Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) is a fantastic piece of philosophy, analysis and policy that ventures to allow women to fully engage with the world. Why wasn’t I ever exposed to this? I was lucky to be introduced to so many classics, but women were almost totally absent from my curriculum, especially when it came to philosophy or politics. Wollstonecraft shows that people were writing, talking and thinking about these important issues 222 years ago. She just blew me away with this piece and I highly recommend it to everyone.
Education is at the forefront of her recommendations, noting that women excel at learning, when they are given the same opportunities as their male counterparts. In her introduction, she attributes one cause of the lack of advanced knowledge and cognitive power in women to “a false system of education gathered from the books written on this subject by men, who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than rational wives” (p. 11).
Wollstonecraft works to deobjectify and humanize women: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their FASCINATING graces, and viewing them as if they were in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone. I earnestly wish to point out in what true dignity and human happiness consists–I wish to persuade women to endeavor to acquire strength, both of mind and body, and to convince them, that the soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste, are almost synonymous with epithets of weakness, and that those beings who are only the objects of pity and that kind of love, which has been termed its sister, will soon become objects of contempt” (p.13).
She hits the moralists, and this resonates today with calls from the rightwing and evangelicals in the United States: “And will moralists pretend to assert, that this is the condition in which one half of the human race should be encouraged to remain with listless inactivity and stupid acquiescence? Kind instructors! what were we created for? To remain, it may be said, innocent; they mean in a state of childhood” (p. 75).
Let me close with one more quote: “I know that libertines will also exclaim, that woman would be unsexed by acquiring strength of body and mind, and that beauty, soft bewitching beauty! would no longer adorn the daughters of men. I am of a very different opinion for I think, that on the contrary, we should then see dignified beauty, and true grace; to produce which, many powerful physical and moral causes would concur. Not relaxed beauty, it is true, nor the graces of helplessness; but such as appears to make us respect the human body as a majestic pile, fit to receive a noble inhabitant, in the relics of antiquity” (p. 209).