If there's on thing that Wollstonecraft believes in, it's the power of Reason. She loves Reason so much that she even spells it with a capital "R." So it makes sense that she uses the most rational tone she can when putting forward her arguments for women's rights.
As she states in her third chapter, "Let not men in the pride of power, use the same arguments that tyrannic kings and venal ministers have used, and fallaciously assert that woman ought to be subjected because she has always been so" (3.23). Wollstonecraft also associates justice with Reason, and she thinks that you can't have one without the other. This makes sense: when you think about the language of the justice system, you realize that there are phrases like "beyond a reasonable doubt" all over the place. Perfect justice is based on perfect reason (ideally).
When Wollstonecraft talks about morality and goodness, she's not talking about being nice to baby animals. After all, being nice to baby animals is easy, because of the squee! factor. In order to be morally good, you have to employ Reason and a sense of justice. And so, Wollstonecraft uses a justice-seeking tone in her argumentation.
This is extra-clever when you think about the time at which A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was written. The spirit of revolution was in the air, and part of the whole revolution-deal was the desire for justice: no taxation without representation, for example, and the desire to not be starving while Marie Antoinette stuffed her face with bon-bons.
This book is no novel. This ain't fiction. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a straight-up philosophical treatise, one that Wollstonecraft wrote for a single central purpose: to show the world that women should be entitled to the same civil rights as men.
The book starts out by laying out its core premises, then moves outward to trace out all the implications of these premises. There's no "story" in the traditional sense here: this is an essay.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a pretty no-nonsense title for a book. The word vindication in Wollstonecraft's title refers to "show(ing) that something that has been criticized or doubted is correct, true, or reasonable."
So Wollstonecraft is saying "Hey. You doubt that women's rights are reasonable? I'm here to show you just how freaking reasonable they are. Listen up, y'all."
Wollstonecraft wrote this book to stand up to all of the men of her time who thought that a woman's place was in the kitchen and that women had feeble brains that couldn't deal with tough manly-man stuff like philosophical discourse. She adopted the (sometimes difficult, not gonna lie) language of rational philosophy to show these men that she could outwit them at their own game. This means she is able to make her point in two ways: 1) through the arguments she makes, and 2) in the way she articulates these arguments.
"Be just then, O ye men of understanding! and mark not more severely what women do amiss, than the vicious tricks of the horse or the ass for whom ye provide provender—and allow her the privileges of ignorance, to whom ye deny the rights of reason, or ye will be worse than Egyptian task-masters, expecting virtue where nature has not given understanding!" (13.76)
Once she has shown that women's rights are perfectly rational, Wollstonecraft knows that men still might reject her arguments anyway. That's the thing about philosophical reasoning: because what you're talking about is pretty up to interpretation (what's the meaning of life? what is human nature? what are the rights of women, anyhow?) it's fairly easy to come up with a logically thought-out counterargument.
So in her final lines, Wollstonecraft asks men to have compassion and to listen to their consciences. Yes, they have the power to continue denying women equal rights. But they must realize that if they continue to do so, they'll be the Bad Guys of history, and future generations will look on them with disgust. She compares them to Egyptian slave owners, who, according to the Bible, got all sorts of nasty plagues—locusts: eeew, water turned to blood: double eeew—thrust upon them for their gross slave-owning ways.
Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication only three years after the outbreak of the French Revolution of 1789, which had been inspired by the American Revolution of 1776. Needless to say that revolution was in the air, and all over the world, men were standing up and demanding democratic rights as free and rational beings.
We can get a sense of this environment when Wollstonecraft writes, "Let not men in the pride of power, use the same arguments that tyrannic kings and venal ministers have used, and fallaciously assert that woman ought to be subjected because she has always been so" (3.23).
Wollstonecraft was a genius for many reasons (did you read this book? It's awesome) but one big reason was her ability to take advantage of a huge historical moment. While men were running around saying that any rational person had the right to a democratic voice, it was Wollstonecraft who raised her hand and said, "Uh yeah, that same right should apply to women too." After all, there is really no fair way to acknowledge the equality of all men without acknowledging the equality of women, too. Way to carpe that diem, Wollstonecraft.
So the historical setting for this book is crucial, since Wollstonecraft's arguments would have been much more difficult to make without using the spirit of revolution as a springboard.
