Study Guide

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman Themes

By Mary Wollstonecraft

  • Women and Femininity

    You've been reading a book called A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , so you're correct if you assumed that women and femininity are major themes in this book. Gold star for you!

    The issue at the heart of Wollstonecraft's writing is how society should treat women, and that women's minds are just as capable of reason and virtue as men's are.

    Wollstonecraft states that women are less physically strong than men, but that strength isn't really all that important in a modern society. It's not like we're strangling one another for food or running away from predators that want to eat us (at least not when things are going well). What matters to Wollstonecraft is the quality of a person's mind, and there is no difference between the quality of men and women's minds.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Does Wollstonecraft think that women should engage in physical activity and sports as much as men? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Wollstonecraft think that women's minds are just as good as men's? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.
    3. How do parents treat daughters differently from sons in Wollstonecraft's world? Does this difference in treatment continue today? Why or why not?
    4. In Wollstonecraft's mind, what is the best way for women to move forward and gain a more equal status in society? Use specific examples from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft shows us that even though there might be a physical difference between men and women, modern civilization relies on intelligence and physical differences don't really mean anything.

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft essentially argues that gender is a societal construct.

  • Men and Masculinity

    Now, just to set the record straight: Wollstonecraft doesn't dislike men. She believes that most men are truly good people. That's exactly why she wants women to receive the same education and the same rights as men: to be as excellent themselves as excellent men. She fully believes that, if given the chance, women could be just as smart and virtuous as men are. So what does the world have to lose by giving rights to women?

    Multiple passages in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman are directed towards men. Wollstonecraft was no dummy: she knew that the majority of the people reading her treatise would be dudes.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Which man does Wollstonecraft's criticize most directly? Why?
    2. In Wollstonecraft's mind, why should men give up their tyrannical power and give women equal rights? What's in it for the men?
    3. How does Wollstonecraft plan on closing the gap in physical strength between men and women? Use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft celebrates all the great men of history and claims that all she wants is for women to have the chance to be just as great.

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft argues that men are wholly responsible for how women are (mis)treated.

  • Marriage

    For women of Wollstonecraft's time, marriage was the only future for women, and the only way they could get a taste of the public world. At the same time, it was an institution that completely pushed them into the private world, since it was understood that the husband was always the public face of the family. Now Wollstonecraft doesn't say that women should stop getting married, but she does insist that wives shouldn't be slaves to their husbands in the way that traditional British society expected them to be.

    In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman , Wollstonecraft also insists that women should marry out of love for a man's mind and not his appearance. Good thinking, W. Otherwise, these women might doom themselves to bitterness and resentment once their husband grows old. The same goes for men, too, who should choose a wife based on her mind instead of her looks. Notice here how Wollstonecraft constantly shifts focus from a person's gender and outward appearance and places it on their mind.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Why would Wollstonecraft say that an unhappy marriage is often an advantage for a family (at 2.47 in the text)? Use specific evidence from the text to support your point.
    2. Why does the ultimate importance of marriage in a woman's life make women deceptive, according to Wollstonecraft? What could society do to help get rid of this trend?
    3. Why do marriages become unhappy when a wife is too familiar and chummy with other women? Please use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.

    Chew on This

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft shows us that for women, marriage is a path to slavery and not happiness.

    Vindication shows us that if we rethink marriage as an institution, we can rethink all of society.

  • Sex

    Wollstonecraft tends to use the word "love" in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman when what she really means is (heterosexual) sexual attraction. When she's talking about mutual respect and admiration, she tends to use the word "friendship."

    That's why she constantly advises women not to marry for love, because she's certain that in the long run, physical attraction can never sustain a marriage. The only way for two people to spend their lives together is if they admire each other's minds and support each other morally. Sex just ain't going to cut it for very long.

    Questions About Sex

    1. In Wollstonecraft's mind, why are women so susceptible to being tricked into having sex with charming young men? What would help the situation?
    2. What is Wollstonecraft's response to the claim that all women want is sex? Please use specific evidence from the text to support your answer.
    3. If a man seduces a woman and has sex with her, what should the law force him to do (in Wollstonecraft's opinion)? Why?

    Chew on This

    In Vindication, we learn that physical attraction can never be the basis for a good marriage.

