appeared frivolous and incapable of reason, this was the product of faulty education rather than of natural disability) , she believed femininity was a social construct that distorted women’s true abilities.

-She argued that if men and women are equally possessed of reason, they must be equally educated to exercise it.

-If men and women share the God-given possession of reason, then virtue must be the same for both sexes.

In fact, Wollstonecraft did not expect most women-through education and freedom of choice- to reject their traditional role, but argued that they would be able to perform it better.

She did not accept the public/private split that establishes the superiority of the public over the private; she argued, however, that domestic duties, properly performed, were for women a form of rational and responsible citizenship. She argued that domestic life “be newly understood as connected to the political life of the state” (Brody 1983:43).

Wollstonecraft is very much concerned with the way society constructs femininity, espacially through the use of a deficient education. To her, according to Brody (1983:57), “women must be educated so they may be reasonable, reasonable so they may be virtuous, virtuous so that all of society may be happier. There is no call to arms in Vindication, no call to take power.”

So being education so important I have decided to base all this paper on it and around it, constructing the last part of my work: “EDUCATION: the mainstay of society”.


Karla Carter on Mary Wollstonecraft, Part One:










Karla Carter on Mary Wollstonecraft, Part Two:







*In Mary Astell’s A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), we find a classical statement about the feminist belief that men and women are equally capable of reason, and that therefore they should be equally educated in its use:

‘For since GOD has given Women as well as Men intelligent Souls, why should they be forbidden to improve them? Since he has not denied us the faculty of Thinking, why shou’d we not (at least in gratitude to him) employ our Thoughts on himself their noblest Object, and not unworthily bestow them on Trifles and Gaities and secular Affairs? Being the Soul was cretaed for the contemplation of Truth as for the fruition of Good, is it not as cruel and unjust to preclude Women from the knowledge of the one, as well as from the enjoyment from the other?’

Mary Astell, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694:80)


Secondary Sources:

Astell, Mary (1694) A Serious Proposal to the Ladies. Peterborough, Canada: Broadview Press Ltd., 2002. Edited by Patricia Springboard.

Brody, Miriam (1983) “Mary Wollstonecraft: Sexuality and Women’s Rights (1759- 1797)”. In Dale Spender (ed.) Feminist Theories: Three Centuries of Women’s Intellectual Tradition. London: The Women’s Press.  40-59.

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