"When I first began to write this work, I divided it into three parts, supposing that one volume would contain a full discussion of the arguments which seemed to me to rise naturally from a few simple principles […]"
Unfortunately, Wollstonecraft died before she had the chance to write more volumes of Vindication. But in her original introduction to the book, she states that she plans on writing at least two other volumes in addition to one we have with us today.
She also uses this introduction to insist that her arguments in favor of women's equality don't come from any fancy-shmancy complicated philosophy. In her mind, women's rights are based on very basic principles, like, for example, the equality of all people in the eyes of God.
Wollstonecraft is big on capital-R Reason, and this epigraph states her intention to have her argument follow along a few simple lines of reasoning. The language in "rise naturally from a few simple principle" is borderline condescending to those that don't agree with her. "Hey man, I'm making this super-easy here," Wollstonecraft is saying. "This stuff is just obvious. But I'll write about it anyhow because some people (lookin' at you, Rousseau) just don't see it."
Wollstonecraft does her darnedest to make A Vindication of the Rights of Woman a commonsense and approachable argument for women's rights. But the fact remains that she wrote this book in 1792 for an educated audience and much of the language doesn't translate into the kind of language we think of as "commonsense and approachable" today. It's antiquated and there are weird words like "shew" being thrown around.
A romance novel this ain't, either in content or in accessibility. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is a philosophical treatise, and you're as likely to find a real page-turner of a philosophical treatise (even today) as you are to find grandparents that have a favorable opinion of Grand Theft Auto. Is it possible? Surely. Is it probable? Hecky no.
No one reads A Vindication on the Rights of Woman for its riveting plotline. They read it because it's a fundamentally important text, even—or especially—today. It's fascinating, informative, thought-provoking and will make you a better citizen of the world. It will not prompt you to stay up late reading it under the blankets with a flashlight, however.
That said, the arguments in this book are clearly delineated and clear. You can totally read and understand this book: Wollstonecraft was a brilliant woman, and she knew that accessibility was one of the best ways to influence an audience.
Pro-tip: Make sure not to neglect the footnotes and endnotes. It might take some extra time, but it's worth it. Wollstonecraft drops all kinds of references in this book, and it can be easy to get lost without these handy-dandy notes.
Wollstonecraft is harsh when she needs to be, which is something that many of her readers would have associated with "masculine" behavior. Shades of the argument to re-label "bossy", anyone?
But as Wollstonecraft points out again and again, Reason doesn't have a gender. When you're right, you're right. As she says at the beginning of the book, "In the present state of society it appears necessary to go back to first principles in search of the most simple truths, and to dispute with some prevailing prejudice every inch of ground" (1.1).
Her style of writing pretty much follows this same pattern for the rest of the book. She constantly lays out basic principles, and then uses them as a foundation for building larger observations about society. It's a testament to how, when educated in the same manner as men, women are fully able to build solid arguments based on reason and logic. Wollstonecraft is super-smart, and knows that the writing style of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is its own best vindication for, well, the rights of women.
Traditional views would have us think that women are like ivy, a plant that tends to cling to other stronger plants in order to support itself. In other words, people think that women should cling to men the way that ivy clings to a strong tree for support.
As Wollstonecraft writes at one point, "it might be proper, in order to make a man and his wife one, that she should rely entirely on his understanding; and the graceful ivy, clasping the oak that supported it, would form a whole in which strength and beauty would be equally conspicuous" (2.13).
Of course, she doesn't actually buy into this metaphor. She's just outlining a popular, wrongheaded thought that continues to hold women back. However, Wollstonecraft does believe that without a proper education, it's necessary for women to use men in order to climb the social or socio-economic ladder much in the same way that ivy has to climb a stronger tree in order to grow.
Women are forced to act like ivy, rather than being naturally predisposed to act like ivy. Women in Wollstonecraft's time had no other recourse but to rely on men's strength. However, if women were given proper education they would be able to grow on their own. They'd have the strength to grow independently, like a dang oak tree.
Wollstonecraft mentions on several occasions that women exist inside symbolic cages because of the way male-dominated society has treated them.
But instead of trying to break out, these women focus on all of the things society has taught them to value, like looking pretty like birds: "Confined then in cages like the feathered race, they have nothing to do but to plume themselves, and stalk with mock majesty from perch to perch" (4.11).