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft shows us that a "prim and proper" female education actually makes women way more likely to have sex before marriage.

  • Slavery

    For Wollstonecraft, women of her time were slaves to men: they were the legal property of men and forced to obey them. If men had a good reason for treating women like slaves, Wollstonecraft maintains she wouldn't argue with this inequality. But the fact is that men oppressed women without giving any logical reason why. In the end, they just act like bullies and tyrants.

    It's important to remember here that Wollstonecraft was writing right after the American Revolution and during the French Revolutions: a time when tyranny and unjustified authority were being questioned like never before. So she hopped on the anti-tyranny bandwagon with A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and demanded that men stop treating women like slaves.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. What is the most common argument that men give for enslaving women? Why does Wollstonecraft think it's bogus?
    2. At the end of the book, how does Wollstonecraft try to convince men to stop oppressing women? Is it effective? Why or why not?
    3. How often does Wollstonecraft use the language of slavery throughout this book? Is it too much? Too little? Why?

    Chew on This

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft argues that slavery can be justified—just not in the case of women.

    In Vindication, we learn that there is no difference between gender inequality and full-blown slavery.

  • Appearances

    Wollstonecraft states as a matter of fact in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman that women in her time care deeply about their appearances. But this preoccupation with appearances makes total sense, considering that society denies these women a good education and any opportunity to gain influence in the public realm. The only power these women have is to marry rich and to control their husbands using their beauty. The major problem here is that these women will never learn to improve themselves or to think more critically about their world because all care about is being pretty and popular.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. For Wollstonecraft, is there anything redeeming about wanting to look pretty? If so, what?
    2. What is the biggest problem with women's obsession over their appearance? How does it negatively affect society as a whole?
    3. Who is responsible for women's obsession with appearances? How can they change this obsession?
    4. What is the best way for society to help women focus on more important things than physical beauty?

    Chew on This

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft thinks that appearances are important… just not as important as the power of reason.

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft shows us that there is a fundamental difference between style and substance. Style is on the outside and substance is on the inside. Period.

  • Education

    In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman the question of women's rights centers on education. There is nothing Wollstonecraft wants more than for women to have access to the same kind of education as men. Wollstonecraft was an extremely educated woman, and she felt that if all women had the opportunities she did, more of them would turn into great and productive members of society.

    In her mind, all of women's worst qualities come from the fact that they lack proper education and are taught only to care about superficial things. If women had proper training in math, philosophy, art, and science, Wollstonecraft is confident that they could become every bit as good as men.

    Questions About Education

    1. Do you agree with Wollstonecraft's opinion that an equal education can eradicate the distinctions between the sexes? Why or why not?
    2. Why does Wollstonecraft think that reason is the most important power in a human being?
    3. How can education make a person morally better? What does Wollstonecraft say on this issue?
    4. What good could it possible do for men to deny women a good education? What explanation does Wollstonecraft come up with?

    Chew on This

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft shows us that the only way for a human being to improve her or himself is through education.

    Vindication shows us that education can be both a blessing and a curse, because with education comes responsibility.

  • Religion

    Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Woman during a time when reason was considered the greatest power a human could have. But people believed that reason was a gift from God, and all arguments for social change had to, in one way or another, say that God was somehow in favor of the change. That's why you'll see all kinds of references to religion in Wollstonecraft's argument for women's rights.

    Also, Wollstonecraft understood God to have been incapable to making 51% of the human population without a capacity for rational thought. To make more than half of humanity unreasonable would constitute a major design flaw, and Wollstonecraft wasn't big on the idea of God letting design flaws slide.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Do you think that Wollstonecraft buys her own arguments about why God wants men and women to be equal? Why or why not?
    2. How do Wollstonecraft's religious arguments line up with the fact that she thinks reason should be the basis for human judgment? Is there a contradiction there? Why or why not?
    3. What, in Wollstonecraft's mind, gives the best proof for the idea that God wants men and women to be equal?
    4. How does society prevent women from serving God to the best of their ability (according to Wollstonecraft)? Please use specific evidence from the text to support your answers.

    Chew on This

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft falls back on religious arguments whenever her reason starts to fail her.

    In Vindication, Wollstonecraft uses religious arguments to back up her overall point simply because most of her readers would have been religious.