A Vindication Of The Rights Of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 A Vindication of the…
  • 2:24 Analysis: The Essay in Context
  • 3:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

This lesson covers Mary Wollstonecraft's famous feminist treatise ''A Vindication of the Rights of Women.'' We'll discuss the essay's historical context and major themes, its influence on female writers and feminism, and finish the lesson with a quick quiz.

'A Vindication of the Rights of Women:' Summary

A Vindication of the Rights of Women is a book-length feminist essay by British writer Mary Wollstonecraft, published in 1792. A Vindication of the Rights of Women called for female equality, particularly in the area of education. Wollstonecraft dismissed the cultivation of traditional female virtues of submission and service and argued that women could not be good mothers, good wives and good household managers if they were not well-educated. She claimed that women were expected to spend too much time on maintaining their delicate appearance and gentle demeanor, sacrificing intelligence for beauty and becoming flower-like playthings for men.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters, in which Wollstonecraft addressed topics such as the importance of educating women equally, treating women with dignity and providing women with the proper training to be good wives and mothers and intelligent companions for their husbands:

Women spend many of the first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to libertine notions of beauty. . . Can they govern a family with judgment, or take care of the poor babes whom they bring into the world?

How, Wollstonecraft argued, could women teach and raise children and run a household if they focused only on their own appearance and on minor accomplishments like speaking French prettily, playing the piano and drawing? Such accomplishments made a woman desirable to a man as an amusement, but not as an equal companion.

Wollstonecraft recognized that for many women of her time, raising a family would be their primary responsibility, but she insisted that a husband and wife whose relationship was founded on reason and equality would parent happier and more well-rounded children than in families governed by strict discipline and inequality between parents. To that end, she proposed a system of national education in which boys and girls would be educated together, and education would be open to all classes. Though written during the period of Romanticism, a movement known for celebrating sensibility/feeling over sense/rational thinking, Wollstonecraft warned against false sensibility, a tendency of women to become too overtaken by emotional sensitivity.

Analysis: The Essay in Context

The French Revolution greatly inspired Wollstonecraft's writing on female equality. Following the revolution, France proposed to replace church-controlled education with a system of free education - the basis for Wollstonecraft's call for a gender-equal national education system in England. Yet Wollstonecraft noted that despite the democratic ideals of French revolutionaries, they made no mention of education for girls. In an effort to bring this to France's attention, as well as to encourage the English not to make the same mistake, she wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

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