The image of the birdcage is a pretty heavily used one: think of Maya Angelou's famous poem. Wollstonecraft uses it really skillfully, however: birds are thought to be dull, vaguely entertaining and pretty animals. Women are thought to be dull, vaguely entertaining and pretty beings.
The cage is symbolic of the patriarchy. Not only is it enslaving, but it also starts to feel a bit like home after a while. Domesticated birds are reluctant to leave their cages: the cages are all they know, and they're ill equipped to function in the wild. Women in Wollstonecraft's time were reluctant to leave the fold of the patriarchy, in large part because their lack of education made it almost impossible for them to find gainful work.
Wollstonecraft uses the image of a stream several times in this book, but it's really more of a trope than a symbol, because she never really uses it in the same way twice.
She originally introduces the image when she writes, "[W]hen men neglect the duties of humanity, women will follow their example; a common stream hurries them both along with thoughtless celerity" (4.41). In this case, the stream refers to the force of social habit that tends to make people just "go with the flow" and not get too worked up about anything, even if it's totally unjust.
Later in the text, though, Wollstonecraft reverses the current of her image (see what we did there?), and uses it to symbolize the opposite of unthinking conformity. Instead, she says, "From the clear stream of argument, indeed, the supporters of prescription, of every denomination, fly" (11.11).
In this case, the "clear stream of argument" shows that the power of clear and rational thinking has the power to overwhelm anyone who's being unfair or prejudiced.
Wollstonecraft writes this book as a first-person narrator. The book is a philosophical treatise, after all, coming from the mind of Ms. Mary W. herself, so the choice makes sense. But don't let the fact that Wollstonecraft's speaking in the first person fool you: it's not always the voice of Wollstonecraft that is speaking.
She's definitely using a philosophical persona for making her arguments. She almost comes across as totally omniscient at some points, since she's relying totally on basic logic instead of her own personal opinions. It's not a fireside chat with Ms. Mary here. This is a freaking philosophical treatise, and if Wollstonecraft is advocating for the rights of women based on their ability to reason then, by golly, she's going to employ some dang reason. She doesn't want to make Vindication sound just like one woman's opinion.
But Wollstonecraft is enough of a diplomat to know that some humanizing is necessary if she wants to fire people up. Occasionally Wollstonecraft drops her philosophical distance and becomes very personal, saying things like, "The very word brings Mrs. Macaulay to my remembrance. The woman of the greatest abilities, undoubtedly, that this country has ever produced" (5.124).
It's this balance between the rational/universal and the highly personal (or omniscience and first person, if we want to use those sweet Lit terms) that makes Vindication such a stirring read. You can see this same blend of the omniscient and personal in a lot of great speeches: check out Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech for a similar combo.
At the beginning of this book, Wollstonecraft realizes that there is a major problem with the way women are treated in English society (or pretty much any society, but she doesn't so much get into that). As an educated woman, she knows that she is just as capable of making rational arguments as any of the men she's ever met. That's why she feels it's necessary to sit down and write a major text outlining all of the reasons why women should be educated the same way that men are.
At first, things are looking great. Wollstonecraft has laid out her premises (which all seem pretty solid) for why women are just as intelligent as men. After all, if the soul is immortal, it's different from the body. And if the soul is different from the body, then it doesn't have a gender. Therefore, women's souls and men's souls are all made up of the same spiritual material. That means that there's no reason to educate men and women differently.
Unfortunately, Wollstonecraft knows that rational arguments might not be enough for her audience, since so many famous writers have argued that women's education should teach women to be pretty and silent. Jean-Jacques Rousseau is one of the biggest supporters of this view, and sadly for Wollstonecraft, he was one of the most beloved thinkers in the world during the time at which she was writing. She does everything she can to point out all of the inconsistencies in his thinking and in the thinking of other writers who agree with him.
Just when she's made the case for women's education, Wollstonecraft admits that the English education system in general is pretty flawed. And it all starts with parents who only want their own kids to succeed. Parents, quite frankly, are super selfish because they tend to pin all of their frustrated dreams on their kids, hoping that they'll have a second chance to do something important with their lives. Unfortunately, this leads to a total breakdown in community and leads to schools that do nothing but rank students from best to worst. This is definitely not the way for schools to create educated and moral communities. Unfortunately, Wollstonecraft knows that it'll be very tough to change this kind of thinking.
