Study Guide

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman

By Mary Wollstonecraft

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Introduction

If we were to say "Quick, Shmooper: when did feminism start?" you might say "Um: early 20th century, with the suffragettes!" or "Hmm: the 1960s with the slogan 'The Personal Is Political!" or "Uhh, with Lean In?"

Points for effort, but feminism came along way before that. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, basically the first feminist philosophical work, was published in 1792. Yup. That's less than twenty years after the good ol' U.S. of A. was founded. That's back when huge curled wigs were super stylin'.

What exactly is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman all about? Well, it's basically arguing for the dictionary definition of feminism: a belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

Some people—even today—have the idea that feminism is some sort of cult that calls for women to have all the power and men to be subservient. And Mary Wollstonecraft, the author who penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, would be horrified at that suggestion. She was after equality. This awesome lady, by the way, also wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Men.

A Vindication sets out on a seemingly super-simple mission: to explain how men and women are totally equal beings. Yeah, this should be simple, but Wollstonecraft was pitting herself against super closed-minded thinkers who were under the impression that women and men were almost two different animals. Men were freethinkers that could rule and change the world (or at least, y'know, have a job) and women were… pretty objects that could (bonus!) bear children.

Huh. We wonder why Wollstonecraft was ticked off.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is still totally pertinent today, and not just because it was a "first of its kind" sort of deal. Wollstonecraft called for education reform that would give girls and boys free (and equal) education. If that sounds familiar, it's because it is. Wollstonecraft basically laid out the kind of public education system that's around in much of the world today.

Um, dang. What else was Wollstonecraft talking about way back in 1792? She argued that:

And you know what? These issues are very much relevant today. We're still talking about the issues outlined in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Many of the issues that Wollstonecraft brought up have been solved—let's hear it for female doctors and politicians—but many of them, sadly, have not.

Come on, guys. If in the two hundred plus years since A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was published we've been able to get it through our thick skulls that wearing bright red coats ain't the brightest military tactic, then we should be able to fix some of the gripes Wollstonecraft lays out in A Vindication.

What is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman About and Why Should I Care?

We'll make it easy for you: you should care about A Vindication of the Rights of Woman if you are a woman, or if you know any women. Yup. That's pretty much it.

Naw, but we're not going to leave you with that. We, inspired by the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, are going to lay it out paying homage to the awesomeness of Reason. We're going to do this Reason-style.

Capital-R Reason that you should care #1: Hey, do you have a mother? You totally do. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is all about how being a mother would be easier (and better for the child) if a woman was educated in the same way that a man was, and encouraged to work in the same way a man was. That way, the mother could continue to financially support her kiddos in case her husband croaked in an untimely fashion. She could also contribute to her child's education, because she would know a thing or two about a thing or two.

Capital-R Reason that you should care #2: Hey, how bout that ever-present nature vs. nurture debate? You know: boys just like trucks and girls just like dollys… or is it just that we give boys trucks and give girls dollys? Wollstonecraft totally brings this up back in 17-freakin'-92, way before this debate became big.

Capital-R Reason that you should care #3: Hey, how about public education? Should it exist? Should children have access to free primary education? Chances are pretty good that you, lovely Shmooper, benefitted from public education. And three guesses who outlines an awesome and very much before-her-time argument for public education? The first two guesses don't count, btw.

Capital-R Reason that you should care #4: Hey, how about women having careers? Wollstonecraft was all for women getting out of the house and into the science laboratory or political office. Apart from just being fair, Wollstonecraft's line of thinking went on to save lives. If you've ever driven in the rain, for example, you've benefited from a woman's career in science.

We don't say this often, but it's impossible to underestimate the importance of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It laid the groundwork for changing the lives of 51% ( fifty-one percent, guys!) of the population.

And the issues addressed in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman aren't all solved. There are still women today who are being shot for wanting a good education, women still face horrific consequences for having premarital sex (even if they're raped), women's worth is still measured by their marriageability, and female sexuality is still viewed as threatening and deserved of scorn. Messed up, huh?

There's still a long way to go before women's rights are vindicated.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Resources

WEBSITES

Wollstonecraft in "The History Guide"
For a straightforward view of what Wollstonecraft's life was like and how it affected her writing, check out this link.

Wollstonecraft at Encyclopedia Britannica
Good ol' Encyclopedia Britannica knows what they're talking about when it comes to famous writers.

Online Bio at The European Graduate School
Wanna know where Wollstonecraft was born or why she attempted suicide more than once? This page has you covered.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

Wollstonecraft: Equal Rights for Women
In this article, Jim Powell analyzes all of the ways in which Wollstonecraft took on the extremely unfair laws of her time and paved the road for modern women's rights.

Wollstonecraft on Education
Wollstonecraft is best known for her work on women's rights. But as this article points out, she was also really influential in the world of public education.

Wollstonecraft, Feminism, and the Nature v. Nurture Debate
Do you think men and women are born with different kinds of personalities? Well check out this article to see how people still look to Wollstonecraft for answers to this question.

VIDEO

Video Summary of Vindication
One person on the Internet thought it'd be convenient to break Vindication down into a three-minute animated video. Check it out at this link.

Homemade Vindication
Please join one Wollstonecraft fan for a fireside chat while she speaks on behalf of Wollstonecraft and shows how gender inequality isn't as radical an idea as some might think.

Helen Irving on Wollstonecraft
Follow this link to check out a world-class lecture on the life and work of Wollstonecraft.

AUDIO

"Vindication" Full Audiobook
Are your eyes feeling a little tired? Well you can sit back and listen to A Vindication of the Rights of Women in its entirety right here.

Lecture by Knowledge Products
Don't let the creepy synthesizers throw you off. This lecture is worth listening to if you want to learn more about Wollstonecraft and the impact of her work.

IMAGES

Wollstonecraft Young
That look on her face suggests that she knows something we don't…

Wollstonecraft, Looking Contemplative
Deep Thoughts By Jack Handey, er, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Getting Her Learn On
This is probably what Wollstonecraft looked like when you interrupted her from her reading.