Wollstonecraft knows that she is fighting an uphill battle. But she closes the book strongly by returning to her earlier arguments and urging her readers to offer their daughters the same education as their sons. The education system might not fix itself overnight, but people can do a lot of good by making sure that both men and women get equal access to a good education. For Wollstonecraft, a person can't develop their reasoning skills without education, and a person can never truly understand moral goodness without fine-tuned reasoning skills.
Wollstonecraft opens the book by establishing three basic premises that she'll rely on for all of her arguments. First, she says that humanity is special because it has the power to overcome its animal instincts with the power of reason. Second, the one thing that makes one human being better than another is virtue or moral goodness. Third, the reason we have passions and emotions is so we can use reason to overcome them and gain knowledge in the process.
These are the three core principles that Wollstonecraft needs us to accept, because she suggests that every observation she makes for the rest of this book will come from the understanding of these fundamental concepts. Sounds pretty logical, doesn't it?
As her argument ramps up, Wollstonecraft claims that the worst force oppressing women is the idea that women should receive a different education than men. Women's education circa 1792 tends to focus only on making women as pretty and pleasing as possible to men, whereas men get educated in all sorts of handy-dandy stuff like science, math, literature and other actual academic subjects. Learning philosophy > learning how to smile properly.
Wollstonecraft singles out several people who have written on this subject and endorsed traditional views on women's education. She totally rips into them and argues that their arguments are hypocritical and not based on any sound evidence at all. For example, why should you have to encourage women to play with dolls and be feminine if this is something that's supposed to come naturally to them? It's this kind of chopped logic that Wollstonecraft can't stand.
Wollstonecraft isn't going to settle for just improving women's education. She wants to improve all of education, so she argues for the creation of a national public school system that boys and girls will access equally, for no charge. The schools will be paid for by public taxes.
In other words, she's describing our modern public school system. She claims that if society is ever going to advance and become a rational democracy, we need to educate the masses. The moment public education crumbles, so does democracy.
In the closing parts of Vindication, Wollstonecraft speaks directly to parents and tells them what they can do to raise better children (and especially better daughters). She is upset at the number of parents who are invested in their kids' success for the sake of their own ego. These parents want their kids to succeed (and other children to fail) in order to make them look good. Think of the stereotypes of the parents of child stars: that's the kind of ego Wollstonecraft is going after. There's no community spirit in this style of parenting. And, for Wollstonecraft, that's exactly the problem.
Wollstonecraft closes Vindication by speaking to men and asking them not to be tyrants. As far as she's concerned, there's no way for men to continue oppressing women unless they're willing to openly admit that they're bullies. The problem is that some men might be perfectly willing to be bullies. So that's why Wollstonecraft makes one last appeal to their compassion and tells them that they'll be no better than the worst villains of history if they don't listen to their consciences and give women equal opportunities in society.
Wollstonecraft spends the first third of Vindication talking about the general rights of humanity. For her, human rights are due to anyone with the ability to reason. You got it: we all have the ability to reason; it's the ability to reason that makes us human and not simply animals.
Also, states Wollstonecraft, we all have immortal souls. Our souls live beyond our bodies and are therefore not connected to our gender in any way. That means that our power of reason (which is connected to our mind/soul, not our body) is something that has no connection to our gender.
Wollstonecraft uses these arguments to show that women should receive the same kind of education as men.
Once she's laid out the basic reasons for women's equality, Wollstonecraft singles out and critiques specific thinkers who have argued that women should only be educated for the purposes of becoming good wives and mothers. She focuses especially on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a man whose writings were very popular during her time.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau's writings on women's education were extremely conservative, and Wollstonecraft goes to great lengths to point out all of the logical contradictions within them. It's a Rousseau roast, and Wollstonecraft is the host with the most.
Wollstonecraft spends the last third of Vindication talking about how parents and schools can do a better job of educating boys and girls and giving the genders an equal playing field. She states that both parents and schools could do a better job of teaching children how to make rational arguments and how to be morally good. In her mind, self-interest dominates society way too much and we need make steps to make people more compassionate, moral, and rational.